Karen revolution and the legacy of General Bo Mya

Wednesday, 21 January 2009 17:31

by Daniel Pedersen

Mae Sot (Mizzima) – The general was tired. He walked with a slow, unsteady gait and heaved sighs as he settled into his chair. General Bo Mya had been fighting against Burma’s military in all its forms for more than fifty years when we first met in 2000 and, if anything, he was farther than ever from achieving his goal.

A legend in the Karen struggle for self-determination, he bristled with hatred for Burma’s military and was visibly frustrated talking about his war. Where could he begin? And what good was talk?
He had spent his lifetime at war and during that time talk had generally proven to be but a prelude to some form of treachery or simply a continuation of the status quo. Burma’s generals had many times wanted him to lay down his arms. But how could the veteran Karen revolutionary lay down his arms during a war? He could not – for that would mean surrender.

On January 20, 2009, on what would have been Bo Mya’s 82nd birthday, the sun burned away the morning mist and for an hour or so our surroundings of commercial agricultural flatlands were revealed. By the time the second choir had completed a Karen folk song, smoke and tropical haze had taken the place of the morning damp. A middle-aged woman lifted her head as the songs ended – eyes moist, perhaps from recollection.

Nerdah Mya, General Bo Mya’s eldest son, welcomed everyone.

“There are, of course, two reasons why we are here today. The first is to remember our late father and all the good things he brought to his family and those around him, and the second is to give thanks for the New Year.”

“On this family thanksgiving we must all praise the Lord that we are still alive, we wish you all the best – may you find prosperity, happiness and peace of mind in this coming year,” offered the son of the fallen hero, who passed in late December, 2006.

Having weathered half a century of conflict, General Bo Mya remained adamant until his death that the military defeat of Burma’s generals was possible. It really came down to a matter of beliefs, tactics and hardware.

Of course any assistance in grinding down the generals was greatly appreciated, and he acknowledged that economic sanctions also hurt the generals and, by default, assisted his army. He was also adamant that the illicit trade in drugs, predominantly methamphetamines and heroin, combined with foreign aid, propped up the junta.

“They [countries engaging with the junta] are simply killing people. People are dying and the drugs keep coming. The country is poor but the military is not. The country is poor because the SPDC [Burmese Army] refuses to stop fighting. Serious sanctions by the international community can certainly help – already the Burmese have accumulated debts they cannot pay,” thundered the now deceased General.

Eight years after I first met Bo Mya I found myself sitting opposite his son, Nerdah Mya, in August of last year. He echoed the sentiments of his father, simply iterating, “I am obligated to work for the struggle.”

“You know my Dad told me when he got really sick: ‘All my life I have been calling for my people to fight for their freedom. They have died for it, they have sacrificed for it and you cannot go abroad and escape, you have to stand up and fight.’ Otherwise, my Dad said, he would be betraying the people who have fought and died,” related Nerdah Mya.

“And I told him ‘Yes, I will carry on’,” and Nerdah Mya thumped his fist on the table, not for dramatic effect, but rather as an indication of his resolve.

“I remember my Dad would go out and get one deer and we would share it with all the households, we would share with everybody,” continued Nerdah Mya. “And I respect those strong family ties among the Karen people. It is good to preserve this kind of culture and loving one another.”

Tuesday’s memorial found more than 150 people gathered to reflect on the year past and to give thanks for the coming New Year, the Karen year of 2748.

Every single person in attendance wanted the war to take its place in the dustbin of history. But less than an hour’s drive from where we gathered, between 300 and 400 men – three Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) battalions and one Burmese Army battalion, had 100 Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) soldiers surrounded at Wah Lay Kee, base camp of the Sixth Brigade’s 201st battalion.
Meanwhile, the KNLA 101st battalion, consisting of about 160 soldiers and seven nurses, to the northwest of Mae La refugee camp, is involved in fighting daily. And intense fighting has also broken out in both Shan and Karenni states.

Nerdah Mya bluntly says all this activity is a concerted push to quash insurgents before the 2010 “elections”. The generals want calm, according to several observers, so the military and its public relations people can manage a smooth process that will institutionalize military rule through a ‘democratic’ process.

Of solutions to the world’s longest-running war, recently-elected Karen National Union Vice-Chairman David Takapaw says, in words reminiscent of the late General, that the only way forward is to defeat the “fascist” Burmese military.

“Ever since the military came to power in 1962, the ultimate goal of the military establishment is to set up the fourth Burman empire. Of course in this time and age, only fascists would think of setting up an empire in a multi-ethnic state like Burma,” ruminated the Vice-Chairman. “Non-Burman ethnic people will never accept that.”

“The states don’t have any power – any political power, the power to legislate, the power to adjudicate, the power to manage, executive power, they don’t have any of that – all of the power is centralized in the hands of the majority Burman. The ethnic people don’t have any rights. They don’t have economic rights. They don’t have human rights. They don’t have any political power. That is why many ethnic people at one time…were fighting against the central government, the Burmans.”

Takapaw proceeded with his indictment of the current regime: “But that arrangement hasn’t changed, the regime in power, now known as the SPDC, has drafted a constitution, held a referendum and confirmed…that non-Burman ethnicities will not have any power.”

And did he look to the United States for support in the Karen military campaign to force change in Burma?

“Well, from the United States, maybe. But I think perhaps they do not see much national interest in this case. And the Cold War has ended. In the case of Vietnam of course the Cold War was going on. Geopolitics effects, directly or indirectly, our struggle,” summarized the Vice-Chairman.

This year, the late General’s birthday falls on the eve of Barack Obama being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. It is also just one day after Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Trumpet of Conscience Award, which commemorates the late Martin Luther King, Jr.

US Campaign for Burma’s executive director Aung Din, accepting the award on Suu Kyi’s behalf, said he hoped Obama would uphold existing economic sanctions against Burma and lead a strong diplomatic effort to organize the international community to pressure the military junta.

Chief editor at the Jakarta Post, Endy M. Bayuni, writing in The New York Times suggested Obama’s four years in Jakarta, from 1967 to 1971, when the country was adjusting to the harsh realities of the Sukarno era, will have served him well.

Obama is described as a United States president who has lived under a dictatorship and in a country in which “military control was widespread and . . . students attended indoctrination classes where they would profess their loyalty to the state. Dissent and criticism were not tolerated in public life. There was barely freedom of thought,” wrote Bayuni.

Yet, while such comparisons are chilling, it would be reckless to see any promise in historical coincidences.

New Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva may well chart a different course for his country vis-à-vis Burma, but it will not involve cutting back on the Kingdom’s commitment to three mega-dams planned for Burma’s Salween River, nor reviews of natural gas deals with the junta.

Meanwhile, India’s politicians are still basking in the success of securing a deal in September of last year to construct two vast hydropower projects on the Chindwin River.

Further, without agreement among the permanent five Security Council members, all with the power of veto, the United Nations is crippled when it comes to taking any action. As such, unilateral intervention appears the solitary choice Obama is left with when it comes to a definitive move to liberate Burma.

But back along the Thai-Burma border on Tuesday, as a couple sang a duet in the distance, Nerdah Mya said he hoped Obama might be able to do something, to make a significant contribution to change in Burma, but added, “How much he can do is another question.”

Asked for a message for the West from the frontlines of the world’s longest-running insurgency, Nerdah Mya was blunt, “We must stop the tyranny. We can’t just sit and watch. Otherwise more people will die.”

In agreement with Nerdah Mya’s sentiments is a close friend, Myat Thu, an ethnic Burman and an exile of the 1988 student uprising during which thousands perished and the aftermath of which left thousands more mired in limbo.

He too knew General Bo Mya and was among the founders of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) along the Thai-Burma border.

Bo Mya’s army took the ABSDF in and trained them in the discipline of warfare.

In the words of one exile, Win Cho: “I started in 1989. At that time I was fighting with the KNU (Karen National Union). You know I have nothing but respect for the KNU, they helped us so much, until we met them we had nothing, no healthcare, one set of clothes, we had nothing.

Win Cho was an ABSDF commander, but plays down such a vote of confidence from his peers.

“I was hardly a commander, in those days we were totally dependent on the Karen, we didn’t go out on operations by ourselves. We hadn’t learned how to survive out there by ourselves at that point,” elaborated Win Cho.

Both Myat Thu and Win Cho speak highly of Bo Mya and his no-nonsense, uncompromising attitude towards discipline.

As secretary, Myat Thu is a high ranking officer of the newly-formed 2009 Collective Action Committee, a gathering of representatives from the ethnic nationalities, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the monkhood, whose aim is to “impede the forthcoming bogus elections of 2010”.

The collective’s motto is drawn from a senior NLD leader, but could just have easily been uttered by Bo Mya himself: “Seek not to escape from this conflict – but rather to confront it and break through it.

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