On August 12th, Naw Ohn Hla, a Karen activist, and some leaders of the Karen Youth Network in Yangon led a group of about 100 people to hold a ceremony commemorating the 69th Karen Martyr’s Day in downtown Yangon. This was after the government refused to give them permission to hold the commemoration ceremony in a church or a monastery. The Karen Marty’s Day is one of the most important and solemn days observed by the Karen people. It is held annually by the Karen community world-wide to commemorate the death of Saw Ba Oo Gyi, the founder of modern Karen revolution, and other fallen Karen freedom fighters who sacrificed their lives for an autonomous Karen state.
Immediately after the commemoration ceremony on August 12th, news came out that Naw Ohn Hla, who is also chairwoman of the Karen Woman Union, and two leaders of the Karen Youth Network (Saw Albert Cho and Sa Thein Zaw Min) faced charges stemming from their involvement in organizing and holding the ‘unauthorized’ Karen Martyr’s Day. On September 9, Naw Ohn Hla was summoned to Kyauktada police station to face charges against her. On the same day, she was sent to jail after refusing to post bail. She could easily post bail and get out of jail to wait for her trial and hearing, but she did not because she believes that she did nothing wrong and the charges against her was unfair and unjust.
Not surprisingly, the charges against Naw Ohn Hla and the two Karen youth activists have been met with outrage and condemnations from the Karen communities world-wide. Even the Karen National Union, an important partner and participant in the government peace process, finds it unable to keep quiet and work behind the science to resolve the issue. As a result, the KNU felt compelled to publicly release a statement to condemn the arrest and charges against Naw Ohn Hla and two Karen youth organizers and ask for their release.
What will be the implication for NLD government’s relations with the KNU and the Karen community?
According to reports, if found guilty, Naw Ohn Hla and the two Karen youth leaders could face up to one month in prison. Naw Ohn Hla is a seasoned political activist and is no stranger to authorities. She had been jailed or imprisoned many times in the past for her activism. But her previous encounters with the authorities did not raise much national consciousness in the Karen community as they were mostly related to other issues such as land rights or political prisoners. As a result, her previous arrests had garnered little response from the Karen community.
But charging Naw Ohn Hla and Karen youth activists over Karen Martyr’s Day commemoration is a seriously different matter for the Karen community. As one Karen community leader explained, “charging and arresting Naw Ohn Hla for holding Karen Martyr’s Day ceremony is like punching us in the gut and spiting to our face.” For most Karen, nothing is more important and sacred than Saw Ba Oo Gyi’s legacy. Arresting Karen people for commemorating his death and legacy is a gross insult and disrespect.
The arrest and jailing of the trio activists take place under the NLD government, a government that claims to be democratic and friend of the ethnic nationalities. However, since taking power in 2015, the NLD seems to drift away from its professed ideology and values and along the way has also alienated ethnic minority groups with its authoritarian approach to political freedom and its friendly stance toward the Tatmadaw. After almost five years in the office, ethnic minority groups have lost trust in the NLD and Aung San Sue Kyi and many of them can no longer differentiate between the NLD and the previously military-affiliated government. In the last general election, large number of Karen constitutes voted for NLD party in the hope that it will be able to take care of their interests, and many Karen candidates also ran for office under the banner of NLD and won seats. But that same kind of trust and affection the Karen community had for NLD may be no more come election time next year. In the wake of Naw Ohn Hla and Karen youth activists’ arrest, calls have also grown in the Karen community for NLD Karen MPs and ministers to stop working with the NLD. We still don’t know how much of a ramification this incident will have on the relationship between the NLD and the Karen community, but the Karen have learned enough from the last five years under that Aung San Sue Kyi and the NLD are no friends of them.
In addition, Naw Ohn Hla’s arrest could undermine government trust building with the Karen National Union and the Karen community at large, thus affecting the peace process. Despite investing time and energy in the peace process at the expense of its political and reputational risk, the KNU gained little in return since it signed the ceasefire agreement with the government in 2011. Instead of building trust in the Karen community and helping the KNU to weather storm of criticism for its participation in the peace process, the government and the military continue to undermine the KNU at every twist and turn.
First, instead of reducing its troops level in the Karen territories to facilitate trust building and understanding, the Tatmadaw has continued to increase its military strength by reinforcing its existing bases and building new roads in violation of the Nation-wide Ceasefire Agreement. Not surprisingly, this resulted in occasional fighting and displacement of local Karen villagers, especially in KNU’s Brigade 3, 2, and 5 areas. And despite the existence of peace and ceasefire monitoring mechanism, the KNU cannot resolve any violations committed by the Tatmadaw as its members in the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee refused to cooperate or carry out their task.
After almost nine years later since it signed the initial ceasefire agreement with the government in 2011, the KNU still has no clue as far as the fate of the peace process and the promised political dialogue are concerned. As a result, patient and trust in the government among the supporters of the peace process in the KNU have since slowly eroded. While trust in the government peace process in the KNU and the Karen community has dissipated, other parts of Burma has gone up up in flame.
Fighting in northern Burma and Rakhine State see no end in sight as the government struggles to contain the armed conflict. Other parts of Karen State are also on edge as the Tatmadaw has repeatedly violated the terms of the NCA by illegally building roads and forcing local Karen villagers to flee. It may only be a matter of when before the armed conflict resume as patient is wearing thin within the KNLA ranks. With this in mind, as Burma goes up in flame and the country’s peace process is losing its steam and direction, the last thing the government wants to do is continue alienating and antagonizing the Karen community. After all, what is the point of participating in the peace process if even basic rights of the Karen people cannot be guaranteed under a democratic government.
*Saw Greh Moo is a Karen community activist and a guest contributor to the Karen News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org