Karen People Call Out the National League for Democracy

January 16th, 2021  •  Author: Progressive Voice  •  10 minute read
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“Karen people have endured the effects of civil war for nearly 80 years since the time of Myanmar’s independence. Karen people don’t want these armed conflicts anymore, so we are going to take a step-by-step approach to resolve the issue.”

Saw Kyaw Linn Oo, Karen Youth Network

For people in Karen State, 2021 has started with a call to action for sake of peace and security through a series of peaceful protests calling for the demilitarization and an end to human rights abuses against civilians. On 6 January, 2021, thousands of peaceful Karen protesters from 30 villages marched to end the increased presence of the Myanmar[1] military in their State and end the suffering inflicted by the Myanmar military on civilians. This follows a mass protest of an estimated 10,000 people in Hpapun (Mutraw) District in northern Karen State on 30 December, 2020. These protesters bravely called out the human rights abuses that have occurred as a result of the Myanmar military’s project to widen the road in the area and other investments made in its attempts to further expand militarization in Karen State. Protesters also demanded the Myanmar military end drone patrols over villages, to end indiscriminate shelling and artillery fire against civilians, and withdraw completely from Karen State. To bring these demands to fruition they propose a political solution, involving the Karen National Union (KNU), the Myanmar government, Myanmar military, the UN and the international community.

These protests come after a number of clashes between the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the KNU, and the Myanmar military in Hpapun (Mutraw) District of KNU controlled area, causing more than 3,000 villagers to flee their homes and become displaced in early December 2020. Tensions in Karen State have been running high in recent weeks and is putting the deeply flawed and already fragile Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) at further risk, with the Myanmar military violating the terms of the NCA. There have been at least four rounds of clashes between 28 December 2020 to 11 January 2021, with the most recent occurring between the Karen National Defense Organization (under KNU control) and the Myanmar military on 11 January causing nearly 600 villagers to flee Khah Der Village Tract in Nyaunglebin District. The increased presence of the Myanmar military personnel near Thaton District of KNU controlled territory has caused villagers to be fearful and seek safety elsewhere. Karen people have suffered for decades due to never-ending civil war, with the brutality of the Myanmar military remaining etched in the collective memories of the Karen people – being forced to flee and becoming internally displaced or fleeing to refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border or resettled to third countries. At present, there remains approximately 90,000 refugees along the Thailand-Myanmar border who have been unable to return due to the ongoing conflict, lack of security, decreased livelihood opportunities, and Myanmar military’s further militarization, among other challenges. This persecution of Karen people, and other ethnic communities, by the Myanmar military continues to be met with impunity and lack of accountability, which has been so far neglected by the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led civilian government.

In a recent statement, the Karen Youth Network (KYN) expressed immense frustration at the backsliding peace process and placed the blame squarely with the NLD-led government for allowing this to occur. Saw Kyaw Linn Oo, a member of the KYN said in an interview with Radio Free Asia, that “Karen people have endured the effects of civil war for nearly 80 years since the time of Myanmar’s independence. Karen people don’t want these armed conflicts anymore, so we are going to take a step-by-step approach to resolve the issue.” The Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) also echoed the calls of the protesters and added, “The Burma Army has shown time and time again that it has no concern for Karen civilians along with so many others across this country. It is time for the international community to accept that the Burma Army cannot act within international human rights standards and act to end this abuse.”

It seems the NLD government wished to start the new year with renewed energy and quell scepticism towards the failing peace process by unveiling its “New Peace Architecture” plan, starting with immediate pledge in an open letter to 48 ethnic parties to work in cooperation through a “National Unity Government” as it forms a new government in March 2021, after it’s comprehensive victory at the 8 November 2020 elections. Yet, many of their actions have left ethnic communities unconvinced and disillusioned – yet again. A meeting between the Mon Union Party (MUP) and the NLD to discuss cooperation between the parties was cancelled after the NLD ignored a request for a change of venue by the MUP from the NLD party office in Mon State to a neutral location, as a sign of mutual respect and equal footing in negotiations. In addition to this, some ethnic parties were excluded from the offer of cooperation within the open letter (such as the Kayan State Democratic Party and Lisu National Development Party) and infighting has arisen within ethnic parties over who represents the best interest of ethnic peoples (such as the Kachin State People’s Party). In addition to these missteps towards reconciliation and cooperation, the government fails to recognize and respect ethnic people’s histories and experiences and continues in implementation of its burmanization policies. On 3 January,  government authorities pressured local leaders to remove a bronze statue of Karen national leader and father of the Karen revolution Saw Ba U Gyi in Kangyidaunt Township in Ayeyawady Region. In a statement, the Karen Human Rights Group says this act forms part of a wider pattern of suppressing Karen history, while simultaneously forcefully imposing Burmese culture and history in ethnic areas. There is no doubt that these recent Myanmar military’s advancements and fighting in Karen State places in further jeopardy the NLD’s pledge to work in cooperation with ethnic nationalities.

While the NLD government has indicated it wishes to work with ethnic people in forming the new government, the actions of the Myanmar military and the NLD government’s silence over the military’s actions shows a lack of political will by the two key power houses in Myanmar to recognize and give ethnic communities an equal seat at the table, thereby moving Myanmar towards achieving peace and national reconciliation that is inclusive and sustainable. Firstly, as the protesters demanded, there needs to be an end to conflict and thus the withdrawal of the Myanmar military from Karen State and an end to expanded military occupation near or in the KNU territories, as an essential precondition. These aggressive acts by the Myanmar military continue to undermine their own pronouncements of cooperation with ethnic peoples and show their unwillingness to recognize the self-determination, equality and respect for ethnic people’s heritage, history and culture. Secondly, real democracy and peace cannot be brokered until there is an unconditional nationwide ceasefire and an end to human rights abuses through durable political solutions.

Lastly, the international community and the UN must put pressure on the Myanmar government and the Myanmar military to achieve such national political accord. Additionally, the international community must continue to pursue international criminal accountability to ensure justice for victims and survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and break all economic ties to enterprises that fund the Myanmar military’s operations. As the KYN and KWO have rightly put, the international community has the ability to support ethnic people and end human rights abuses. Through concerted efforts by the international community to not simply support, but to exercise their international obligation, ethnic communities in Myanmar will be able to effectively work for the peace of their communities and for Myanmar as a whole.

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[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.


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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”

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