History of the Karens and KNU

    Author: Ka Shee Genre: »


    We, the Karen of Burma, have been cornered into fighting against ruling Burmese Governments for the past forty-three years. [in 1992]

    Holding the reins of all organs of the state, and in full control of the press, radio, and television, the successive ruling Burmese Governments from U Nu's AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League) to the present Military Junta headed by General Than Shwe and his State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), have always painted us as black as they can. They have branded us insurgents, warmongers, a handful of border smugglers, black-marketeers and stooges of both the communists and the imperialists.

    Even so, to the extent of our ability we have always tried to refute the nefarious one-sided Burmese propaganda of false accusations, and make the true facts of our cause known to the world.

    In fighting against the ruling Burmese Government, we are not being motivated by narrow nationalism, or by ill will towards the Burmese Government or the Burmese people. Our struggle was instigated neither by the capitalist world nor by the communists, as some have falsely accused us. It has an originality completely of its own. Throughout history, the Burmese have been practicing annihilation, absorption and assimilation (3 A's) against the Karen and they are still doing so today. In short, they are waging a genocidal war against us. Thus we have been forced to fight for our very existence and survival.

    In this document we venture to present a concise outline of the Karens' struggle for freedom, the Karen case, which we consider just, righteous and noble. We hope that through it, the world may come to know the true situation of the Karen, a forgotten people who continue to fight for our freedom intensively, single handedly and without aid of any kind from anyone.

    Karen National Union (KNU)
    The Karen, a Nation
    Their Nature and History

    The Karen are much more than a national minority. We are a nation with a population of 7 million, having all the essential qualities of a nation. We have our own history, our own language, our own culture, our own land of settlement and our own economic system of life. By nature the Karen are simple, quiet, unassuming and peace loving people, who uphold the high moral qualities of honesty, purity, brotherly love, co-operative living and loyalty, and are devout in their religious beliefs.

    Historically, the Karen descend from the same ancestors as the Mongolian people. The earliest Karens (or Yangs, as called by the Thais) settled in Htee-mset Met Ywa (land of Flowing Sands: a land bordering the source of the Yang-Tse-Kiang river in the Gobi Desert. From there, we migrated southwards and gradually entered the land now known as Burma about 739 BC.

    We were, according to most historians, the first settlers in this new land. The Karen named this land kaw-lah, meaning the Green Land. We began to peacefully clear and till our land free from all hindrances. Our labours were fruitful and we were very happy with our lot. So we changed the name of the land to Kawthoolei, a land free of all evils, famine, misery and strife: Kawthoolei, a pleasant, plentiful and peaceful country. Here we lived characteristically uneventful and peaceful lives, before the advent of the Burman.

    Pre-World War II Eras

    Burmese Feudalism, British Imperialism and Japanese Fascism

    We, the Karen could not enjoy our peaceful lives for long. The Mon were the next to enter this area, followed at their heels by the Burmese, both the Mon and the Burmese brought with them feudalism, which they practiced to the full. The Burmese won the feudal war, and they subdued and subjugated all other nationalities in the land. The Karen suffered untold miseries at the hands of their Burmese lords. Persecution, torture, killings, suppression, oppression and exploitation were the order of the day. To mention a few historical facts as evidence, we may refer to the Burmese subjugation of the Mon and the Arakanese, and especially their past atrocities against the Thais at Ayudhaya. These events stand as firm evidence of the cruelties of Burmese feudalism. So severe are these atrocities that those victimized continue to harbour a deep-seated resentment of the Burman even today.

    At that time, many Karen had to flee for their lives to the high mountains and thick jungles, where communications and means of livelihood were extremely difficult and diseases common. We were thus cut of from all progress, civilisation and the rest of the world, and were gradually reduced to backward hill tribes. The rest of the Karen were made slaves. We were forced to do hard labour and were cruelly treated.

    When the British occupied Burma, the conditions of the Karens gradually improved. With the introduction of law and order by the Colonial Central Authority, the Karen began to earn their living without being hindered, and we could go to school and be educated. This infuriated the Burmese, to see the despised Karen being treated equally by the British. Progress of the Karen people in almost all fields was fast, and by the beginning of the 20th Century, they were ahead of other peoples in many respects, especially in education, athletics and music. It could be said that the Karen had a breathing spell during the period of the British regime.

    In 1942, the Japanese invaded Burma with the help of the Burma Independence Army (BIA), who led them into the country. These BIA troops took full advantage of the situation by insinuating that the Karen were spies and puppets of the British, and therefore were enemies of the Japanese and the Burman. With the help of the Japanese, they began to attack the Karen villages, using a scheme to wipe out the entire Karen populace which closely resembled the genocidal scheme Hitler was enacting against the Jews in Germany.The Karen of many parts of the country were arrested, tortured and killed. Our properties were looted,our womenfolk raped and killed, and our hearths and homes burned. Conditions were so unbearable that we retaliated fiercely enough to attract the attention of the Japanese Government, which mediated and somewhat controlled the situation.

    Post World War II Eras
    Demand for Karen State, Tensions and Armed Conflicts

    The bitter experiences of the Karen throughout our history in Burma, especially during the Second World War, taught us one lesson. They taught us that as a nation, unless we control a state of our own, we will never experience a life of peace, free from persecution and oppression. We will never be allowed to work hard to grow and prosper.

    Soon after the Second World War, all the nations under colonial rule were filled with national aspirations for independence. The Karen sent a Goodwill Mission to England in August 1946, to make the Karen case known to the British Government and the British people, and to ask for a true Karen State. But the reply of the British Labour Government was "to throw in our lot with the Burma". We deeply regretted this, for as it predictably has turned out today, it was a gesture grossly detrimental to our right of self-determination, only condemning us to further oppression. It is extremely difficult for the Karen and the Burman, two peoples with diametrically opposite views, outlooks, attitudes and mentalities, to yoke together.

    However, differences in nature and mentality are not the main reason for our refusal to throw in our lot with the Burman. There are other more important reasons for sticking to our demand for our own State within a genuine Federal Union.

    1. We are concerned that the tactics of annihilation, absorption and assimilation, which have been practised in the past upon all other nationalities by the Burmese rulers, will be continued by the Burman of the future as long as they are in power.

    2. We are concerned about the postwar independence Aung San - Atlee and Nu - Atlee Agreements, as there was no Karen representative in either delegation and no Karen opinion was sought. The most that the Burman would allow us to have was a pseudo Karen State, which falls totally under Burmese authority. In that type of Karen State, we must always live in fear of their cruel abuse of their authority over us.

    On January 4, 1948, Burma got its independence from the British. The Karens continued to ask for self-determination democratically and peacefully from the Burmese Government. The Karen State requested by the Karens was comprised of the Irrawaddy Division, the Tenasserim Division, the Hanthawady District , Insein District and the Nyaunglebin Sub-Division, the areas where the bulk of the Karen populace could be found. But instead of compromising with the Karen by peaceful negotiations concerning the Karen case, the Burmese Government and the Burmese Press said many negative things about us, especially by frequently repeating their accusations that the Karen are puppets of the British and enemies of the Burman. The Burmese Government agitated the Burmese people toward communal clashes between the Karen and the Burman. Another accusation against the Karen demand was that it was not the entire Karen people who desired a Karen state, but a handful of British lackeys who wanted the ruin of the Union of Burma.

    To counter the accusations and show the world that it was the whole Karen people's desire for a Karen state, a peaceful demonstration by Karens all over the country was staged on February 11, 1948, in which over 400,000 Karens took part. The banners carried in the procession contained four slogans, namely:

    1. Give the Karen State at once
    2. Show the Burman one kyat and the Karen one kyat
    3. We do not want communal strife
    4. We do not want civil war.

    The slogans of the Karens in this mass demonstration voiced the same desire as the three slogans of the British Colonies after the Second World War: Liberty, Equality, and Peace. We followed the established democratic procedures in our request for a Karen state.

    A few months after Burma got its independence, successive desertions and revolts in the AFPFL put U Nu, the then Premier, in grave trouble. The revolts of the Red Flag Communist Party in 1947, the Communist party of Burma in March 1948, the People's Volunteer Organisation in June 1948. and the mutinies of the 1st Burma Rifles stationed at Thayetmyo and the 3rd Rifles stationed at Mingladon, Rangoon (August 15,1948), prompted U NU to approach the Karen leaders to help the Government by taking up the security of Rangoon to save it from peril. The Karen did not take advantage of the situation, but readily complied with U Nu's request and helped him out of his predicament. The KNDO (Karen National Defence Organisation) officially recognised by the Burmese Government, was posted at all the strategic positions and all the roads and routes leading to Rangoon. For months the KNDO faithfully took charge of the security of Rangoon.

    The KNDO was given several tasks in forming an outer ring of defence, particularly at Hlegu and Twante. Most important of all was the reoccupation of Twante town, Rangoon's key riverine gateway to the Delta towns and upper Burma. This little town had fallen several times to the communists. Each time it was retaken by regular troops, only to fall back into the hands of the rebels as soon as conditions returned to normal and control was handed back to the civil authorities and the police. This time, a KNDO unit under the leadership of Bo Toe and Bo Aung Min was ordered to retake Twante, which was once more in the hands of the Red Flag Communists. They succeeded with their own resources and without any support from the regular army other than river transport. After wresting the town from the Red Flag Comnunists' hands. they garrisoned it in accordance with their given orders.

    The two mutinied Burma Rifles marched down south, unopposed along the way, until they reached Kyungale bridge, near the town of Let-pa-dan, where they were stopped by a company of Karen UMP (Union Miltary Police). Their truck carrying arms and ammunition received a direct hit from mortar fire of the Karen UMP and was destroyed, so they retreated after suffering heavy casualties.

    But even while all this was happening, the ungrateful Burmese Government was hastily organising a strong force of levies to make an all-out effort to smash the Karen. By December 1948, they had arrested the Karen leaders in many parts of the country. Karen personnel in the armed services were disarmed and put into jail. General Smith Dun, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Burma Army, was forced to resign. Many Karen villages were attacked and many Karen villagers were shot and killed, women raped, properties looted and hearths and homes burnt and destroyed. On the 30th of January 1949, the Burmese Government declared the KNDO unlawful. Early the next morning on the 31st of January, the Burmese troops attacked the KNDO Headquarters at a town about 10 miles north of where most of the top Karen leaders lived. There was no alternative left for the Karen but to fight back. An order was issued to all the Karen throughout the country to take up whatever arms they could find and fight for their lives, their honour, and their long cherished Karen state Kawthoolei.

    When we took up arms, we attained great successes and occupied many towns and cities. We soon suffered military reverses, however, as we had not prepared for Revolution and therefore had no stockpile of arms and ammunition. We had to withdraw from many fronts, thus allowing the Burmsse troops to reoccupy these areas. Compounding this, the Burmese Government called for unity with all the other uprising Burmese rebel groups. These Burmese rebel groups saw the Karen as the greatest obstacle to their seizing exclusive power, joined hands with the Burmese Government, and fought against the Karen. As a result, the Karen found themselves fighting against all the armed elements in the country.
    Another reason for our setbacks was that all along we had to stand on our own feet and fight alone without aid of any kind from any other country. In contrast, the Burmese Government received large amounts of foreign aid, including military aid from both capitalist and socialist countries, and even from some so-called non-aligned nations. Many times then and since the situation of the Burmese Government has been precarious, but it has managed to continue mainly through aid from abroad. Many times it has been in dire financial straits, but it has not been ashamed to go begging. And as hard as it is for us to believe, its begging bowls have always come back filled.

    Present Day Situation
    The Karen under Successive Burmese RĂ©gimes
    The Revolutionary Areas - The Present Situation

    Under the rule of the Burman, the Karens have been oppressed politically, economically, and educationally. The Karen schools and institutions were taken by force and many were destroyed. We are no longer allowed to study our own language in Burmese schools. Many of the Karen newspapers and literary books were banned. Economically, our fields and plots of land were nationalised and confiscated, we have to toil hard all year round and have to take all our products to the Burmese Government for sale at its controlled prices, leaving little for ourselves. Culturally, they have attempted to absorb and dissolve our language, literature, traditions, and customs. We have been denied all political rights, and militarily, our people have all along been systematically exterminated as part of the annihilation, absorption, and assimilation programme of the Burman. Our educational quality and living standards have dropped considerably, falling far behind the Burman in all respects. Their efforts and actions against us are as strong, or stronger, today as ever before in the past.

    Since the 1960's, they have been attacking with the "Four Cuts Operation". This includes cutting our provisions, cutting the contact between the masses and the revolutionaries, cutting all revolutionary financial income and resources, and cutting off the heads of all revolutionaries. To make the four cuts operation successiul, the Burmese troops are using strong suppressive measures. They destroy the fields of crops planted by the villagers and eat their grains and livestock. They take away whatever they like and the things they cannot carry away they destroy. Captured villagers, woman and adolescents as well as men, are made to carry heavy loads as porters for the Burmese soldiers. Many of the villagers have been forced to work as porters for several months; they are deliberately starved, and regularly beaten, raped, or murdered. When the Burmese soldiers enter a village, they shoot the villagers who try to escape. Some of the villagers have been accused of helping the revolutionaries and then have been killed. In certain areas, the villagers have been forced to leave their villages and have been moved to camps some distance away. They are not permitted to leave the camps without permission from the Burmese guards. Some villagers, who have been found in their villages after being ordered to move to the camps, have been shot and killed by the Burmese soldiers with no questions asked.

    Situations such as these and sometimes worse are happening constantly throughout Kawthoolei and are causing a large number of Karens and Shans in Kawthoolei to leave their villages and take refuge along the Thai border; a difficult situation for us as we do not have enough money to provide for these refugees. In spite of these situations we are determined to progress. Even though there is no end of the war in sight, and we are unable to obtain assistance from other countries, we are moving forward as best we can.

    During this long and gruelling forty-three years of war, we have seen many changes take place in our Revolution. The strong willed determination of our fighting forces and our masses to fight to win the war has increased. We have been able to endure hardship, both physically and mentally. We have grown in strength, and not just in numbers. Our occupied areas have now joined our Revolution in great numbers. Many Karen who are universty graduates have also joined us, thus enriching the quality of our revolution. Villagers throughout Kawthoolei are active in support roles, while the morale, discipline, and military skills of our fighting forces have increased. We have been able to inflict greater setbacks on the enemy in all our military engagements.

    Burma is a multi-national country, inhabited also by the Kachin, Arakanese, Karenni, Lahu, Mon, Pa-O, Palaung, Shan and Wa, etc. After independence, these ethnic races were also denied the basic rights of freedom, self-determination, and democracy. Hence, almost all the other nationalities in Burma have also taken up arms to fight against the Burmese Governnent for their own self-determination, and are now united in the National Democratic Front (NDF). There are now altogether nine members in the National Democratic Front, namely:

    1. Arakan Liberation party (ALP)
    2. Chin National front (CNF)
    3. Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO)
    4. Karen National Union (KNU)
    5. Karenni National progressive Party (KNPP)
    6. Kayan New Land Party (KNLP

    7. Lahu National Organisation (LNO)
    8 New Mon State Party (NMSP)
    9. Wa National Organisation (WNO)

    The consolidated National Democratic Front (NDF) has resolved to form a genuine Federal Union, comprised of all the states of the nationalities in Burma, including a Burman state, on the basis of liberty, equality and social progress.The NDF is determined to fight on until victory is achieved, and requests the people of all classes and all works of life to join hands and fight against the Ne Win-Than Shwe military dictatorship.

    By 1988, the oppression of Ne Win's military regime had become so severe that even the Burmese masses rose up against it.The regime's response was to gun down thousands of peaceful demonstrators, mainly young students and monks. Even so Ne Win could not subdue them and he was forced to resign, seemingly handing over power to his chosen successors in the State Law and Order Restoration council (SLORC), but continuing to pull the strings of power from behind the scenes. The SLORC promised a multi-party election and held it in 1990, only to persecute and imprison the winners rather then hand over state power to them. Thousands of Burmese students, monks and other dissidents fled to the areas governed by NDF member organisations. There they were accepted and sheltered by the ethnic peoples, particularly in the Karen areas, where no less then 6,000 students arrived along with other dissidents, all wanting to organise and struggle against the SLORC.In late 1988, the KNU took the initiative of proposing that the NDF form a broader political front along with the newly formed Burmese group to meet the developing political situation.

    The Karen National Union (KNU)
    Aims, Policy and Programme

    The second Karen National Union (KNU) congress was held at Maw Ko, Nyaunglebin district in June and July 1956, and was attended by KNU representatives from Delta Division, Pegu Yoma Division and Eastern Division. In this congress the political aims of the KNU were laid down as follows and they still apply today:

    • The establishment of a Karen State with the right to self-determination.
    • The establishment of National States for all the nationalities, with the right to self-determination.
    • The establishment of a genuine Federal Union with all the states having equal rights and the right to self-determination.
    • The Karen National Union will pursue the policy of National Democracy.

    In spite of the internal and external situations, we continue to maintain our state, Kawthoolei, administered by our own Kawthoolei Government since 1950,under the banner of the Karen National Union (KNU), and the well trained and disciplined Karen National Liberation Army, which were formed in that same year. We desire Kawthoolei to be a Karen State with the right to self-determination. We are therefore endeavouring to form a genuine Federal Union comprised of all the states of the nationalities in Burma, including a Burman state, on the basis of Liberty, Equality, Self-Determination and Social progress.

    We desire the extent of Kawthoolei to be the areas where the Karens are in majority. It shall be governed in accordance with the wishes of the people of the State and just in the eyes of the country and the world. The policy of the Karen National Union is National Democracy. It fully recognises and encourages private ownership and welcomes foreign investment. All the people in Kawthoolei shall be given democratic rights, politically, economically, socially and culturally. Freedom and equality of all religions is guaranteed. Kawthoolei will maintain cordial relationships with all other states and other countries on the basis of mutual respect, peace and prosperity. Kawthoolei will never permit the growing or refining of opium or the sales and transport of illicit drugs through its territory.

    Our Beliefs and Determination

    To us, the "independence" Burma gained in 1948 is but a domination over all other nationalities in Burma by the Burman. The taking up of arms by almost all the nationalities against the ruling Burmese Government is sufficient proof that though Burma got its independence, only the Burman have really enjoyed independence and they have subjugated the other nationalities. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) headed by General Than Shwe will never and can never solve the conflicts and crises in the country.
    The Karen Revolution is more than just a struggle for survival against national oppression, subjugation, exploitation and domination of the Karen people by the Burmese rulers. It has the aim of a genuine Federal Union comprised of all the states of the nationalities on the basis of equality and self-determination. In our march towards our objectives we shall uphold the four principles laid down by our beloved leader, the late Saw Ba U Gyi, which are:

    •For us surrender is out of the question.
    •The recognition of the Karen State must be completed.
    •We shall retain our arms.
    •We shall decide our own political destiny.

    We strongly believe in the Charter of the United Nations, its Declarations on Human Rights, the principle of Self-Determination and the Democratic Rights of Peoples - all causes for which we are fighting.

    The fighting may be long, hard, and cruel, but we are prepared for all eventualities. To die fighting is better than to live as a slave. But we firmly believe that we shall survive and be victorious, for our cause is just and righteous, and surely any tyranny so despised as the Burmese regime must one day fall.


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