A line of soldiers adorned in flowered garlands threaded their way across the Karen National Defence Organisation’s parade ground in Karen State.
The parade on the last day of January ushered in the first year that members of three Karen armed groups celebrated Karen Revolution Day together.
Members of the Karen National Union, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council used the day’s festivities to commemorate the anniversary of the KNDO’s fight against Burma Army aggression in the Rangoon suburb of Insein in 1949.
“Three different groups are coming together today,” David Tharckabaw, a vice chairman of the United Nationalities Federal Council, said. “All the groups express desire for working together to achieve the Karen cause – to achieve the aims of the Karen cause and to struggle on together.”
A similar observance of the 65th anniversary of Karen Revolution Day in KNU’s 7th Brigade also included members of these three Karen groups, who until recently were enemies.
Of chief concern among attendees was the ceasefire between the Karen National Union and the Burma government now approaching its second year – a ceasefire that one prominent military commander fears is jeopardized by the government’s actions.
“We don’t reject peace,” General Ner Dah Mya, commander of the KNDO, said. “At the same time we will continue talking with them, but we military people have to be alert, have to be careful, and always have to prepare”
Gen. Ner Dah said the KNDO (historically a defensive wing of the KNU that works with the Karen National Liberation Army) would remain ready in the face of mounting allegations that the Burma Army has been reinforcing its area positions.
“If they are talking about peace and then sending more supplies, more troops to the front lines, then how can you believe them?” he said. “People are scared because of the atrocities done by the Burmese soldiers. So how can you go back?”
Ceasefire talks between the Burma government and KNU that began in 2004 broke down after the Burma Army was accused of using the cessation of hostilities to cement its military positions, in addition to perpetrating grave human rights abuses and launching a massive offensive in 2006. The Border Consortium, which provides aid to refugees in Thailand, estimated that more than 27,000 people were displaced from their homes that year as a result of renewed fighting.
The possibility that this ceasefire might last, however, gives hope to some Karen State residents.
“I’m not sure about what other people think about the ceasefire, but as an ordinary civilian I see it is good because we can travel more freely,” 44-year-old rice farmer Maung Lwar said. “In the past when there was no ceasefire, travel was very difficult for us. We were displaced, and we had to hide and flee into the jungle. Because of the ceasefire the situation has improved.”
Mr Tharckabaw approaches the ceasefire cautiously and sees a need for continued vigilance against possibly exploitative commercial development. At the same time, he also sees vast potential stretching across Karen State.
“Because of the long struggle, we have faced deprivation. We have become very poor,” he said. “When there is the form of a carrot, dangling development or business deals, then people easily forget what they are fighting for.”
Mr Tharckabaw moves easily between topics. With a soft-spoken eloquence, he’s equally at home discussing fuel combustion processes or Burmese demographics, reaching regularly for mints to curb the lifelong tobacco habit he quit last month.
One danger, according to Mr Tharckabaw, is that those in powerful positions are not always immune to such temptations.
“Some of the KNU wants to withdraw from the UNFC,” Mr Tharckabaw said, adding that they are, “tempted by bank licenses, timber extraction agreements, and mining rights. The Burmese government is not consistent in their negotiations.”
Gen. Ner Dah, a former Karen National Liberation Army battalion commander who was promoted to his new position last year, underscored concerns that the quasi-civilian government at Burma’s helm is less than honest in its pursuit of a nationwide ceasefire.
“Right now we are negotiating with a military regime. It is not the answer. We need to have democracy in Burma,” he said. “Dealing with the current military government is just a temporary issue, but for 60 million people we need to be free and under a democratic government and have self-determination.”
Mr Tharckabaw’s view, hewn in part from years spent serving as vice-president of the KNU, reflects these sentiments. To him the government-led Myanmar Peace Centre, tasked with coordinating the nationwide peace process, is merely a government organ serving its own interests.
“It portrays itself as neutral, but it is pro-government,” Mr Tharckabaw said.
As head of the KNU’s alliance affairs department, Tharckabaw’s grander vision of cohesion extends not only to the once-fractured Karen armed groups, but also to Burma’s other ethnic minorities. He dreams of a Burma in which oppression is extinguished and a constitutionally mandated federal system is made a reality.
“The Karen need unity. They have to speak with one voice, and they must work closely together with other ethnic nationalities who are suffering just like the Karen people. They are oppressed because they have been suffering an aggressive war, and they have to work together in order to convince the Burman majority that the only way to peace is through fair and basic rights of the ethnic nationalities,” he said. “The Burman people are also in a very bad state of poverty because of long war. War is very costly business, so they have to stop war.”
U Wizana, also known affectionately as the “Rambo Monk” for his past gun-toting activities along the frontline, remains hopeful about the future of Karen unity.
“I see that the ceasefire is very good,” U Wizana, who also heads the Karen Buddhist Association, said. “If it’s implemented fully, things will continue to stay good. If the Karen can handle this process, then the outcome will be positive.”
In a speech to those attending the commemoration, the senior monk also said peaceful negotiation is key to settling disputes among Karen groups, highlighting his role in defusing tensions between DKBA Klo Htoo Lah and Border Guard Force members around Myaing Gyi Ngu.
The gradual repairing of tense relations among Karen armed groups is a watershed moment for Mr Tharckabaw, who explained that the then-Democratic Karen Buddhist Army broke away from the KNLA in a 1994 split that the veteran political leader said was engineered by Burma government intelligence agents.
“The original KNU, and two splinter groups, the DKBA, and KNU/KNLA Peace Council, they sort of split and went in a hurry believing in the promises of the enemy before the present Burmese government, and now they realize they didn’t get anything, and the promises were empty,” Mr Tharckabaw said.
The broader notion that Karen State’s troubles might be resolved across a negotiating table, rather than through the scope of a rifle, provides a sense of relief to some.
“The ceasefire is good because the problem is a political problem,” said 41-year-old Karen soldier Thaw Gay. “The ceasefire has given an opportunity for us to struggle further through political means.”
For Mr Tharckabaw, the struggle for Karen State’s destiny is far from resolved, but it is a struggle that will ultimately be fought on a different sort of battlefield.
“Of course it will take some more struggle, bloodless struggle,” he said. “Negotiation is bloodless struggle. We can view it as war without bloodshed.”