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The Karenni Speak Out, from Burma D
- Subject: The Karenni Speak Out, from Burma D
- From: brelief@xxxxxxx
- Date: Tue, 04 Feb 1997 03:00:00
Subject: The Karenni Speak Out, from Burma Debate, Nov/Dec 1996
The Karenni Speak Out
Interview with Abel Tweed and Teddy Buri
By Chrissie Gittens in Thailand for Burma Debate
Despite a cease-fire agreement that was reached between the Karenni National
Progressive Party (KNPP) and the State Law and Order Restoration Council
(SLORC) in March 1995, armed conflict in Karenni State continues. Tens of
thousands of villagers have been displaced, forced to either flee across the
border to Thailand or to enter SLORC-designated "relocation sites."
Abel Tween, Foreign Minister for the KNPP and Teddy Buri, the former
Permanent Secretary to the KNPP Foreign Minister and current Bangkok
representative for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma,
talk about the Karenni experience.
CHRISSIE GITTENS There have been relocations of 96 villages in the Sha Daw
area of Karenni State. Why did people not want to move from their villages?
ABEL T WEED The Karenni villagers don't want to go to the relocation site
as SLORC was forcing them to do because the site is really like a
concentration camp, and once the villagers arrive it is very, very difficult
for them to go out. At the relocation site people don't have enough shelter,
they don't have enough food and they don't have medicine. People are sick
and starving and some die. That's the experience of the people, so the
villagers don't want to go.
TEDDY BURI You know, Karennis are... how shall I put it... they are very,
very attached to their land, their homes. As a matter of fact a lot of these
villages have been in existence for decades. Some have been there for over a
hundred years. As a result, people find it really very hard to move from
their places, from their ancestral land.
CG I understand that some people were allowed to go back to their villages
from the relocation site to get more supplies and that from there they
escaped to Thailand. Is this true?
AT Of course this is true. Because SLORC cannot provide food, shelter... so
they allow some of the people, the villagers to go back to their old
villages... and to collect some food... something like that. But instead
they just flee to the border, the Thai border.
TB It's not that SLORC is generous, you know, by allowing these people to
escape. The reason they allow it is that they don't have enough food at the
relocation site. As a matter of fact, they are not provided with food. The
food that the villagers do have is actually provided by the Roman Catholic
church. Some of it the people have brought from their villages. But
food is so scarce, medical care is non-existent, so there's no alternative,
you know, but for SLORC to allow them to go back to their villages to
CG Do you think it is possible for the Karenni to maintain their national
identity in the relocation centers and in the refugee camps?
AT Of course, for our Karenni people it is their duty to maintain their
identity and culture, but when they arrive in the relocation camps they have
no chance to practice it. For example, every three or four months we have
traditional festivals but they cannot practice them in the camp. This was
strictly stated in the treaty provided by the SLORC.
CG You gained independence from Britain in 1948. Would you say that since
independence that things have got much worse for the Karenni?
AT Only before 1940 did the Karenni people enjoy freedom. They lived
peacefully. After the British left Burma, in 1948, the Burmese tried to
organize the Karenni leaders and people to join the Union of Burma. The
Karenni refused. Then the Burmans had to send the troops into Karenni
land... fighting against the Karenni people. Since 1948, up to now, we have
tried to survive. So the war started in 1940 and continues today.
TB When you talk about gaining independence from Britain in 1948, you
really talk about the Burmans. If you refer to the Karenni, the Karenni
actually have always been free, the Karenni always were independent, or at
least semi-independent. So you know, with independence the Karenni were
actually invaded by the Burmese troops and because of that the situation for
Karenni has gotten worse and worse. Now we have so many Burmese troops, with
actually more than 27 battalion troops stationed in Karenni State, the
situation is getting a lot worse. Karenni identity has eroded.
The culture, the languages, their land has been encroached upon. You have
robbery, you have rapes, you have forced relocation. We have religious
discrimination, educational discrimination, everything... you name it. So to
put in a nutshell, ever since Burma gained independence the situation for
the Karenni people has gone from bad to worse.
CG And how has this generally affected the Karenni people?
AT It has really affected the Karenni people because we have not had the
chance to enjoy peace. There's no stability and there's no development
either culturally or economically. We lost this chance. People are living in
miserable conditions. People are sick, starving and dying and their property
has been destroyed.
CG You've been fighting for five decades now and the ethnic minorities have
paid a very high price. Are you war-weary?
TB Well, in a way we are war-weary. That's why we entered into a
cease-fire, you know. It doesn't matter that we have decided to give up
arms. It's because, as you mentioned, our people have paid a very, very,
high price. There have been hundreds killed, thousands disabled. The
national loss in terms of money has been so high. And because of this war,
Karenni state has never been developed. We think that it is time to have
peace, to develop our people, to develop our land. That's why we entered
into a cease-fire, but unfortunately, the cease-fire did not produce the
results that we expected.
CG When did the Karenni first begin to think about a cease-fire agreement?
TB It actually took almost two years to reach a cease-fire between the
Karenni leadership and the SLORC. Representatives had to meet several times
before they could reach an agreement. So even though that cease-fire came
into existence in March 1995, talks began in 1992.
CG Why did you feel a cease-fire with SLORC was necessary?
AT We've been fighting against the Burmese since 1940, that is about five
decades. We're really fed up with the war and we want peace, and if
possible, we want to solve the problem in a peaceful way. So SLORC offered
to try a cease-fire, we agreed and then we gave some conditions to the
SLORC. They supposedly were willing to agree to the conditions. So, we
thought it is maybe a good chance for us, for our people if we can stop the
war. Maybe our people can get a chance to live better economically and
peacefully. This is the reason that we want a cease-fire. We thought SLORC
would be honest enough to keep the promises, but in reality, SLORC didn't
keep the promises. They say one thing and are doing another. So that's why
our cease-fire agreement lasted only three months. It was violated by the
TB The Karenni people took up arms not because they love war or not because
they don't want to live in peace. They took up arms to defend their national
identity, to defend sovereignty. But you know, the war has been going on for
about five decades and nobody has emerged a winner, neither the Burmans nor
the Karenni have won. After so many years of fighting and thousands of lives
lost on both sides, the Karenni believe that there's only one way to solve
the problem, and that is through political dialogue. And political dialogue
can be achieved the Karenni leadership believes, only through a cease-fire.
So after the cease-fire, the Karenni leadership believed that political
dialogue would follow and that it would have to be initiated by SLORC. That
was why the Karenni leadership chose to enter into cease fire with SLORC.
CG In what way was the cease-fire violated?
AT You know, before we reached this final agreement we gave about sixty
conditions to the SLORC. For example, we requested SLORC not to collect any
porter fees from the civilians, or force civilians to be porters. Other
conditions were that SLORC troops would not be sent into the Karenni-
control areas and that civilians would be allowed to carry out their
business and economy.... SLORC said they agreed with these kinds of points,
and after that we reached a final agreement. About three months later SLORC
started to collect more porter fees from the civilians and they rounded up
more people, thousands of people to be porters. They sent troops into the
Karenni-control area. So it means SLORC violated the points. That's why the
war started again.
TB The Karenni Progressive Party wanted a solution between the Karenni and
the Burmans. And after the cease-fire, of course, the Karenni would like to
believe that the SLORC would keep its promises, or rather abide by the
cease-fire agreements. But unfortunately, SLORC did not abide by the
cease-fire, let alone enter into a political dialogue... In spite of all the
protests from the Karenni leadership, SLORC continued to violate the
cease-fire and the Karenni had no alternative but to declare the cease-fire
null and void, and took up arms to resume fighting. That was in June 1996
and fighting has been going on ever since.
CG If someone's asked to be a porter, what are they being asked to do?
AT SLORC uses the porters for transportation. They used the porters to
carry ammunition. They force them to carry some of the wounded soldiers.
They use the porters to do those sorts of things.
CG The National League for Democracy (NLD) promotes nonviolence. Can you be
nonviolent against SLORC? Is that possible?
AT Nonviolence in Burma, it doesn't work. For our Karenni it is impossible.
We cannot use it because SLORC is the military, they have the arms, the
weapons. What has happened to those in Burma who use nonviolence? For
example, they held demonstrations in Rangoon... more than three times, and
whenever the opposition uses the nonviolent demonstrations, asks for
change... SLORC just kills them by the gun. We don't believe we can use
nonviolence against the SLORC. We have to use our arms and weapons against
the SLORC. If we speak about nonviolence, it has no meaning to SLORC.
TB The situation is different between the NLD and the Karenni. The NLD is a
Burman-dominated party and Burma is predominately Burman. The NLD has very,
very solid support from the Burmese population. So you can say it is
possible for the NLD to engage in nonviolent confrontation. And another
thing is, the NLD has no alternative but to engage nonviolently because
within the country you simply can't take up arms. It is very hard to acquire
arms. Another thing is that the NLD is a well-known party. It is recognized
as an opposition party all over the world and hence can afford to engage in
nonviolent confrontation against SLORC. On the other hand the Karennis are a
small nation. We can't simply withstand the Burmese invasion in a nonviolent
way. As a matter of fact, SLORC really knows no other language than the gun
and that's why Karenni had to take up arms. In 1988, when SLORC came to
power there were only two Burmese battalions in Karenni state, but now we
have more than twenty-seven battalions. SLORC is using force to subjugate
the Karenni people, armed troops to neutralize the Karenni opposition. So
the Karenni will have to take up arms to defend themselves.
CG How do you feel about the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi?
AT Aung San Suu Kyi... We really honor Aung San Suu Kyi for her
sacrifice... her life and her fight for democracy. We support it. We support
her, but we are not really clear about Aung San Suu Kyi's policy. She
doesn't specify clearly about the ethnic people -- specifically about the
Karenni. So even if Aung San Suu Kyi is really sympathetic to the
nationalities, it may be difficult for her to persuade all Burmese society,
the Burmese people, to follow her policy, to recognize the right of the
TB Well, the NLD has always made it plain, even in the 1990 election when
it put out its manifesto -- that the ethnic nationalities have the right to
enjoy autonomy. In other words, the NLD has been preaching autonomy for the
ethnic nationalities. You know, it has been preaching equality, equal rights
and so on. So I think as far as ethnic issues are concerned, the NLD
leadership has made it plain, that once there is peace, the NLD will have a
national convention -- the one like Aung San had back in 1947 in Panglong,
where they had the Panglong agreement. The NLD has always recognized the
need to iron out ethnic issues and then build a real federal nation.
Although the NLD has never used the word "federal," we think that they are
really for a federal state.
CG What is the chance of the Karenni being reconciled with Burma and of
being treated equally?
AT Historically, we are not a part of Burma and our policy is to maintain
our independence. We want all Burmese to recognize that the Karenni are
supposed to be a nation... as the Karenni recognize Burma as a nation. So we
are equal status. This is for the Karenni. But for other ethnic
nationalities who joined the Union of Burma like the Kachin, Karen, Mon,
Arakan, you have to be treated equal with people in the Union of Burma,
according to the constitution, according to the law. But you know, most of
the Burmese people, they thought they were more of a superior class of
people. They are the rulers and they don't want to recognize the rights of
other people. And this is still the problem. That's why since Burma gained
independence, up to now, the others try to ask for their rights.
TB Well, I think there's a good chance of being reconciled with Burma
because although SLORC is militarily very strong, it has pressure not only
from within, but also from outside. So with adequate pressure from within
and without, in spite of its large armed forces, SLORC will have to wake up
to reality and engage in peace talks with the opposition. When you talk
about opposition, we have two main groups -- one is dominated by the Burmans
and is led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD; the other group is a
composition of the ethnic nationalities who have armed forces. Reconciling
with only one will mean having the Burmese problem just half-solved. The
SLORC will have to talk to all parties. In other words, there's got to be a
tripartite dialogue; meaning the SLORC, the Burmese opposition groups led by
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic nationalities made up of both armed and
non-armed groups. So we think after the peace talks, after the political
dialogue, there will be room for national reconciliation and then there'll
be room for democracy. And under democracy we believe all the ethnic groups
will have equality, will have autonomy. All the ethnic nationalities, no
matter how small or big, will have self-determination. And with that, it
will be possible for the Karenni to reconcile with the Burmese, how shall I
put it, with Burma.
CG What are the aspirations of the Karenni people?
TB The Karenni are a peace-loving people. They are a freedom-loving people.
So that is why they have taken up arms to fight and to defend their freedom.
The Karenni have always declared themselves free from Burma because when
Burma and India were under the British, and when most of Indochina was under
the French, Karenni State was free. Or rather, it was at least semi-free.
The Karenni believe that it is worth fighting for freedom. On the other
hand, in the Karenni manifesto, the political manifesto, it is made very
clear that the Karenni are willing to be a part of Burma, if Burma were to
be a genuine federal system. But then it will have to be sure that there is
equality, there is autonomy, there is self-determination, or the Karenni
will go on fighting, go on defending themselves no matter what the odds are.
CG Can you see yourself living in peace again under SLORC or under a
Burman-dominated civilian government?
AT If the SLORC gives us the power, if they'll turn over political power to
a civilian government, if they allow more of the people and the political
parties to participate in a democratic system in Burma it will be peaceful
again in Burma. But for other ethnic nationalities they really have to
decide on the system to be sure that it is a system that guarantees the
rights of their people.
CG Is there anything else that you want to say?
AT Yes. For us, we want the international community to realize that the
biggest problem in Burma is the relationship between the Burmese society and
the ethnic nationalities. Now people don't really know the whole situation.
They generally know only the opposition -- specifically the NLD, and the
SLORC. For me and for the Karenni and other ethnic nationalities, we want
the international community to put more emphasis on the relationship between
Burmese society and ethnic nationalities. We want to find a way to establish
equality between the Burmese society and ethnic nationalities. Now when
people mention reconciliation it means only for the Burmese group. It
excludes all other ethnic nationalities. If there is national reconciliation
only between the Burmese like the NLD and SLORC, the problem is not
finished. The problem between Burmese society and the other ethnics will
continue, will lead to more fighting. We don't know for how long. So we want
for the world to understand the larger problem and to look for solutions to
that as well.