By David O’Hanlon
December 2006

This article is written in response to widely held views about the Karen people of Burma and the Karen National Union (KNU). They are views that are rarely explicitly spelt out but which are close to axiomatic in international NGO, diplomatic and academic circles, and as such have been implicit in much of the “international community’s” policies towards the KNU. They have been enormously influential in shaping the appallingly patronizing and muddled thinking which has characterized western dealings with the Karen, and greatly contributed to perpetuating their suffering. It is therefore high time that the implicit be made explicit: that the assumptions behind such notions be examined and the tacit “emperor’s new clothes” conventions sustaining them be set aside.

There has been a long train of academics, journalists and NGO workers who ever since the fall of Manerplaw have been predicting the imminent demise of the KNU, or lining up to “advise” them, and who have been engaged, with various degrees of subtlety, in persistent KNU bashing which masquerades as objectivity. They are wont to strike the pose of objective and even sympathetic observers of the Karen rather than the proponents of an agenda. The basic argument appears to be, “The KNU represent no-one but themselves” and “they’re beat and ought to quit.”

It is further argued that the SPDC is entrenched in power. It is worth remembering however that former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange once described the Indonesian occupation of East Timor as “irreversible.” Like other authoritarian regimes, despite an outward appearance of strength the SPDC is more like a brittle house of cards in an increasingly gusty international climate. Even the once formidable Tatmadaw, the SPDC’s only true power base, has been ground down to a half-starved and demoralized relic of its former self.

In contrast, as a guerrilla organization all the KNU really has to do is stay in the field and hang on like grim death. Success for the guerrilla is not measured in conventional terms but in the political and financial cost they impose upon the regime. Just because the struggle is asymmetrical does not mean that its eventual result is as neatly predetermined as some would have us believe.

It is not only the SPDC that has proved itself to be an enduring institution. Love it or hate it, the KNU is an organic part of Karen society and it isn’t going anywhere without the complete destruction of the Karen people, which is unfortunately exactly what the SPDC has in mind. Groups such as the KNU can be ground down but never eliminated. Ultimately, Clausewitz was right: the SPDC will not be able to find a purely military solution to what is in essence a political question. But as long as they continue to try the Karen will have to defend themselves, or resign themselves to destruction. In other words, the KNU will fight on because the SPDC flatly refuse the Karen people any other alternative. That is the harsh reality on the ground that all the articles, talk, and at times not so subtle diplomatic pressure in the world does not alter one jot.

It should also be pointed out that the KNU, far from being the intransigent militarists that they have been characterized as being, cannot reasonably be accused by anyone of not seeking a negotiated end to hostilities. Indeed, it has been the KNU’s determination to reach such an agreement that is largely to blame for the appalling situation they find themselves in today. To quote Nelson Mandela, “Ultimately, the terms of the struggle are determined by the oppressor.” Continued fighting in Karen State is clearly a direct result of a command decision by the SPDC.

One could say of the Karen what David Retief in his book “Slaughterhouse” said of the Bosnians; that they had the bad taste to be sincere about their freedom while the U.N. and the aid industry just wanted them to stop being awkward and submit. Much the same views are held by foreign critics of the KNU, who appear motivated by a heady mix of pacifism, self-interest and what can be described as “aidism.” This is the idea that what is truly required first and foremost in conflict zones is not security or even a political settlement but aid
This mindset characterizes foreign political conflicts as being intrinsically complex to the point of defying comprehension. It is indulged in by morally ambivalent and bankrupt actors. In this schemata the only credible, moral and intelligent response is aid and if this fails yet more aid. Aid assumes a prerogative that overrides all other considerations such as politics, which can only have merit to the degree that they facilitate the provision of aid and its attendant plethora of international NGO administration. The drafters of the agenda for the recent Wilton Park conference for example clearly presumed that the only subject worth discussing was how, not if, aid should be distributed in Burma.

Although the KNU can rightly be criticized for many things, much of the western dissatisfaction with them is due to their failure to share this worldview and instead hold to their own political agenda. For this reason cooperation with the KNU has always been viewed as tainted and alternative Karen leadership encouraged. The clearest articulation of this ideology to date was the report commissioned by the UNHCR in 2005, ostensibly on the subject of child soldiers, which proposed the aggressive “de-KNU-ization” of the refugee camps. However, it has really only been the KNU, despite its faults, which has been capable of generating leadership for the Karen.

Under General Bo Mya, the KNU suffered from disastrously defeatist, corrupt and incompetent leadership. The KNU’s religious intolerance in particular made them their own worst enemies. But this does not mean that the Karen as a whole do not benefit from the mere fact of the KNU’s existence, or would not benefit enormously from political unity. Neither does it mean that as effective as many community-based (and often religiously-led) Delta Karen organizations are, the KNU do not enjoy the sympathy of many in the wider Karen community. In contrast, the Karen cause only suffers by having a breakaway faction, to a man Bo Mya loyalists, turn against their people and side with the SPDC. In the face of the challenges the Karen face to their very survival as a people, it hardly behooves westerners to begrudge the KNU the right of reorganizing under solid leadership from Padoh Mahn Sha and refusing, what is clearly by any other name, surrender.

At this critical hour, when the Karen stand desperately in need, when the international campaign against the SPDC is ironically at its zenith, and when the moral imperative to halt the ethnic cleansing of the Dawna ranges could not be stronger, moral relativism and sanctimonious neutralism is inopportune. As a westerner I cannot speak for the Karen, but I am also unable to see how undermining the KNU however subtly helps their cause. In contrast, if we are sincere about physically stopping the slaughter of the Karen then the only effective means at hand is through the KNU.