*By Martin Zaw – 20 October, 2022
The majority of our educated Karen ancestors were not excited about Burma Independence, because they wanted a Karen State independent of Burma, and this is made obvious in the writings of Karen nationalists – Dr. San C Po and Saw Ba U Gyi.
Under British rule, most educated Karen were treated without discrimination. Our Karen ancestors recalled that they were treated very much like “slaves” under successive Burman kings and rulers.
Why did the British government grant Burma Independence, but not an independent Karen State? We learnt in history Burma gained its independence from the British, not because Burma won the war against the British, but because the British could not afford Burma’s poor economy and its internal political instability after World War II. Most importantly, Burma was granted independence because of the British government’s new foreign policy after World War II.
Firstly, Burma’s economic infrastructure after World War II was almost completely destroyed. Secondly, mass uprisings against British rule were everywhere in Burma. Supporters of British rule in Burma became public enemies, and the Karens were among those who supported the British rule. Although the British actually wanted to reimpose their rule after the war, they must have realized that it’s not worth it when faced with fierce resistance from the majority people of Burma, except from some ethnic groups such as the Karen, as described in Donald Mackenzie Smeaton’s book “The Loyal Karens of Burma”. What Smeaton didn’t cover in depth was the Karen were deeply divided among themselves, especially along ideological and religious lines. Most Karen leaders fell prey to the then ruling Burmans’ divide and rule strategy, and finally resorted to fighting against one another.
It’s considered that the most important reason why the British granted Burma Independence was the foreign policy of the then British government under Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1945-1951), was to decolonize the British Empire. Perhaps, if Winston Churchill, who preceded and succeeded Attlee, had been the British Prime Minister during those years, Burma may have had a completely different history.
What could British Prime Minister Clement Attlee possibly have been thinking before granting Burma independence, of course, after heated debates in the British parliament?
Although, it is possible Attlee could have read Smeaton’s book; “The Loyal Karen of Burma,” published in 1887, he probably cared less about them. Or perhaps, Attlee did seriously care about “the loyal Karen”. However, he could have thought it’s too dangerous to grant an Independent State to the Karen, who were then so deeply divided, especially along religious and ideological lines — let alone being the minority with very few learned leaders to govern themselves, compared to the majority Burman people. The British policy makers must have considered “risk management” vitally important towards the then Karen leaders’ demand for an independent Karen State.
Like it or not, Burma became an independent country because of the political Endeavor of Burmese national leader General Aung San, as the head of Burmese delegation to the UK who signed an agreement on January 27, 1947, with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee.
General Aung San was considered to be the most influential Burmese leader who managed to earn the trust and support of the majority people of Burma, unlike those ethnic leaders who were deeply divided even among themselves. The agreement signed between them was known as “Aung San-Attlee Agreement,” which later paved the way for Burma’s independence on January 4, 1948.
What now for the Karen? Is there any hope now for an Independent Karen State from Burma?
The Karen should have already learned some good lessons from the past. But I think we have not learned as much as we should.
The Karen may appear to be united, but we are divided at the same time. The different armed Karen groups in Burma are an example of this. This is not to say, diversity among the Karen is a problem here. We have an existential problem only when the majority of poorly educated Karen people are easily divided and manipulated.
In the history of the world, it’s possible that a new state could emerge anytime, preferably with the blessings of some powerful nations. So, the answer to the above question could either be “yes” or “no”. As of now, firstly, I think the answer depends on the Karen people’s political aspirations. There are a growing number of young and more educated Karen who call for a completely independent Karen State. The new Karen generation must not be underestimated because they will become the future leaders who could change the course of the Karen people’s’ political destiny. Secondly, the answer also depends on the political objectives as stated in the Constitution of the Karen National Union. The KNU’s Constitution, however, can be amended whenever necessary, depending on its future leadership. Last but not least, the answer mainly hinges on how Saw Ba U Gyi’s four Revolutionary Principles are interpreted and applied. We must be reminded that Saw Ba U Gyi was the architect of the Karen revolutionary movement in Burma, who wanted to establish a Karen State in accordance with his Revolutionary Principles, which are open to interpretation according to most Karen politicians. And all armed Karen groups could very well be united under Saw Ba U Gyi’s principles.
Currently, there is a designated Karen State inside Burma with limited boundaries, but that’s not what we Karen want. The Karen people are repeatedly reminded of our history that our Karen ancestors were among the foremost settlers who pre-occupied many regions of the Land. The majority of our Karen ancestors lived in regions such as Bago, Irrawaddy delta, Tenasserim Range, and Rangoon’s Insein, just to name a few. If the Karen are to establish a state in the Union of Burma, we want a larger Karen State with larger boundaries. And we Karen people deserve to have it.
Burma has been a failed state since its independence from the British, and the country’s overall situation has now worsened by the latest military coup staged on February 1, 2021. The whole country is now in a state of chaos almost exactly as described in Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature in Leviathan. There’s no rule of law in Burma, and the country is now a complete mess.
To conclude, it is up to the Karen people whether or not to secede from Burma. Considered as the father of Burma Independence, General Aung San was quoted to have advised the majority Burmans to better fix their attitudes in order to coexist with the country’s ethnic people. General Aung San was one of the few pragmatic leaders among the Burmans. With that in mind, Burmans definitely need more leaders with a political mindset like General Aung San’s. Unless the Burman leaders adjust their ultra-nationalist attitudes, it would be impossible for the Karen and other ethnic groups to coexist with them.
Make no mistake, the Karen shall decide their own political destiny.
*Martin Zaw graduated from Mae La No. 1 High School in 1994 and was a former student of Rostan Po, a grandson of Karen nationalist Dr. San C. Po.