Genuine Peace or a Divide and Rule Tactics

By Kanbawza Win | June 22, 2013

As a person who has its roots in Pre Pro village in Karenni state and whose uncle Tha Oo is still with the Karenni resistance, I was rather shock to hear the news reports that observers including American diplomat Erin Webster-Main and 10 religious and community leaders and members of Parliament were present at union-level peace talks between the government and Karenni resistance in Loikaw, the capital of Karenni State. It marked the third official meeting between the government and KNPP leaders. Naypyidaw’s peace delegation and the KNPP held their first official talks in March 2012, when the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement. They met again in June 2012.[1] For laymen to understand the Karenni problem may I take the liberty to highlight its contemporary history?


The origin of the Karenni people is in Mongolia, Central Asia and gradually moved south and first established their homeland in Demawso (Ngwedaung) plain in 739 BC. The state covers an area of 11,731.5 square kilometers, and has a population of around 300,000. Since then, the area today called Karenni State had never been under the control of any other nation until 1948. Karenni meaning Red Karen, are a sub-tribe of Karen people. As their favorite color is red, and they prefer red dresses, they have been known by the Myanmar as Karenni. The Karenni people are composed of diverse sub-tribal groups, which are ethnically closely linked.

Historically, the Nation-State of Karenni was recognized as independent by its neighboring states and countries. For centuries the ethnic states were run as autonomous regions, with Karenni adopting a similar system of government to Shan State, with whom it maintained a close political relationship. Karenni was ruled by a king whom they label Sawphyas (similar to Saopha of Shan State), who had no history of paying tribute to any of the Burmese monarchs. This was confirmed in June 21st 1875 when an agreement was signed between the Burmese King Mindon and the Viceroy and Governor General of British India Sir Douglas Forsyth recognizing the independence of the four western Karenni states: “It is hereby agreed between the British and Burmese Government that the State of Western Karenee shall remain separate and independent, and that no sovereignty or governing authority of any description shall be claimed or exercised over that State.”

In the 19th century Burma had come under British rule in a series of three Anglo-Burman wars (1825 to 1885). Under the British the ethnic states were not ruled directly from Rangoon; their autonomy was recognized and the traditional leaders continued to govern according to customary practice. The Karenni in fact proved to be loyal friends of Britain, aiding them considerably in the defeat of the Japanese occupation forces in World War II. At great cost to themselves the Karenni formed one of the most active units of the anti-Japanese Force 136. One of the leaders, Tai Ba Han, was described by U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Burma, as the Aung San of the Padaung. At the time members of the British forces gave their word that they would protect the Karenni in the future, a promise they soon reneged on.

In February 1946, the Shan Saophas invited Karenni Sawphyas to attend the First Panglong Conference which was to be held in Shan State. The Karenni Sawphyas refused to attend the Conference because Karenni was an independent country and they feared that by attending a meeting sponsored by the people of the British colony (the Shan States) they would risk losing their independence. The Karenni government also decided not to join the Frontier Areas because by joining it might lose its independence and sovereignty.

In February 1947 the other members of the Frontiers Area signed the Panglong Agreement, accepting the accession of their states to Burma with the intention of forming an independent Union of Burma. Karenni leaders did not attend or sign. In June 1947 Karenni leaders, Go Bee Turee and Saw Thein offered to enter into a treaty of alliance with Burma once it gained independence, but made it clear they no interest in discussing the proposed constitution of an independent Burma. They wanted to be Luxembourg of Europe

The Burmese Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) wanted Karenni State to join the Frontier Area. They tried to persuade the Karenni people to join their would-be formed Union of Burma, but Karenni leaders were not interested. They responded by establishing their own United Karenni Independent States Council in September 1946, composed of chiefs and elders from Kantarawaddi, Kyehpogyi, Bawlake and Mangpai States. The AFPFL used many tactics in their attempt to absorb Karenni State, but Karenni leaders had already decided to safeguard the independence and self-determination of Karenni State.

The problem with the Karenni people at that formative period was the lack of educated and visionary leaders and could not comprehend of how the world is going on in their surroundings. They were unable to see the writings on the wall and if there are a few visionary leaders they could have easily compromise go along with the other ethnic nationalities and be much better off than now. But lamentably this old tradition of an entirely independent was carried on to this day by the current leaders. The ethnic allies, and the pro democracy movement of the peripherals of Burma found Karenni a very hard nut to crack and the majority of the educated youths have opted to go to a third country and with this rate of ethnic cleansing, it is doubtful whether Karenni as a race would continue to survive in the coming centuries.

Myanmar Invades Karenni

Things went wrong when Burma hurriedly obtained independence in January 4th, 1948 shortly after the assassination of the Burmese leader, Aung San. The AFPFL government invaded Karenni State on August 9, 1948 and captured the Karenni National Organization (KNO) headquarters in Myat Leh village and the Karenni leader U Bee Htu Re was assassinated by central government militia for his opposition to inclusion of the Karenni , since then the Karenni State has been occupied through force. To the Karenni, this episode alone proves that the Myanmar cannot be trusted whether they are militarists who had supported the various Burmese Junta or the pro democracy forces that are fighting the Junta by various means. The date of August 9 (now called the "Day of Resistance") marked the beginning of the national resistance to successive Burmese governments which have not only occupied Karenni State, but exploited its natural resources as well. The Karenni people have resorted to an armed struggle to make their motherland free from the oppressive government of Burma.

Most of the population is subsistence farmers, with crops grown using lowland farming and upland shifting cultivation. Most of the hydroelectric power of Burma is produced in Karenni State, with little benefit to the local population. There are also tin & tungsten miles and the rich teak forests have been plundered to serve the needs of neighboring Thailand whose own teak supplies are protected. As well as logging other unregistered cross-border trading includes cattle smuggling. The Burmese regime does not allow foreigners to travel to Karenni State.

The area has always been known as but on 5 October 1951the Constitution Amendment Act renamed the area Kayah, after the largest ethnic group in the State. This was an attempt by the Myanmar dominated Government , to deny Karenni's historical claim to independence and create a rift between the Karenni and the Karen. The Karenni resistance leaders have retained the name of Karenni as the State’s name both to ensure historical continuity and to recognize that their country is made up of many diverse indigenous groups

Following independence from Britain, democracy did not last long in Burma. In 1962 General Ne Win seized power in a military coup, set up a one-party system, closed Burma down to the outside world and crushed all dissidence. In Karenni state, higher percentage of population are displaced more than in Sudan, Iraq, Uganda, Colombia or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over one quarter of the Karenni population of eastern Burma has been forced from their homes due to years of military oppression.

Karenni State, located in eastern Burma, 81,000 villagers are currently internally displaced, representing 27 per cent of the state’s population. Between 70 and 80 per cent of those displaced are women and children.[2] Unarmed villagers are forced to flee their homes to escape military attacks and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Tatmadaw, while others are forced from their homes to make way for income generating projects benefiting the military junta. Over the last five years the number of internally displaced persons in Karenni State has increased by 42 per cent, a number expected to increase if the situation continues to worsen.

Sudan, Colombia, Iraq, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have the five largest displaced populations in the world. In Sudan nearly 13 per cent of the population is displaced, Colombia 8.5 per cent, Iraq over 6 per cent, Uganda over 6.5 per cent, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo nearly 2 per cent. But the percentage of the population displaced in Karenni State is twice as high as the level in Sudan which has the world’s largest internally displaced population; however, they receive little assistance or international attention.

President U Thein Sein made the move to put to rest uprising and rebellion and addressed his call to all armed ethnic group on August 18, 2011 and a few responded. The proposed peace offer of the President is executed in three stages. First stage is to make ceasefire, establish office of the liaison and can travel with no arms in others’ territory; second stage is putting up a conference building where dialogues can take place and put into operational all regional development task for education, health and communication; and third stage is to sign the peace pact with the existence of government represented by members of the political parties, other nationalities and other authorized representatives whom the government has chosen. There have been several meetings between the members of the peace keeping groups of KNPP and the government held twice in Thailand’s Maesai in November 29, 2011 and at Chiang Mai on January 6, 2012.[3]

KNPP Stand

During the past 40 years, civilians always have borne the brunt of government attempts to crush the Karenni movement. Under the 'Four Cuts' campaign of the Tatmadaw, entire communities has been forcibly relocated from their homes and army operations have produced large numbers of refugees and displaced peoples in the hills. Amidst accusations of enforced assimilation, refugees have reported growing numbers of Myanmar migrants being brought into the state. Tens of thousands of villagers from towns and villages across the state have been conscripted to work as porters or on government labour projects, notably during the construction of Aungban-Loikaw railway as the authority’s construe that easy transportation would bring the Myanmar to Karenni State. It is impossible to know how many have died because of the forced labour.

The first Karenni camps in Thailand were established in 1991, and numbers of refugees grew rapidly after 1995. Up to 8 Karenni refugee camps. By 2004 the total population for all Karenni camps was 22,782.[4] By the mid-1990s almost all new arrivals were the victims of the wider conflict, especially the widespread forced relocation of villagers described above. 27% of the 2002 population had been in the camps for more than 7 years, and almost a third had been displaced more than four times before finally reaching the camps. Two thirds had been farmers. Three quarters of them were Karenni and almost 40% had had no education.[5] This is worst than ethnic cleansing. The Tatmadaw led by the Myanmar wants the entire people of Karenni state to be displaced and wipe out of the earth. This is the authenticated modern contemporary history of Karenni state.

The KNPP was founded in 1957, shortly after the death from malaria of their leader Sao Shwe, who played a central role in the start of the Karenni insurrections leading the call to arms after the murder by Tatmadaw, in 1948. It was taken over by U Bee Tu Reh (Peter) who had championed the Karenni separatist cause during the independence negotiations with the British.[6] This connection forms the basis for the KNPP’s continuing claim to represent the Karenni people, and indeed to continue that representation in an unbroken line of succession originating with the de jure pre-independence Karenni government. The KNPP is the largest of the Karenni armed organization, the others by and large having arisen as breakaway movements. The KNPP website contains a blow-by-blow account of the events of 1947-8, together with some statements about bringing ‘genuine democracy’ to Burma and cooperating with other nationality movements and the democracy movement inside Burma. But by late 1993 leaders of the armed opposition were coming under increasing pressure to agree cease-fires. Separate talks began in January 1994, with the Karenni National Progressive Party and a rival left-wing breakaway party, the Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front,(KNPLF) which signed its own cease-fire in May. Shortly afterwards leaders of the allied Kayan New Land Party, which operates in parts of the state, also agreed cease-fire terms at another public ceremony. Some of the pressure for peace came from neighbouring Thailand but much of it came from the local people, who had intermediaries in the local Catholic and Baptist churches acting on their behalf. With the threat of attack reducing, and as a gesture of goodwill, the Junta allowed some of the relocated villagers to return home. Over 6,000 refugees, however, remained in Thailand. After over 45 years of warfare, the political situation is thus delicately poised. New economic development projects are being discussed, but for many inhabitants of the state simple survival has become their daily priority.

The records shows that KNPP had agreed to ceasefire with the Junta in 1995, but the agreement, was busted three months after it was signed because the Junta broke the promise and the war was carried on. They also belonged to the five peace faction who doesn’t want to be involved with the border guard forces of the government and it came as a surprise when the peace talk was announced and we hope that they are not following the footsteps of KNPLF who sold the country for an economic pie.

Ethnic cleansing is very successful in Karenni state because most of the Karenni tribes are uneducated. This is what the central government dominated by the Myanmar want to be and they have their ruthless Tatmadaw to implement the scheme. Now many people especially educated Karenni youths are leaving to a third country for good and there is very little or no hope for them to return to their homeland even if there is peace and democracy. The KNPP did not accept the educated Karenni in Diaspora and construe that they have not done anything for the people.[7] This is the weakest point of the KNPP as in most of the ethnic resistance. They are unable and f unwilling to comprehend of how the Diaspora ethnic community could help lobby and work for its own respective people and construe that who carried the gun and fight with them as compatriots.

The KNPP leaders could not comprehend that education to the masses is very crucial not only for their independence but also to maintain their values and customs. They could not take the lessons that the Tadmadaw could rule the country for more than half a century only because they could snuff out the brains of the country by killing off the University students since 1962 and then closing the Universities often. They are also unable to comprehend that there are both good and bad people in every community. Even in the Myanmar race there are good people who love democracy and human rights and the KNPP refuse to make friends with them. [8] If they harbour such racist attitude and stay aloof from modern trends, it will be many more years before they realise their dream and freedom.

The quasi military government of Thein Sein has clearly embarked on a Divide and Rule Policy by making peace with each ethnic group instead of UNFC. In other words the quasi military government want the ethnics to forget about the Panglong Agreement and grant some economic and political liberation and make peace with each according to their own terms. If KNPP does not go along with UNFC there is every possibility that Karenni history will repeat again and the Karenni people will be just in the history books being eliminated from this world in a matter of decades. It is rather sad to say that Karenni will be in the category of history books under the title of vanishing tribes.

End Notes

[1] Yangnaing;Saw, US Diplomat, Parliamentarians Observe Govt-Karenni Rebel Peace Talks.Irrawaddy 19-6-2013
[3] Between News 9-3-2012
[4] See the report of Coordinating Committee for the Stateless and Displaced Persons in Thailand (CCSDPT) December 2004
[5] 64% for the Karenni camp as according to the figure of the Consortium-Thailand 2002
[6] See Smith; Martin Burma 1999: 112
[7] An email conversation with Khu Oo Reh in March 2012
[8] The KNPP refused to join the Democratic Alliance of Burma

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