“It’s all a blur now,” he said, lounging on a pile of straw at the headquarters of the Karen National Liberation Army surrounded by fellow Border Guard Force soldiers from a battalion based near Myawaddy.
It was the eve of Karen Revolution Day – commemorating the start of fighting in 1949 between Karen and government forces a year after Burma regained its independence – which was celebrated at a series of events along the Kayin State border with Thailand on January 31. Saw An Ya was among hundreds of soldiers who gathered to mark the event at the base known as Klo Yaw Lay, named after the sheer cliffs at its edge.
Despite his disabilities, Saw An Ya said he could still fire a gun. “I will be a soldier until I die.”
After nearly 30 years of fighting for different armed Karen groups, Saw An Ya’s past is etched on a gaunt, wrinkled face that gives him the appearance of a much older man. He joined the KNLA, the armed wing of the Karen National Union, at 17 in 1984. He left in 1994 when his brigade joined the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (since renamed the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army), which broke away from the KNU because of religious tensions within the predominantly Christian Karen National Liberation Army.
In 2010 Saw An Ya switched uniforms again when his battalion was absorbed by a Tatmadaw-led Border Guard Force.
Asked about the experience of changing armed groups, Saw An Ya showed little emotion. “I was not the one who made the order; if the general makes the order, then I obey,” he said, as another BGF soldier loudly suggested the interview be ended.
Divisions among Karen armed groups remain a sensitive subject, but the attendance of BGF troops at the 66th Karen Revolution Day celebration was symbolic of fledgling reunification.
The BGF, KNU, DKBA and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council, which was formed in 2007, made history on January 1, 2014 when soldiers from the former rival armed groups gathered unarmed to celebrate the New Year at Swhe Kokko Myine in Myawaddy Township.
It is unclear whether another faction founded in october, the Kawthoolei Armed Forces, comprised of representatives from four Karen groups including the Karen National Defence organisation, will lead to further splintering or act as an umbrella group.
“A few people are talking about it, and moving towards it. The details are unclear,” said KNU chief of staff General Saw Johnny. “And [its formation] depends on KNU policy.”
He was among the dignitaries who gave dawn speeches to the crowd of troops and civilians at Klo Yaw Lay after a packed evening of performances and feasting. Saw Johnny pledged he would take responsibility for unity among all Karen groups this year.
“Our demands to the [Myanmar] government will be stronger this way,” he said. “ We don’t need to kill each other, our revolution was not to kill each other,” he added, reiterating the need for unity.
KNU chairman Mutu Say Poe praised President U Thein Sein’s government for pushing for a national ceasefire since assuming office in 2011. A “strong ceasefire” would eventually lead to a “federal democracy,” Mutu Say Poe said.
“Our revolution is long, and it is not broken, but it did not work,” he told the crowd, many of whom came from the nearby Mae La refugee camp. “It is time to drop our arms, hold hands and work together.”
Fireworks detonated sporadically at the edge of the field muffled the speeches. As the sun rose the little sparks were barely visible against the dense jungle and seemed to symbolise a flickering revolution after decades of war.
Speakers shared cautious optimism about the negotiations for a national ceasefire, but had little to say about proposals from ethnic groups for a federal army combining their forces and the Tatmadaw.
KNU general secretary Padoh Kwe Htoo Win told Mizzima on the sidelines of the event that “reform in the security sector,” including the proposed Union army, would be discussed in the political dialogue to follow the signing of a truce.
Padoh Kwe Htoo Win said the national ceasefire was unlikely to be signed on Union Day, February 12, as had been proposed by President U Thein Sein.
On the fighting in Kachin and Shan states, Padoh Kwe Khtoo Win blamed a lack of clarity over territorial demarcations and historical distrust. “This has happened in Karen State also; the fighting is not intentional,” he said.
Asked about the participation of the KNU’s historically insurgent and isolated Brigade 5 in the ceasefire process, Padoh Kwe Htoo Win said its commander, General Saw Baw Kyaw Heh, was “cautious.”
“Up until now, we [KNU] still need an army,” he said. “But in accordance with KNU policy we are working on issues like improving basic education.”
“Don’t think about federalism yet,” said Saw Johnny. “The first step is the ceasefire; a federal Union is a long way away.”
“The push for federalism began in the Karen areas, and we have since hosted many [peace process] meetings,” he said, speaking from a podium decorated with white roses.
Interestingly, Saw Johnny also sought to shift a focus of media attention away from the 120,000 refugees living in camps along the Thai border, most of whom are Karen.
“People should open their eyes, there are millions of people in this border region, why don’t people talk about that?” he told journalists. “Refugees are not trying very hard in the camps – and refugees who ran away from their families to third countries are being treated poorly there.”
Saw Johnny issued a call to resettled Karen communities to return and contribute to the development of Kayin State.
“Foreign donors help, but they don’t know the situation well,” he added.
Saw Johnny was certainly preaching to the converted: hundreds of Karen, young and old, some serving in armed groups and all driven by the same, if weathered, Karen nationalism of their grandparents.
Saw Rainbow, 35, a KNLA soldier of two years, was among them. He is tall with curly hair that nearly covers his dark eyes.
Like his comrades in arms, who are dealing with the effects of civil war, Saw Rainbow exudes a solemnity beyond his years and his name could not be more unfitting.
Unlike many KNLA soldiers who attend short training camps before enlisting when they turn 18, Saw Rainbow completed secondary school in his small Yangon Region village. He worked there as a farm labourer for more than a decade before making the two-day trip to the mountainous jungle of the Thai-Myanmar border.
He was encouraged by friends from the same village who had also enlisted and by his grandfather, a former KNU soldier.
“It’s in my family,” he said, arms crossed as he leaned against a pick-up truck with an M-16 rifle slung on his back.
As a thick fog lifted on January 31 to reveal rows of troops in the early light, Mutu Say Poe expressed appreciation for the sacrifices they had made to serve the Karen cause.
“Some have left land, gold, businesses, to join the revolution,” he said. “Thank you .”
This Article first appeared in the February 5, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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