By Klo Kwe Moo Kham*
I shall begin by making two preliminary comments. The first is the meanings of Ba U Gyi’s three have varied in use over time and context, and all have been adopted by our leaders throughout the last seven decades in one form or another. My second comment is that selection of which strategy is suitable to be adopted is dependent on the goal towards which we work. Since the current goal of the Karen National Union is to achieve a relative autonomy in a federal democratic Myanmar, I discuss in this essay the strategy most suitable to achieve this. I also note that due to space limits and, especially, my limited knowledge, I will be able to touch only on the surface of a question that is rather highly complex.
Armed Struggle in the 21st Century
Advocating armed struggle as a primary strategy to achieve political goals is practically and legally, if not also morally, difficult in the 21st century. Understandably, it was a more realistic option in the early post-independence period when the newly formed Burmese state was weak and many of the Karen leaders were politically and/or militarily experienced individuals, freshly emerging out of influential positions in the colonial administration with a degree of confidence. Today, seven decades later, however, it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for the Karen movement to use purely military means to achieve its goal. Both domestic and international factors have contributed to this.
Domestically, the centralization of the Burmese state and the modernization of its military throughout the decades have, militarily speaking, virtually eliminated the possibility of a military victory, however defined or imagined. Much of the seven-decade long conflict has only been a mutually hurting stalemate. Internal factional breakaways, most notably that of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, only added to weaken the overall strength of the Karen National Liberation Army. Internationally, political violence has also become unacceptable, exemplified by the labelling of the KNU as a ‘terrorist organization’ by the USA, despite years of brutal military rule that resulted in mass displacement of civilians. In the current ‘semi-democratic age’ of Myanmar, one can only imagine how difficult it would be were the KNU to choose an armed path as its main strategy, instead of seeking possibilities to negotiate.
In fact, I would argue the KNU has never employed armed struggle as its primary strategy to achieve its goal. It was a matter of necessity to defend Karen people, territory, and livelihoods. For this reason, the KNU has not, and should not, adopt as a strategy in which violence is the primary means. The sole purpose of retaining arms has been for self-preservation, and it should remain this way. Therefore, armed struggle, even if national and international conditions permit it, will still not be the ‘right’ strategy for the KNU to achieve federalism. If the Karen seeks to go beyond mere survival, other strategies need to be explored.
International Intervention – A Hopeless Dream
Despite early optimism, direct international intervention is a strategy that has proven as hopeless as relying only on armed struggle. Both prior to and after impendence, a number of diplomatic attempts at various levels have been made to gain international support for the cause of the Karen, including the appeals to local British authorities in Burma, the 1946, the Goodwill Mission to London led by a four-man delegation, including Ba U Gyi himself, and the legalistic appeals to the United Nations led by Joshua S’au Poo Nyo in the first post-independence years. Although there was a certain degree of optimism back in those days, the chance of success has only decreased as time passed, primarily due to the nature of and developments in international politics.
Already since the mid-1950s as the post-colonial borders became entrenched and accepted internationally, the chances of direct intervention decreased substantially. Today, seven decades later, hoping for direct international intervention is a utopian dream. The Westphalian principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention, which came to dominate the world order since 1945, have made it unlikely. Although some renegotiation of these principles has been seen, such as the cases of Bosnia and Afghanistan, these were conditioned by a number of factors, including genocides, the so-called ‘war on terror’, and other strategic self-interests of the intervening actors.
Were the international community to intervene in Myanmar, it would have done so decades ago when oppression was at its peak, and not in the current era of a supposedly democratizing state. In stark contrast, it has openly engaged with the military, given them legitimacy that it never had. Moreover, worth mentioning is that the dominant post-cold war liberal international peacebuilding itself is now in a state of crisis because most of the states in which it intervened have not achieved a ‘positive peace’, defined as a peace where not only direct violence, but also structural issues of a conflict are resolved. Taken together, it is clear that direct international intervention is unrealistic due to the inability, and perhaps also unwillingness, of the international community to intervene in Myanmar.
Political Negotiation – Let’s Talk, but Carefully
Given the ineffectiveness of armed struggle and the inability of international community to intervene, political negotiation seems to be the most realistic strategy. Negotiation is not only a suitable, but a necessary strategy considering the nature of our goal, which is autonomy in a shared Myanmar. Pursuing this goal means that we need to negotiate with the central state and other Ethnic Armed Organizations with whom we seek to share a future federal democratic country. This is well understood by previous and current leaders, as shown in the long list of attempts to negotiate.
That said, however, it is deadly important to understand that negotiation in and by itself can never be a solution. The questions of most fundamental importance include when and how to negotiate? Who do we negotiate with? How legitimate, serious, and well-intentioned are they? On which principles should negotiation be based? and whose interests does it serve? What are the appropriate strategies inside and outside the negotiation room during a ‘peace process’? Which collective goals may realistically be achieved, and at what costs? These are some important questions to which clear and coherent answers are needed because although negotiation is the primary tool with which we may achieve our goal, if not done well, it could also be a nail in the coffin of our goal.
Keeping in mind previous rounds of unsuccessful negotiation and the current nature of the state in Myanmar, characterized by persisting military dominance, Karen leaders may benefit by constantly being alert of the ‘trap of negotiation or ceasefire’. It is important to know when the time is ripe for talking and when not to negotiate. Liberalization, political and economic, since the early 2010s has directed the world’s attention to Myanmar. In this new environment, we have the options to remain passive, respond uncritically or be well-calculated to negotiate our goal, with the world as a witness, and thereby either achieve it or expose the true intentions of the central state, particularly the military. Some choices have been made. Others remain to be made.
Negotiation, National Ceasefire Agreement, and Our Future
Negotiations since the signing of NCA have been disappointingly slow and made little, if any, progress in fulfilling our goal. This calls for critical rethinking: if negotiation is the best strategy, why has it not made any significant advancement to our cause? Although the main reason, as many argue, lies in the unwillingness of the military to seriously address the grievances of EAOs, I insist that much could have been and can be improved on our part to strengthen our position.
Examples of what must be reconsidered in the current people process, include what some scholars call ‘ceasefire capitalism’, which is arguably found in parts of Karen State, and cooperation with other EAOs. Regarding the former, does it support or undermine our struggle? It is important to ask this because the purpose of negotiation should be to advance our cause without damaging it or worsening the wellbeing of ordinary citizens in the process. Currently, what happens outside the negotiation room, either separate from or as results of the ceasefire agreements, has taken much more attention than the actual negotiations, putting negotiation as a strategy in negative light and undermining its potential and necessity for achieving our goal.
Furthermore, although I argue political negotiation is the necessary and ultimate strategy through which we may, more or less directly, achieve our goal, given the current state of the peace process, characterized by deadlocked negotiations, expanding state presence in ethnic Karen areas, and frequent violent clashes on the ground, I also recognize a need to combine it with the two other strategies, because alone, any one of them is ineffective. Armed struggle, which has always existed, has always been, and should always be, for self-preservation. It therefore goes without saying that KNLA cannot lay down its arms, doing so runs the risk of being completely crushed by the Tatmadaw [military] and achieve a ‘peace’ as witnessed in present day Sri Lanka.
Regarding international intervention, we have to think in terms of indirect support. The mass emigration of Karen people to other countries since the 2000s has given the movement some advantages in lobbying for the cause of those at home. Such activities already exist, but need to be strengthened and systematic, recognized, encouraged, and pursued by KNU and Karen populations as a worthwhile strategy in its own right.
Karen Unity and Cooperation: United We Stand, Divided We Fall
Besides the specific strategies discussed, the importance of a much-mentioned issue, unity within and between all levels and segments of Karen communities, cannot be overstated. Although differences have always existed, from the early debates over unionism and independence through the divisive liberal democratic and communist lines to the current ‘pro-ceasefire’ and ‘hardliner’ factions, there is a need to build unity in diversity. Immediately, I want to emphasize unity within KNU leadership itself. Internal tensions, which has come to play out more openly with the years, may contain destructive seeds to the movement, if not adequately addressed and resolved.
Similarly, there is a need to build a positive relationship between those at home and those in the diaspora. Only such a relationship may enable a ‘systematic internationalization’ of the Karen movement, that is necessary to work effectively for indirect international support. An internationalized movement of value would also involve constructive engagement across borders, including the sharing of material and non-material mechanisms such as economic, ideas, knowledge, and values. It may strengthen our movement and, most importantly, benefit, both in short- and long-term, the ordinary Karen and ethnic people whose suffering seems to have no end.
Unite Our People, Unite Ba U Gyi’s Three Strategies
Rethinking the strategies of Ba U Gyi, I have argued that although political negotiation is the ultimate strategy through which we may achieve our goals, there is a need for the time being to combine it with two other strategies, for the purposes of self-preservation and for indirect international support. Moreover, despite the fact that negotiation with the government and other EAOs is necessary due to the nature of our goal, it has to be conducted responsibly in a way that advance, rather than harm our cause and people in the process. Regarding the current peace process, characterized by deadlocked negotiations and worrisome developments outside the negotiation room, critical reconsideration of the approaches adopted so far is now urgently needed.
*Klo Kwe Moo Kham, is a master student, studying Human Geography at the University of Oslo, Norway. This is an edited version of his winning entry in the Karen Organization of America’s Karen Martyr’s Day Essay Competition.