PEOPLE OF BURMA
AND THE KAREN NATIONAL UNION
By David Tharckabaw, Roland Watson
1. Karen social and political aspirations
2. Karen history and culture
3. Karen political organization
1. KAREN SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ASPIRATIONS
The Karen National Union is the political organization/government for the Karen people of Burma. Its basic objective is to bring relief to the Karen people, who are suffering genocide at the hands of Burmas military dictatorship. Such relief in turn has three elements: to provide humanitarian aid in the form of such things as food and medical assistance; to provide a means of self-defense; and to work with any other parties who are dedicated to removing the dictatorship, the SPDC, from power, such that the genocide against the Karen, and others, and all the other forms of abuse that are committed against all the people of Burma, are ended, decisively, such that they can never recur.
For the last, the KNU has always desired a sincere dialogue with the SPDC, and a peaceful transition to democracy.
Also, the KNU aspires to be more than a resistance government; it is dedicated to forming a well-organized and well-functioning government for the Karen State in a future democratic and federal Burma.
More generally, the Karen people aspire to a situation of social harmony inside Burma such that we can reestablish our villages and farms, and our values and traditions, and live in peace with and actively cooperate with the other peoples of the country.
All of these objectives and aspirations are reflected in the Preamble of the Proposed Draft of the Constitution of Kawthoolei State:
We the Karen people, in the spirit of fraternity, unity and liberty and for the sake of peace, stability, security and social progress, join together with the other nationalities of the land to be part of the Federal Union of _______. We will always remember how relentlessly we had to struggle, as a people, for our freedom, equality and self-determination, and be ready to defend our basic human rights and the right to freely develop ourselves socially, culturally and economically within the framework of the Federation.
During the days of feudalism, we, the Karen people had been systematically and severely oppressed, exploited and prevented from advancement in all the fields of human activities. When the system of oppression and subjection was removed, we made rapid advances through industriousness and self-reliance, in a matter of 60 years, to become a civilized community, capable for sustainable development.
However, after independence from the British, the political immaturity, intolerance and above all ultra-nationalism of those in power had led the country to civil war and the Dark Age of oppression, subjugation and exploitation, for more than half a century. In this Dark Age, all suffered immeasurably and the country suffered a disastrous setback.
Accordingly, we, the Karen people in the State of Kawthoolei as well as in other States will join together with all peace-loving nationalities to prevent the return of the Dark Age and always work for harmony, stability and prosperity of the Federation.
2. KAREN HISTORY AND CULTURE
Cultural history: The Karen people originated in Mongolia, from which we migrated some 4,000 years ago. We passed through China, reaching what is now Burma, the Salween and the Irrawaddy river valleys, some 3,000 years ago. The Karen at this point accomplished a consolidation, such that we began our own calendar. It is now year 2742 under this calendar.
The last census in Burma, conducted by the British in 1931, included a calculation of some 1.4 million for the Karen. However, this is considered to be a significant undercount. The census was prepared for the British by officials largely from the Burman ethnic group, and we believe they counted Karen Buddhists as Burmans. In 1942, the Japanese estimated the Karen population at 4.5 million. The current population is believed to number between eight and ten million, with approximately one million in Karen State proper and the balance spread around the delta areas of southern Burma from Pegu to Rangoon to Mergui-Tavoy. The Karen are the second largest ethnic group in Burma, after the Burmans.
(Note: The boundaries of Karen State were set by Burmas first Prime Minister, U Nu. The state contains only a small portion of the traditional Karen homeland. Roads, or anything deserving that name, are wholly unknown in the lower provinces. Footpaths, indeed, lead through the woods in every direction and are only known and frequented by the Carian tribes, who cultivate the lands. Narrative of the Burmese War, Major Snodgrass, 1827)
The Karen historically were (and for the most part we remain) a rural people, living in river valleys, plains and mountains, and engaged in subsistence agriculture and hunting and gathering. As we spread throughout south and southeast Burma, different subgroups formed. These subgroups are now distinguished in part by language differences, which actually date to the influences of American Christian missionaries in the early nineteenth century.
The Karen have two written languages: Po and Sgaw. These were established with the assistance of two missionaries, Reverend Vinton and Dr. Wade, respectively. The languages can more accurately be described as dialects since they both have the same grammar and since 80% of the vocabulary is common. In the delta areas there are both Po and Sgaw groups. In mountainous areas there are Karen who use a Po sub-dialect known as Bwe, and Karen who use a Sgaw sub-dialect known as Paku. There is additional cultural diversity and other sub-dialects as well in mountain areas.
The Karen also relate to the Karenni people, who have a population currently estimated at between 500,000 and 600,000, and who use Bwe. But the Karenni are distinct from the Karen in that they have their own state, just north of Karen State, and cultural history. The Karenni are like the Shan people further to the north in that they had a feudal structure, with provincial chiefs (for the Shan these were known as Sawbwas.) The Karen are egalitarian: we never had a feudal society.
The Karen traditionally were animist. However, our animism was not dominated by a belief in a multitude of specific natural spirits, as is commonly the case in other animist societies. Rather, for any given area there was a master of the water, the land and the sky. In addition, there was a belief that one supreme spirit dominated the whole of the water, the earth and the sky. This tradition of a centralization of spiritual power actually facilitated the Karen transition, under missionary influence, to Christian monotheism. At present a rough estimate is that 40% of Karen are Christian, 40% are Buddhist, and 20% remain Animist. One aspect of the support for Buddhism is that it Buddhism permits a variety of traditional practices, which Christianity forbids.
Lastly, Karen State is known as Kawthoolei. This is often translated as the land of light, although a more literal rendering is the country without evil.
Values and ceremonies: Traditional Karen village society revolves around a number of core values. These include both spiritual values and related social values such as the importance of the family and the community, respect for the elderly, care for the poor and disadvantaged, and a high level of equality between the sexes. For community organization, the Karen have an established democratic tradition (see Section 3, Karen political organization).
Karen values are in turn reflected in Karen ceremonies. The hand-tying ceremony, Kee Sue, is one example. Once a year, generally in July (following the Lunar calendar), Karen families gather at monasteries, and their children and friends tie strands of colored string on each others wrists, and pray for the return of Gala, or esprit. This serves a number of purposes, to symbolically bind such children and friends and in a larger sense to bring all the Karen together as one people.
Another Karen ceremony, Aw Bwa, or the bone-picking ceremony, has a dual function. Karen elders who have earned a high degree of respect during their lives are cremated after they die (rather than buried), and after a suitable period of time (a year or more) this ceremony is held. Relatives of the deceased gather the bone fragments in a jar and then place it in a special burial ground. Then, that evening, a courtship ceremony is held. The villages young men and women gather in lines, facing each other, and then, accompanied by Karen music, sing and talk to each other, in verse, in a point/counterpoint fashion. This, in addition to the fun it provides, is used to help determine partner compatibility. (Karen couples practice monogamy, and traditionally there is no pre-marital sex.)
Another traditional funeral practice is known as the Loe ceremony. In this ceremony the deceased is buried and then his or her relatives and friends gather at a second location, such as a favored spot in the forest, and leave possessions utensils, baskets, etc. that the deceased will find usable in the next life.
Other annual festivals include New Year in December/January and a harvest festival in February. The New Year festival, or Nee Tor Thaw, includes prayer services, sports, games and dances, and a community feast. Special attention is given to the poor and underprivileged. Also, once a year there is a communal re-roofing effort, with special assistance provided to the poor and widows and widowers.
Karen values also find expression in day-to-day life. For example, elders are called upon to resolve conflicts, as a sign of respect for their wisdom and experience. For the family, relatives on the mothers side get together once a year to make offerings to help keep the family together, so individual members will not get lost. In difficult periods this meeting can be postponed for up to two additional years, but it must be held not less than once every three years, or it is believed that the family will suffer great misfortune.
Within the family, the eldest child, son or daughter, is responsible for the parents until their death. As mentioned, there is a high degree of equality between men and women. (This is in great contrast to the rampant discrimination against women in neighboring India, China and Thailand.) Women control the family budget, and female children are prized as much as male. A Karen familys goal is to have a balance between the sexes, to have an equal number of boys and girls.
For marriage, the grooms parents and elders must visit the brides family and convey the marriage request. There is no dowry. The marriage is held at the brides house, with the whole village invited and the night spent singing and dancing.
A final Karen value is hospitality to outsiders. If a traveler arrives at a Karen village, and the villagers are away in their fields, he or she can enter any house and rest. And, when the villagers return, they will prepare food for the visitor. Also, the visitor is not greeted with suspicion: no prying questions are asked.
Early political history: The current conditions we experience have direct links to our historical relationship with the Burmans. There is a strong tradition of ultra-nationalism among the Burmans, which has caused untold suffering for Burmas ethnic nationalities, and which is manifested in the military dictatorship today.
One example of such Burman behavior was the conquest of the Mon people. Before this conquest, the Mon, who are descended from the Khmers (the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia), had a kingdom in all of lower Burma. Circa 1725, a Burman general laid siege to the Mon walled city/state of Hanthawaddy. After three months the general made an offer, conveyed by three monks, that the Mon King could keep his position and property in exchange for entry to the city. The King agreed, and when the Burmans gained access they massacred him and all the citys inhabitants. (Earlier, though, some Mon soldiers, perceiving their King as soft, had broken out of the siege and escaped to what is now Thailand.)
The Burman general made himself King and then set out to eradicate the Mon culture. He invited three thousand Mon monks to a special meeting to make peace, and then killed them all. (One escaped to tell about it.) He then destroyed the Mon monasteries, including their libraries.
The Burmans actually acquired Buddhism from the Mon, who at first refused to teach it to them. But in the eleventh century the Burmans attacked the Mon from Bagan (this was the beginning of the first Burman empire), defeated the then Mon king, and made him a pagoda slave.
Until recent times the Burmans paid little attention to the Karen, who were viewed as unsophisticated and hence not a threat. We did not need to be eliminated, only kept as an underclass. However, we were prohibited from becoming Buddhists.
This changed with the arrival of the British in the 1820s, who the Karen actually viewed as liberators from Burman imperialism. But the practical British influence was generally quite small. The larger influence actually arrived in the form of the first American missionary, whose name was Dr. Judson.
At the time of the Burmese War, the Karen were heavily taxed and oppressed by the Burmese authorities, by whom they [were] treated as an altogether inferior race from their countrymen of Pegu. Further, during the war Burmese soldiers assembled into marauding bands, plundering and burning the defenseless [Karen] villages as they passed along, and practiced the most wanton cruelties among the unfortunate villagers whom chance threw in their way. Ibid., Snodgrass)
It is noteworthy that under British rule the hill states, for the Karen, Shan, etc., were known as the Frontier Areas, distinct from Burma Proper (Ministerial of Burma), and that they enjoyed a high degree of autonomy (in contrast to Burma Proper, which was under direct British administration). Burman politicians were humiliated by this distinction.
In World War II we cooperated with the Allies. For this support we were subjected to atrocities at the hands of the Burma Independence Army (BIA). In 1940, a group of Burman leaders, who called themselves the Thirty Comrades, traveled to Japan with the assistance of Japanese agents. They then went to Hainan Island, China, for military training. In 1941, they accompanied the Japanese Army when it occupied Thailand, and established the BIA.
The Japanese promised the BIA that Burma would be independent following the war, and that they could also have Shan State, apart from Kengtung and States east of the Salween River, which they had already promised to Thailand. (My Vanished World, Nel Adams/Sao Noan Oo)
Soon after the British were driven out of Burma, in early 1942, BIA troops rounded up Karen civilians in the Irrawaddy delta areas and Papun District and started killing them by the hundreds each night, accusing them of being British spies. The Karen resisted and communal war broke out, which lasted six months. Finally, the Japanese authorities stopped the conflict, after realizing that the cause was racial prejudice on the part of the BIA.
The BIA was formed under the leadership of Aung San. But, the atrocities and resultant conflict occurred while he was away on an extended trip to Myitkyina in the north of the country. When he returned, he was upset at what had happened and initiated the Burman/Karen friendship movement. However, we, and the Mon, were excluded from the Panglong Agreement, which was signed on February 12, 1947, between Aung San and the Shan and certain other Frontier Areas (the Kachin and Chin), and which effectively established the first Burma Federal Union. (Aung San was impatient to sign an agreement, and he did not want to take the time to address the various issues with which we were concerned.)
Because of this history we remain fearful of Burman intentions, that even after the SPDC is defeated we may again be subjected to Burman domination. We therefore support the idea of establishing a strong federal union with a number of equal states, in which all the peoples of Burma can participate, as a means to offset any such future resurgence.
Recent political history: The Karen National Union was formed in 1947, by the merger of four organizations: the Karen National Association; the Karen Central Organization; the Buddhist Karen National Association; and the Karen Youth Organization. We believed that after the war it was inevitable that the British would leave. We therefore would have to fend for ourselves, and for this we needed to achieve unity.
After Aung San was assassinated, on July 19, 1947, U Nu became leader of the Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League (AFPFL - the dominant political group opposed to the British). Under his leadership, though, Burma did not become a genuine federal union, since he did not adhere to the Panglong Agreement. He appointed a Chamber of Nationalities under Burman control, and he attempted to make Buddhism the state religion. Federal in name only, Burma was actually a unitary state under total control of the Burmans.
The British left on January 4, 1948. In the run-up to independence they had argued that the transition was occurring too quickly, and that Burma required additional preparation to be ready for democracy.
On February 11, 1948, the KNU organized a widespread orderly and peaceful demonstration asking for equality for Karen people, the creation of a Karen homeland state (within the Federal Union), and stating that we did not want communal strife and civil war. (At the time some Burmans were planning a war with the Karen, as a means to kill us rather than allow us democracy.) We had been oppressed in the feudal days, and we had not had a sense of nationhood. But this had developed with the introduction of Christianity, and also Buddhism (to which we now had access), such that by the early twentieth century Karen writers were beginning to discuss the possibility of a Karen homeland. Following the war, some Burmans were determined to see that this aspiration was not realized.
Throughout the year Burman newspapers printed inflammatory articles about us. We were accused of being British hirelings, and savages. (To this day we are subject to the epithet: Ringworm.) It was said that the February demonstration was British-orchestrated. Toward the end of the year the Pocket Army troops of Ne Win began attacks against us in the delta areas. The Pocket Army was a secret territorial defense force, an irregular army, akin to the forces utilized by Hitler early in his rise to power. Ne Win (who did not conclusively grab power until 1962), even then, initiated communal strife in Burma.
At Christmastime the Pocket Army burned churches, with the worshippers still inside. In January (1949), they burned the Karen quarters in Rangoon. Then, later that month, they went to the town of Insein north of Rangoon (now home to the infamous prison) and threatened through loudspeakers to rape Karen women and to wipe us out. It was at Insein, on January 31, which we now refer to as Resistance Day, that we formally began our revolt.
The first systematic Karen force for self-defense was organized by the KNU, and known as the Karen National Defense Organization. During this time three Karen staffed regular battalions of the Burma Army and also some Karen police officers defected to the KNU/KNDO.
In summary, our revolt was a legitimate response to the attacks that we suffered, and to the actions of U Nu. Subsequently, we formed a number of additional defense organizations, including the Karen People Liberation Army and the Karen People Guerrilla Force. These were ultimately consolidated into the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
Also of note, the Panglong Agreement provided that the Shan and other ethnic group signatories had the right of secession anytime after ten years from the date of the Agreement, if they were unhappy with developments in the country.
- In 1958, before such secession could be accomplished, Ne Win and the military took control of the government. (They called themselves a caretaker government.)
- In early 1960, an election was held and U Nu returned as Prime Minister.
- In 1961, the Frontier Area signatories of the Agreement demanded a constitutional amendment and their full rights to political autonomy.
- Then, on March 2, 1962, with Parliament in session and U Nu about to give a speech, Ne Win seized power again, once and for all. He was afraid that a constitutional amendment would end the Burma Armys supremacy in the ethnic areas, and he was determined that equality between the Burmans and the other ethnic groups of the nation would never be achieved.
Now, forty years later, his desire is still being fulfilled.
In 1990, the SPDC permitted an election in Burma. However, we were not allowed to form any political parties. (No political party could have the word Karen in its name.) Therefore, the Karen individuals who were elected in 1990 ran for office under other party affiliations, such as the NLD. The KNU now is essentially a unity government for the Karen people, the only effective form of self-government possible during a period of resistance, with no distinct political parties. However, as described in Section 3 we are democratic, and through this we perpetuate a long history of Karen democratic values. We have electoral procedures, and our meetings are free and open forums anyone may offer comments and criticism.
Karen genocide: The legal definition of genocide, found in Article 2 of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which Burma ratified, is as follows:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
1. Killing members of the group;
2. Causing serious bodily harm or mental harm to members of the group;
3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
5. Forcibly transferring children to another group.
In 2000, the KNU formed a Committee Against Genocide of the Karen People (with the assistance of an independent NGO), to document and publicize how the conditions to which we have been subjected meet the above definition, in particular the first three points.
Historically, the genocide against the Karen developed as follows. The political conditions in Burma were turbulent from independence through to the 1962 coup, and there was some communal conflict but no overall or planned patterns of ethnic group elimination. This changed in 1963, when Ne Win nationalized the economy and, most importantly, the schools. Prior to this we had our own schools, to tenth standard. Ne Win ended state support for our schools, and banned the use of the Karen language in class. Ne Win also nationalized religious-based schools, so no religious activities were involved, and this had the effect that missionary schools for the Karen were closed as well.
Ne Win then renewed military activity against us, and demanded a cease-fire, that we unilaterally lay down our arms, which we refused.
In the mid-1960s, the Karen refugee crisis began. This occurred when Ne Win instituted his 4-Cuts policy. His objectives under this policy were to cut Karen revenues, information, recruits, and food supply. For the first he ordered the destruction of Karen harvests. Also, cross-border trade to Thailand, which we taxed to a small degree, was banned. For information, we had a village runner system in place, which Ne Win sought to disrupt. To cut recruits, entire villages were forced to relocate, and village leaders tortured and killed, so they could have no contact with the KNU. (Later such forced relocation served to provide the Burma Army with a steady supply of forced labor.) And lastly, in a similar manner to the first objective, orders went out to burn villages, destroy crops and steal farm animals.
In summary, 4-Cuts constitutes it is still actively pursued by the SPDC a systematic scorched earth policy against the Karen. Its overall objective is the destruction of the Karen people and the Karen cultural identity, and its cumulative effects constitute nothing less than ethnic cleansing and genocide.
During the first two decades after the beginning of 4-Cuts, we enjoyed some seasonal relief. The Burma Army conducted operations only during the dry season. But in 1984, this changed. The Burma Army dug in in Karen State, and began a year round offensive against us. The net result was a massive refugee and internally displaced person crisis.
At present there are approximately 130,000 refugees in camps along the Thai/Burma border. Some 100,000 are Karen, with the balance Karenni and Mon. The Thai government refuses to register Shan refugees (and to a lesser extent Mon), and there are no Shan camps (although there are hundreds of thousands of Shan refugees and IDPs as well, since the Shan people, and the Karenni, have also been subjected to ethnic cleansing and genocide).
The Karen refugee crisis has also been exacerbated by the policy of the current Thai government, which will only allow new refugees to stay in Thailand temporarily. No new refugees are allowed into the established camps. Further, the Thai government policy is now fully supportive of the SPDC you could even say that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is the SPDCs leading ally. One consequence of this is another policy that affects refugees. New refugees are not admitted, even temporarily, unless they are demonstrably fleeing conflict gunshots can be heard. But the Thais have made a deal with the Burma Army to keep conflict away from the border. Therefore, the border guards cannot hear the gunshots, so the refugees are not actually fleeing for their lives; instead, they are economic migrants, and can be denied entry.
The displacement the Karen have suffered is actually far greater than the number of refugees suggests. There are an estimated 500,000 internally displaced persons in Karen State, although this figure also includes some Shan, etc. Also, there are some one million laborers from Burma in Thailand, of which some 300,000 are estimated to be Karen.
In total, a million or more Karen have been forced from their homes and villages. At a minimum tens of thousands have been killed, or died from disease, in particular malaria and diarrhea, while on the run. (No reliable figures are available.) Thousands of villages have been destroyed. And, when the villagers flee, all of their choices are bad: they become confined in relocation villages and are subjected to forced labor, theft and extortion; they become IDPs, struggling to survive in the forest; they become camp refugees (although this option, as unpleasant as it is, to be locked up in a camp for years, even decades, and to be banned from receiving visitors, is no longer available); or they become migrant laborers, subject to worker abuse and even slavery.
The SPDC policy, initiated under Ne Win, is succeeding. We are the victims of genocide. And this genocide has direct links to centuries of Burman imperialism and ultra-nationalist beliefs. The SPDC refer to themselves as Nainggandaw akyiakeh, or elders of the empire, which is a code phrase linked to Patama Myanmar nainggandaw, the name of the first Burman empire in Bagan. Ultra-nationalist writers also describe the current regime as Sadokta Myanmar nainggandaw, or the Fourth Burman Empire.
For the genocide of the Karen, and also the destruction of the Shan and the Karenni and the other ethnic nationalities of Burma to be conclusively ended, the SPDC, the latest group of Burman imperialists, will have to be removed from power.
Lastly, we must emphasize that the genocide is ongoing. Recent KNU reports on human rights abuses committed in Karen State, including murders, burned villages, etc., are available upon request.
3. KAREN POLITICAL ORGANIZATION
Karen National Union: The KNU has been the established political organization for the Karen people since Burma became independent from Britain. Further, it is inherently democratic, since at its core it remains a village-based electoral organization. Each village elects a committee and a village head. (The first village elections were held when the British were in power. Prior to this, villages were governed by elders.) The village head actually has an extremely difficult position, since he or she (many village heads are women) must respond to SPDC demands, e.g., for forced labor, and is regularly accused of pro-democracy involvement. Village heads are frequently imprisoned, tortured and killed.
Groups of ten to twenty villages are grouped into village tracts. The village committees elect village tract committees including committee chairpersons, vice-chairpersons and secretaries. This is repeated at the township level, which comprises nine or ten village tracts. Townships also have KNU department officials (see below), including, for all townships, for information, health, education, agriculture and forestry. Other departments are represented depending on the requirements of the specific township.
Finally, townships are organized into districts, of which there are seven in Karen State. Each district has an elected committee and a chairperson, vice-chairperson, secretary, and departmental district officers.
The seven districts, with their Burmese and Karen names and their associated Karen National Liberation Army brigade, are as follows:
The KNU is governed, on
a day-to-day basis, by the Executive Committee. This committee has eleven members,
although only nine positions currently are filled:
- Vice-President and Defense Minister, Defense Department
- General Secretary (equivalent to Prime Minister)
- Joint General Secretary 1, Organizing Department
- Joint General Secretary 2, Information Department
- KNLA Chief of Staff and General Officer Commanding
- Vice Chief of Staff, Forestry and Mining departments
- Foreign Affairs Department Head
- Relief and Rehabilitation Department Head
- Transport and Communications Department Head (incumbent deceased)
- Alliance Affairs Department Head (position currently empty)
The Executive Committee meets on a weekly basis. All departments report directly to the General Secretary. This includes the Defense Department. As in other democracies, the defense forces are subject to the command of the executive office. The KNLA is the military wing of the Karen resistance and fully subordinate to the KNU.
The KNU has fifteen departments. All departments have branches down to the district level (and in some cases to the township level), except the Foreign Affairs Department. The central staffs for most departments are quite small, one or a few individuals, and an assistant or two, reflecting budget constraints. For example, the Information Department published a KNU website for about two years, including reports on human rights abuses and conflict, but this operation had to be suspended due to a lack of funds to pay the webmaster and to rent server space.
KNU departments are as follows:
Finance and Revenue
Relief and Rehabilitation
Transport and Communications
Formerly there were also departments for fisheries and animal husbandry.
Health, Education, Forestry and Agriculture are the largest departments. Health includes district health departments with nurses, medics and a few doctors, district clinics, and also mobile and refugee camp clinics. Education operates a small number of high schools and also primary schools in refugee camps and at some of the larger IDP sites. Forestry is actually the largest department because each district has forest guards. Formerly, substantial timber was cut for revenue but this has now been reduced. The KNU is trying to preserve the Karen States remaining forests. (We have set aside rainforest reserves in three districts, where timber cutting and hunting is prohibited, although some Thais secretly enter the reserves and cut trees and poach wildlife.)
The Organizing Department seeks to increase KNU membership. Any Karen individual can join the KNU and annual dues are very low. Organizing also looks after the Karen Womens Organization and the Karen Youth Organization.
The Information Department seeks to counter the SPDC news blackout by issuing reports on human rights abuses, conflict, and economic and political issues. Through the Karen Information Center (funded by the National Endowment for Democracy), it publishes a newsletter.
For Justice, the legal framework used, both criminal and civil, is based on British law. There are courts and chief justices at higher organizational levels, for each township and district and also for Karen State overall. Final appeals are made to the President, who can grant amnesty. We also administer a number of detention centers. The Interior Department includes Karen police and village guards.
We have prepared a Proposed Draft of the Constitution of Kawthoolei State. (The Preamble was given earlier in Section 1.) It is now in its first reading by the Executive Committee. After this it will be distributed for comments to each district and other Karen organizations. The Constitution is designed to mesh with Burmas new federal constitution. (A Karen representative is on the Federal Constitution Drafting Committee.) Preparation of the Karen State constitution was made possible through a grant from Canadas National Reconciliation Program.
The KNU also has a Central Committee, with forty-five members, including thirty full members and fifteen candidate or probationary members. The Central Committee meets once a year, and is effectively the Parliament. All relevant issues are discussed at the meeting and where appropriate put to a vote.
Once every four years there is a KNU Congress, with a duration of at least three weeks, during which an election, including for the President and Vice-President, is held. All KNU district representatives are permitted to attend the Congress, to nominate candidates, and to vote in the election. Overall there are some 1,000 KNU officials and 60,000 KNU members. (The total includes KNLA soldiers, who are also accepted as members of the KNU.)
Karen National Liberation Army: The following is a summary only.
The Karen self-defense forces comprise the Karen National Liberation Army, the Karen National Defense Organization, and also Karen police, militia, and village guards. There are over ten thousand individuals under arms.
The KNLA has seven brigades and four headquarters battalions. Brigades are comprised of up to five battalions, each of which has four companies, each of which in turn has three platoons, with each platoon having three twelve-man sections. The KNLA also has intelligence, quartermaster, communications, medical, training and recruiting departments.
The KNLA is a member of the Five Party Military Alliance. Its other members are the Karenni National Progressive Party, the Arakhan Liberation Party, the Chin National Front, and the Shan State Army-South. The Alliance shares intelligence and engages in defense coordination.
The mission of the KNLA from its foundation through to the present day is solely as a self-defense force for the Karen people, since without such a defense force the Karen likely would be exterminated. The KNLA has no aspirations other than to guarantee the security of the Karen people.
Karen self-defense requirements include to counter SPDC aggression; to interdict narcotics; to provide village security; and to provide security for humanitarian relief missions. Regarding narcotics, KNU policy can be summarized as follows:
1. Kawthoolei, the Karen state, has always had a drug-free policy. It has successfully achieved this to-date.
2. We must now adapt to the increased threat presented by the drug production in Burma.
3. The KNLA has established special operations units to confront this threat.
4. The problem includes the manufacture, distribution and sale of amphetamines, opium, heroin, and other narcotics in and through Karen territory.
5. Anyone involved in these activities will be apprehended with all necessary force.
6. We would also like to work with other groups to develop a coordinated approach to this problem, and request any and all assistance from interested parties worldwide.
In practical terms we fight to keep drugs out of Karen State and to stop their trans-shipment into Thailand. In some cases we capture the drugs in Burma and then either destroy them or hand them over to the Thai authorities. In other cases we alert the Thais to incoming shipments and the Thais themselves make the arrests.
Unfortunately, and in summary, given our available resources the KNLA is unable to successfully mount a comprehensive Karen defense. We have inadequate personnel, supplies and arms. One reason for this is that territory losses over the years have reduced our ability to raise taxes (on legitimate trade) and hence finance defense requirements. Also, the present Thai government is opposed to a vigorous Karen defense against the SPDC, other than Karen efforts against narcotics, which the Thais generally support.
Other Karen organizations: There are many other Karen organizations, some with direct links to the KNU, that assist the Karen people. Inside Burma and in Thailand, these include:
- Committee Against Genocide of the Karen People
- Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People
- Karen Refugee Committee
- Karen Womens Organization
- Karen Youth Organization
- Federation of Trade Unions Kawthoolei
- Karen Office for Relief and Development (KORD)
- Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG)
- Karen Student Network Group (KSNG)
KHRG has a website and newsletter. Other publications include the Karen Information Centers monthly newsletter; Kwekalu, a Karen monthly newsletter for Mergui-Tavoy district; Thanu Htoo, the KNUs quarterly journal; and also periodic publications by the other committees and groups.
Overseas Karen groups include:
- Karen National League
- Karen Solidarity Organization
- Karen Action Group
- Aussie Karen Organization
- American Karen Agency
- Overseas Karen Organization
Lastly, the KNU participates in a number of multi-group alliances:
- National Democratic Front (NDF), of which the KNU President is Chairman. The NDF is a non-Burman ethnic alliance that was formed in 1976. Its members represent distinct peoples that have their own defined land areas and armies. Its goals include to create a democratic federation for Burma and more generally to achieve social progress. Formally the organization engaged in extensive military coordination; presently, its actions are more political in nature. The NDF has nine members, including representatives from the Karen, Chin, Arakhan and Mon peoples, and from other, smaller, ethnic nationalities.
- Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB), of which the KNU Vice-President is Chairman. The DAB was founded as a response to the massacres committed in major Burmese cities in 1988 by the SPDCs predecessor, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). It is a broader alliance than the NDF, including ethnic groups and also Burman and student groups, among them the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), and Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS). The DAB has some fifteen members, and a similar mission to that of the NDF.
- National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), of which the KNU Vice-President is Chairman. The NCUB was established in 1992 and includes representatives from the NDF, DAB, the National League for Democracy Liberated Areas, and the Members of Parliament Union. It is the broadest coalition in the Burma democracy movement. The KNU Foreign Affairs Department Head is also part of the NCUB operational team.
- Ethnic Nationalities Solidarity and Cooperation Committee (ENSCC), comprising the NDF, Karenni National Progressive Party, and the United Nationalities National League for Democracy, of which the KNU President is Chairman. The ENSCC was formed in 2002. Its goal is to facilitate a tripartite dialogue between the SPDC, the NLD, and the ethnic nationalities.
- Five Party Military Alliance