The following is an extract from Secret Genocide by Daniel Pedersen, which will be published in December this year.
In 1949, the Karen people first declared to the world that they would defend themselves and their cultural identity. Since then, man has walked on the moon, television, Internet and satellite technologies have become part of everyday life, and Burma’s neigbours have taken their place on the world’s economic stage. And still, the Karen have not found their peace. Some would say the modern world has bypassed the Karen people, while others speculate they have become entrapped by it, cast as pawns while the rest of the world establishes new economic and political hierarchies.
In little bamboo huts hidden in the jungle, their barefoot children are taught their language, rudimentary mathematics, and history as the Karen know it. There is no Internet. There are mostly no telephones. Often, there are no books. Sometimes, backpacking medics turn up out of the blue and tend to festering bullet wounds and chronic ailments, reminding the Karen that they have not been completely forgotten about. At other times, however, Burmese troops or their allied soldiers turn up and burn down the Karen’s schools and churches, before turning their torches on their bamboo homes. Generally, the Karen have fled by the time the enemy arrives, and while their villages are being reduced to scorched earth and ash, they are already searching for a new place to live – preferably somewhere with a water supply and stands of bamboo from which they can carve a new settlement. But every now and then, the people give up, unable to take the constant threat of violence against their communities anymore, and make for the Thai border, where they become lost in the refugee camps a few kilometres beyond the frontier.
In the camps, they find a form of compromised peace, but freedom remains an elusive dream. They witness the freedoms enjoyed by their neighbours from behind bamboo fences and barbed wire. Through the slats, they see a country thriving, with flashy cars driving back and forth past their camps. They also see the soldiers, the one constant in their lives, penning them in and taking advantage of their plight. The Karen refugees are entirely dispossessed. They are not permitted to leave the camps, and they are not allowed to work because they don’t have the proper permits. Yet they must somehow be fed and, in many instances, they are sent on to a third country where they have to learn to make their own way, far removed from their customs and culture, their friends and family.
It was immediately after Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948 that this period of persecution against the Karen began, and it has now spanned more than sixty years. In the post-WWII period, Great Britain’s decolonisation programme sped forward, constantly gaining momentum. The British were determined to pull out of the colonies, and when it came to Burma, the decolonisation process had reached breakneck speed. There was virtually no period of winding down; the British simply up and left. When Burma was granted its independence, a relatively minor Burman (Burma’s predominant ethnic group) general, General Ne Win, was appointed vice chief of staff of the armed forces, or Tatmadaw. Ne Win was not a particularly prominent general, and there were others who could have been appointed just as easily. His appointment was a happenstance of history, and no one at the time could have predicted what he would become. The following year, in 1949, he was appointed Chief of Staff of the armed forces, replacing General Smith Dun, an ethnic Karen. Ne Win now had total control of the army, and by 1962, he had consolidated enough power to seize control of the entire country by armed force.
At the time of independence, David Tharckabaw was a mere boy of 13 years. David is Karen and was educated in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city and the country’s most important commercial centre. He is now, at the age of 73, the Karen National Union’s (KNU – the political organisation representing Karen interests) vice president. He likes a drink, smokes heavily, and speaks slowly and with great reserve, thinking carefully before answering any question. His election to his current position occurred in 2008, and he takes his role as vice president very seriously indeed. Some call him hard-line, while others say he is simply pragmatic, and a chorus within the Karen movement claim he lacks the charisma required of a leader of stature. But after several recent high-level defections from the KNU to Burma’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the ruling military junta controlling Burma (sometimes referred to simply as ‘the generals’), David Tharckabaw was the man people turned to in their hour of need. He had been elected on the belief that he was morally sound, and the people now trusted him not to backflip on his policies in the face of enormous pressure and corruption from the junta, who routinely use bribery to get what they want.
I first met David through a mutual acquaintance, just days after he was elected. He came to my restaurant in Mae Sot for dinner, with the express purpose of being interviewed for this book. He and I have since become good friends. Over a post-dinner coffee, David relaxed a little, and as tired staff cleared our table of Burmese curries, we retreated from the banter of the other KNU executive council members and their supporters.
‘Very few people know that this war was started by the Burmese regime [now] in power, only a few know,’ he said quietly, as he laid down the fundamentals of my education, as he saw it. ‘Because, according to the propaganda of the ruling class, it was the Karen armed resistance [that declared war], and actually that is not true. It was started by Ne Win, who was vice chief of staff of the armed forces after independence, and he used his pocket army troops to attack Karen quarters in Maubin, right in Rangoon. There were also attacks in Insein and Moulmein. Well, when it got to Insein of course, the Karen could no longer just sit,’ he said.
Insein was at that time the headquarters of the Karen National Union, the political body representing Karen interests in the newly-independent Burma.
‘And that is how the Karen resistance against successive regimes started, and now we have had the 60th anniversary of the Karen resistance,’ he continued. ‘We sometimes call it the “Karen Revolution”.’
David told me that the four principles laid down by Saw Ba U Gyi, the first leader of the Karen Revolution, still form the basis of their revolution: ‘Those principles are non-negotiable, we will always maintain and uphold that principle,’ he said, matter-of-factly, and that is why the people have placed their faith in David Tharckabaw. According to him, ‘Ever since the military came to power in 1962, the ultimate goal of the military establishment has been to set up the fourth Burman empire.’ He went on to say that ‘…in this day and age, only fascists would think of setting up an empire in a multi-ethnic state like Burma, because the non-Burman ethnic peoples will never accept it.’