The Best Tribute to Our Karen Martyrs is to Live Their Dream

August 12th will be the 62nd Karen Martyrs Day. It marks the 62nd anniversary of the killing of Saw Ba U Gyi and his colleagues. Every year since then Karen people remember those brave heroes, and all the others who have given their lives for our struggle. For Karen people this is not just a struggle for human rights and democracy. It is a struggle for our survival as a race.

For decades, governments in Burma have been trying to destroy the Karen people. They have tried to do this in many different ways, from slow ‘Burmanisation’ policies such as the banning of our language, suppressing our culture and history, military attacks that are so brutal they are regarded as crimes against humanity.

We survive today only because of the Karen martyrs who gave their lives for us. They are no longer with us, but their legacy is for the survival of the Karen people. We live with the sadness and pain every day, remembering those we have lost.

In 62 years, we have lost hundreds of thousands of leaders, comrades, friends, family, and our loved ones in our struggle for freedom and dignity. This struggle is not over yet. We continue to lose Karen heroes on a regular basis and this loss is permanent—to the families, relatives, fellow fighters and to all of us. They all are valuable—some were political leaders, some were freedom fighters, some community or health workers. Many people contributed in many different ways. They were men, women, and some were only teenagers.

For decades, Burma’s military regime has been carrying out scorched-earth campaigns against the Karen people, destroying villages, using rape as a weapon of war, enslaving and killing hundreds of thousands of our people, and forcing us to flee our homes as refugees and internally displaced people. International humanitarian groups estimate that more than 3,500 settlements were destroyed or forcibly relocated in Eastern Burma since 1996.

Our struggle is not just in the mountains of Karen state. We have lost heroes all over Burma. They have been arrested, tortured and jailed for their political activities, and many never seen again. There are many who were disappeared and thousands killed in incidents like the Bogalay Uprising in the Delta that took place almost 21 years ago.

In each generation, brave men and women will always step forward to fight and if necessary die, for the sake of our basic rights. They do it to provide a strong defense for civilians like us, to keep us safe and secure against the Burma Army. They do it for their comrades – those fighting by their side against all odds. They do this for their family and loved ones. They do this for our younger generation so that they can grow up strong, free, educated and most importantly, that we can be proud Karen.

Remembering our martyrs once a year is not enough. While commemorating our fallen heroes, there are many tangible things we can also do to honor them. Karen people worldwide have the opportunity and the responsibility to tell the world what is going on in Burma and demand action.

We want to let governments know that our struggle is not over yet and we need help. The situation in central Burma may have change slightly. Aung San Suu Kyi is free. However, the situation in the
ethnic states is still bad. People are still suffering human rights abuses at the hands of the Burmese government. Hundreds of thousands of people are internally displaced or in refugee camps. It still is not safe for them to return home, but the international community is cutting aid and support to them, causing them even more suffering.

The statistics are harsh. In displaced communities in eastern Burma – 10 children will die before age one, and more than one in five before their fifth birthday, and one in 12 women will lose their lives from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

Karen Martyr’s Day is about commemoration. We remember those who have fallen. We remember those we have lost. But let it also be a day when we renew our commitment to the struggle. Let the Karen generations represented in this room be the last ones who have to sacrifice and struggle as we have. If we work hard enough, if every single one of us works hard enough, we can win this struggle. We can make sure that a Karen baby born today will never experience what we have been through.

There could be no greater tribute and no greater legacy to Saw Ba U Gyi and all those who have given their lives, than to fulfill their dream of Karen people living in our own land, in peace, safety and security.

*Myra Dahgaypaw is a Karen, who was born in a jungle in Karen State as an internally displaced person, later lived in a refugee camp and is now the coordinator for the US Campaign for Burma.

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