Karen National Identity in the early 20th Century -The Daw K’lu: The Karen National Association

(The following is an early chapter from my forthcoming book ‘A Just Country – The Karen of Burma: Nationalism and Conflict)

Not all Karen were eager to accept British colonialism and a relatively small number of sporadic uprisings continued throughout the late 18th century. For the most part, however, Karen leaders found themselves trying to forge a single, pan-Karen identity. The Karen National Association and its Christian supporters ensured that the Karen were no longer to be classed as inferiors. The development of the Karen often came at the expense of the Burmans who, although the British had allowed them to remain in administrative and law enforcement positions, were still resentful of the education that the Karen were given and the positions they were now able to hold.

The British had totally dismantled the Burmese court’s control and instead introduced a British India based form of administration. The British government’s principles were clearly defined – ‘economic freedom, equality before the law, and the general welfare of the governed.’ [1]  They had clearly delineated the country into two main areas – the plains or ministerial Burma, and the hills, or frontier areas, with local headman being appointed to positions of power for each of the 17-18,000 tracts. In Karenni and Shan areas, the British were happy to leave the administration in the hands of local rulers and chiefs. Nevertheless, the British implementation of their policies totally neglected the many different minorities that made up the country. For the British, the main concern was general integration and belief that eventually all races would be amalgamated into one Burmese population, a move that many thought, those missionaries working with the Karen especially, would only aggravate ethnic tensions and lead to further communal violence.

Donald Mackenzie-Smeaton of the Bengal Civil Service, one of the administrators and the main proponent pushing for Karen independence, writing in 1886, highlights the mistakes that he thought the British were making as far as colonial policy was concerned:


‘Just as the Burmese make their great gongs of a mixture of all sorts of metals, fine and base, so we manufacture civilizations in the East. We melt down all the subject-races into one huge mass, and then cast them ruthlessly in our western mould. But the parallel ends here; for the Burmese gong has a true ring in it, whereas the product of our wholesale civilization has not.’ [2]

Smeaton was arguing from the same viewpoint as his regular correspondent, Reverend Vinton, and he believed that the British should favour the Karen and give them the chance ‘if only as a political experiment… a chance of growing as a nation in their own way. (my italics)’

The Karen National Association and newspapers like the ‘Morning Star’ were useful tools in shaping all the Karen, Christians and non-Christians alike, into one nationality, with, obviously, the better educated Christian Karen as the leaders of a new pan-Karen race. More than thirty years prior to the call for independence from Karen statesman San C. Po, Smeaton, writing in 1886, noted that the KNA was seeking a Karen land in those areas where the Karen were a majority. These areas would be administered by the Karen themselves and such an opportunity would mould all Karen into one:


‘Such an association is needed:

To utilize the clannishness of the race by having a common platform for heathen and Christian Karen, and thereby keep the nation together.

To enable the Karen to help themselves and one another in case of oppression and wrong in purely secular affairs, and thus free our missionaries in a large measure from the charge of “interference” with officers of Government-deferring to the guidance and counsel of our missionaries in all points compatible with their labours for us.

To help young men of ability through scholarships to study in Burma, India or England for the liberal professions, and to further the schemes of Government in the education of the race.

The Karen being largely an agricultural class, the time will come when this combination would be useful for the promotion of agriculture, inasmuch as the Karen, if he so desires to be a landholder, under government, must improve the land…’ [3]

The unnamed Karen leader quoted also aired his concerns how a number of ordinary, as in non-converted, Karen could be easily ‘led astray by seers and prophets and who imagines that there is in store for him an inheritance in Tau-Mai-Pa’s [sic] land flowing with milk and honey.’

It was stressed that it was his, and the KNA’s, wish to change the situation through education and thus prevent a belief on the part of ordinary Karen in the coming of a Min Laung or leader who would unite the Karen under one ruler and give them, or lead them, to a country of their own. Smeaton interprets the opinions given to him by the Karen leader within the terms of a spiritual manifesto on behalf of the Karen, and in turn the KNA, leadership. For Smeaton, it was simple:

‘The educated and Christian section of the [Karen] people wish to bind themselves closer than ever to their illiterate and heathen tribesmen, in order to raise the nation as a whole.’ And therefore the British Government must, ‘Recognize once for all the fact that the Karen are a separate nation, distinct from the Burmese in origin, manners, religion and traditions.’

It is interesting to note the contradictory opinion of one of the colonial administrators who worked in Burma from 1900-1921. For John Syndham Furnival, writing after the Karen rebellion in 1948, the loyalty of the Karen was a missionary induced myth used to further increase tensions between the two races. According to Furnival:

‘…for many years, Karen from the hills were regarded as chiefly responsible for crime in Burma, while the proportion of the population in jail was lowest among the Burman Buddhists. It was largely because the Karen gave so much trouble that attempts were made to recruit a Karen Military Police although with little success since the Karen were readier to desert than enlist. Again in 1886 during the disturbances accompanying the annexation of Upper Burma, Thaton, the only district in which Karen possessed a numerical majority, was the only one which the civil authorities were forced to evacuate. Meanwhile American Baptist Missionaries had been transforming the delta Karen into prosperous cultivators who, however, despite their prosperity, were still troubled with an inferiority complex in regard the Burmese.’[4]

While it is more than likely that the numbers of Karen in jail were higher, this is more probably due to the fact that the Burman administered courts were totally prejudiced against Karen who often fell victim to the Burmese themselves. The Karen Military Police was chiefly set up to prevent the ongoing incursions by Karenni tribes in the hills, and as earlier noted, there was some reluctance in Karen joining the forces, mainly due to them being uneducated and unwilling to take orders from their superiors. Even as late as 1899, Karen Military Police units were still facing problems. In Monywa a number of English police officers were injured [5]  after a mutiny which resulted in the KMP unit being disbanded due to an ‘…unfortunate affair in which liquor played a prominent part.’ [6] However, other units continued into the twentieth century.

There is very little doubt that the missionaries were responsible for elevating at least some Karen in status. They achieved this by instilling in their new converts a sense of inferiority and the need to better the Burmans. It was this that most probably led to further tensions between the two races.

The British themselves, who had later disarmed many of the Karen after most of the insurrection had been calmed, were largely to blame for further exacerbating the rift between the two sides by favouring the Burmese in the roles of administration, education, policing and the judiciary. The Karen language, although taught in missionary schools, was completely ignored by government schools where the language of instruction was Burmese. Similarly, the language of the courts, regardless of which areas they were in, was also in Burmese. Government officials spoke only Burmese and often the Karen found themselves at a disadvantage, not just through racial animosity per se, but due to the lack of communication fostered by a government policy that was insistent on creating one race in Burma at the cost of the others.

The Karen found themselves between two distinct sides. Although the pro-Karen independence movement of the Christian dominated Karen National Association was attempting to unite all Karen through education, agricultural dependence and ultimately religious conversion, the British were adamant in ensuring that all races in the country be joined as one, regardless of the consequences. This policy divided the people, especially when it came to administrative positions many of which were given to the Burmans, and within the military, where many of the ethnic minorities, especially the Karen, were favoured.

Pwo Karen identity

While establishing a singular Karen identity became extremely important to the Christian taught Karen many of the Buddhist Pwo Karen, especially those in the Irrawaddy delta and along the border with Siam who had been educated in Buddhist monasteries, seemed to have given little thought to the concept. Despite the fact that many Karen had found themselves enslaved by the Mons, Burmans and Siamese throughout their history, by the 1800’s the Pwo Karen were studying in Buddhist monasteries being taught largely by the Mon in Siam and towards the mid-18PthP century also by the Burmans in their own country.

Although the Karen had not been able to join the monkhood in Burma itself until the rule of King Mindon (1853-71), they had been able to cross into Siam much earlier where a large number of Mon had fled after the numerous battles with the Burman Kings. Mahn Thaung Hlya became the first Karen to be ordained in the monkhood in 1834 [7]   and some Pwo, unlike many of the Sgaw, were able to, perhaps imperfectly, speak, read and write Burmese and Mon. [8]

While the Karen in Burma were still generally regarded as inferiors amongst the Burman population, they were much better treated in Siam where, according to Vinton who visited the border areas around Tavoy in 1832, they were:

‘…in a higher state of civilization in that country [Siam] than in this [Burma] there they live in large villages as Boodhists [sic], and have monasteries…with Karen priests, where the Taliang language is taught.’ [9]

By 1861 at least one Buddhist Karen Monk, a Pa-oh, had adapted the Burman-Mon script so that they could easily translate Buddhist scripture into their own language, Plone. While the education the Pwo had been given may have been seen to be incomparable to that of Baptist teachings, the Pwo Karen, through Buddhist education were more able to easily assimilate within the Burmese community as a whole. Buddhism was seen not so much as a religion but as an identity. This was confirmed when later census of the population was taken by the British and resulted in many Pwo Karen being classed as Burman, or Burmese, because they were Buddhist. Although it has been suggested, especially by Karen nationalists, that this was due to the fact that either the authorities wanted to downplay the numbers of the Karen, or that their methodology was flawed.

For the Pwo Karen, it would seem that identity itself did not seem to be a major concern in their development; they were more than able to exist simultaneously with other races who shared the same beliefs. Although they were, as were the other races, subjugated by the Burmans as a whole, it would seem that race as an ethnic agenda did not appear until the conversion of the Sgaw in the early 1800’s. How clearly the Pwo Karen needed to form their own identity is unclear. The Pwo most likely identified themselves more with the Buddhist Mons or Burmans.


Strengthening a Pan-Karen Society


By the early 1900’s the Sgaw Karen were able to build a well-organised network through the various churches and educational institutions provided by the missionaries. Christian newspapers, often missionary produced, served the Karen population with at least seven or eight newspapers being circulated throughout the community including the Karen language bi-weekly, Daw K’lu (Karen National News) the journal of the Karen National Association. All the newspapers rallied the Karen around a single cause – that of joining all Karen races into one identity.

Despite this, attempts by the KNA to appeal to non-Christian Karen were largely unsuccessful and there continued to be a heavy emphasis on Christianity being the only way forward within a Karen society divided by a class system designating Christians as those in positions of authority. This educated upper class was to give rise to a number of new leaders who would continue the struggle for an independent Karen country. Two of these leaders would take over the reins of the KNA and request that the British Government consider the need for a Karenland.

Perhaps one of the most famous Karen statesmen, San Po, later to be Dr San C Po, [10] was born in Go Hsu Village, Bassein on October 4P 1870. Born into a Christian Sgaw family he was educated at a Baptist school run by Charles Nichols. Nichols, along with Vinton, had been one of the main advocates of arming the Karen and had himself led a number of forays against Burman rebels. Nichols was impressed with San Po and sent him, at the age of 14, to study in America where he acquired American citizenship during the course of his studies and finally graduated in 1893 with a degree in medicine from Albany Medical College.

On his return to Burma, he joined the Civil service as a medical officer for Bassein, Kyuakse and Myaungyma. He married the daughter of U Loo Nee, one of the founders of the KNA, and not long after, left the civil service to open his own clinic in Bassein where he also served as a member of the municipal council. Dr San C Po developed a strong interest in nationalist affairs and wishing to stand for a newly introduced position on the Burma Legislative council renounced his American citizenship and once more became a British subject.

Sydney Loo Nee, San Po’s brother-in-law, was twelve years San Po’s junior and, like his father, was to take a leading role in Karen national politics. Like San Po, Sydney studied abroad – first in India and then earning a Bar at Law in London. On his arrival in Burma he concentrated his efforts on working for the Karen National Association while concurrently holding a seat on the Rangoon Municipal council and acting as a school principle.

A number of educated Karen leaders began to talk openly about a Karenland or Karennistan. Such a country would be governed by the Karen but would still owe its allegiance to the British crown. However, a number of Her Majesty’s Burman subjects were not too enthralled at the continued oppression they felt under the boot of colonialism. For the Burmans, British rule had been seen to lower their own standard of living at the cost of elevating those races which they had considered to be inferior, in addition, the introduction of unprecedented immigration had created a situation that many saw as intolerable.

The Rise of Burman Nationalism


In the lower delta, rice production had increased rapidly. Large areas had been cleared and vast rice fields had been planted. Exports, chiefly to Britain and India, rose from 165,000 tonnes in 1855 to over 2 million tonnes in 1905/6. The rice market was extremely profitable and, as large numbers of Burmese moved into the delta to work in the rice industry, there was a large population shift. Already a large number of Karen had left the hills to work in the newly developed cities and they were soon joined by other migrants from all over Burma.

In addition to creating the impetus for the large Burmese population shift, the British had also encouraged a large influx of Indian labour to work in the country between 1891 and 1901. Over 130,000 Indian labourers moved into the lower delta while 22,000 moved to Upper Burma. Burmese unemployment quickly soared as cheaper Indian labour took jobs in the rice fields. In cities like Pegu the population tripled as more and more immigrants arrived to take jobs from the local population leaving the Burmese work force redundant.

The British Government unwilling to change the situation idly watched, instead of trying to solve and recognise the problem they blamed the situation not on the migrants but upon the Burmese themselves – as J.G. Scott laments:

The Burman is incorrigibly lazy; he has no idea whatever of being provident; he is spendthrift to the point of extravagance.

The failure to redress the balance in Burmese society, which was being overrun by Chinese and Indian migrants with the latter held responsible for most of the crime in the country,  [11]  was to add to an already deteriorating social environment under British mismanagement. Convicts in Burmese gaols, in 1897, comprised one in every 550 people of the population. The Burmese also found themselves at the mercy of Indian moneylenders and landowners who soon began to dominate the agricultural and land sectors often resulting in Burmese farmers losing their land.

The catalyst came in 1906. The Burmans began to mobilise themselves and formed the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) an organisation intended to represent the Burmans in an ever increasingly swamped Burmese society. Originally conceived two years earlier in 1904, the organisation was founded by U Ba Pe, U Maung Gyi, and Dr Ba Yin with the aims of enhancing Burma’s national religion, education, culture, literature and the arts. The association soon became popular with students. In 1908 the Rangoon chapter was opened and was soon followed by fifty others within the next ten years.

While the KNA was to strongly present the case for an autonomous region for Karen under British domination, the Burmans and the YMBA were to ask for the opposite. While the Karen considered the British liberators, the Burmans, saw them as oppressors and called for independence and the British Administration’s removal.

Communal representation

The First World War had seen a large number of troops from the British colonies involved in fighting for the ‘Mother Country’ with over 36,000, of an estimated 750,000, Indian troops killed fighting in Europe, the Middle East and Africa alone. Although at the outbreak of the War in 1914 there was no real recruitment in Burma, when troops were actually called to serve, out of the 16 companies in the Burma rifles chosen to enter the conflict three were Karen. It was reported that one Karen Company excelled in the conflict in Mesopotamia. [12]

Towards the end of the war, the British Government had decided to implement reforms in the colonies and to give more autonomy to its Indian possessions. In 1917, a meeting held in India – the Chelmsford-Montague hearings – took place and was attended by delegations from both the YMBA, who were increasingly agitating for separation from India, and the pro-British KNA which was represented by among others San C Po. San C Po at the hearings later incensed the YMBA when he stated in his memorial at the hearings that:

‘Looking at the progress made by the peoples of Burma in all points, we, the Karen of Burma, are sensible that the country in not yet in a fit state for self-government. Burma is inhabited by many different races, differing in states of civilisation, differing in religion and social development; hence Burma will still have to undergo many years of strenuous training under British governance before this boon can be conferred on it with security and success…’

From what has transpired in the past, when injustice and despotism reigned supreme. The Karen of Burma do not clamour and agitate for the fruition of questionable political privileges and the ushering in of dubious political eras. The history of our Province indicates that it is in a state of transition still, and as yet the benefits of free government are not quite fully appreciated.’ [13]

The Karen stance at the hearings further aggravated tensions between the Burmese who were increasingly agitating for an independent Burma. Disillusion finally showed itself in 1920. The YMBA changed its name to the GCBA, the General Council of Burmese Associations, and organised Burmese students, on December 5PP, in a protest strike against newly introduced university reforms. Although the riots were soon quelled, the Burmese had already formed nationalist associations in numerous villages throughout the country. And it was these organisations that were to further foment open rebellion against their British masters.

The Burmese continued to protest against the British. And, in 1921, they attempted to boycott the Whyte Commission which had been formed to look into communal representation. Burmese in Rangoon, Moulmein and Mandalay came out in force to protest against the formation of the commission. The commission’s members were often met with hostility wherever they went with even bazaar sellers going as far as to refuse to sell their goods to them. And in Moulmein, the crowds, organised by a Mon lawyer – U Chit Hlaing, were able to prevent a Karen speaker giving evidence to the committee. Such a welcome also met the commission in Bassein.

Nevertheless, the Whyte commission was able to hear evidence given for Karen communal representation by Sydney Loo Nee and Mahn Ba Khin, Mahn Po San, and a number of other witnesses. These claimed that the Karen were still oppressed by the Burmans. San C Po quoted one witness, Saw Pa Dwai, who as early as 1910 had petitioned the King for better rights for Karen people, and had been asked the question whether ‘…he thought the Karen were as oppressed now as they had been in the past?’ replied:

‘The Karen are today ten times more oppressed and downtrodden then in former days. The Burmese have learned to become wiser and more cunning in their methods of oppression, and Government are none the wiser.’ [14]

In an interesting reference, which would sum up the feeling of many people later, both Karen and Burman, one British official was said to have commented at the hearings:

If I were the Karen and could not get communal representation which I consider absolutely necessary at this stage of political growth in Burma, I would emigrate to Siam, where I would fare no worse and might fare better. [15]

Communal problems continued to play a major part in the political manoeuvring of the country as not only the Karen but also other ethnic minorities, as well as Indian and Chinese migrants, were to become the focus of inter-ethnic tensions.

Attempts had been made, with little success, to integrate the Karen and Burmans into the now ethnically mixed areas. Karen schools, which had previously forbidden sports activities with Burmans, relaxed their rules and allowed football matches between the two. A number of Karen Baptist schools also allowed some Burmans to attend. However, there was often great pressure on the Burman students to adopt the religious practices of the Baptists, which in one school, the Cushing Baptist High School, finally led to a strike by the Buddhist students. [16]

Much to the dismay of the Burman majority, the reforms schemes opened the way for Karen representation in the legislative council. The Karen were given seven seats, five for communal representatives and two for general representatives, with the latter apparently being elected chiefly due to the fact that the Burman had not fielded any candidates due to the boycott. [17]

However, with the removal of the boycott by the time the second general elections were held, Burman candidates, who had entered the political field in large numbers, were soon able to squeeze out Karen candidates in their own constituencies. As a result, Karen representation on local government boards was negligible.

The situation facing the Karen and their lack of success in furthering their own cause was best explained by San C Po who on commenting on rumours that the Karen ‘…had not tried to take advantage of opportunities offered by the reforms scheme.’ confirmed that the rumours are partially true. He then further explained the reasoning, and recalling missionary sentiment, that the Karen were a downtrodden people, that the Karen were ‘poor’ and ‘…an inarticulate lot who will not count in any movement.’ That said however, perhaps the most realistic reason was given when he pointed out that:

‘The Karen still prefer to work hand-in-hand with the British, as they [the Karen] fully admit their [the British] superior capacity and their magnanimous spirit of ‘give and take’ as now modified by present conditions and manifested the world over.’

This mistaken belief in the British as superiors, saviours, and protectors was to constantly cause conflict between them and the Burman. As the Burman call for independence intensified during the mid-1920s it saw an increase in disturbances. The crime rate soared to such a degree that it was necessary that a committee be formed, in 1927, to enquire into the increases of murders and dacoities. The Karen, once again, supported the government and were used to suppress the criminals.

The Karen further consolidated their organisational structures with the foundation, by Saw Ba Than, of a Burma Karen National Association (BKNA) in February 1929. This was ostensibly comprised of Buddhists while five months later a joint meeting occurred between the KNA, under president Saw Pah Dwei and the LKA (Loyal Karen Association), under President Dr D Po Min who acted as chairman. During the meeting, it was decided that a special division for the Karen, including the Salween district and Tenesserim, should be requested from the British. To achieve this goal, originally suggested by San C Po in ‘Burma and the Karen’, it was decided that a number of Karen delegates would be sent to England to put forward Karen demands.

Sydney Loo Nee and Thra Shwe Ba headed the delegation that went to London to attend a plenary meeting. Although not requesting independence from Britain, the Karen delegates asked for the separation of Burma from India and the establishment of a sovereign state consisting of ethnic states for each of the main minorities, an end to all racial and religious discrimination, for Karen inclusion in all levels of government and administration, and for a Karen representative to be appointed for every district in lower Burma and for special constituencies to be designated for Karen in the election. [18]

While the political debates continued, further tension began to manifest itself throughout the country. Anti-Indian riots broke out in the 1930s and although quickly suppressed, the calls for independence from the Burmese, and the separation of Burma from India by both the Burmese and the Karen increased.

The Burmese formed a new nationalist association – the Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association) in May 1930, in Rangoon. Although initially not supported by any real ideology, the movement, consisting of students and intellectuals, was to rise to the forefront of nationalist sentiment. It gathered its followers together under one slogan Burma is our country; Burmese literature is our literature; Burmese language is our language. Love our country, raise the standards of our literature, respect our language.’[19] The organisation and its overtly Burman nationalism would eventually lead to the overthrow, encouraged by the Japanese, of the British colonial authorities.

The true expression of discontent with the British, and further evidence, in Burman eyes, of Karen complicity with the colonial regime, appeared in 1931 with the emergence, in Tharrawaddy, of what would later be known as the Saya San rebellion.

U Yar Kyaw, later known as Saya San was a former monk, peasant farmer and member of the GCBA. He declared himself a Min Laung (Future King) and, in a move echoing those of earlier rebellions in the early 1800’s, mobilised thousands of peasants. These, who were unarmed, believed they were protected by medicines and charms, and could overthrow the British. Saya San’s followers were angered by the fall in rice prices, the refusal of the British authorities to requests for the cancellation or postponement of the year’s taxes and the general situation regarding the loss of land to the many Indian landowners. Consequently, the peasants rampaged through the country and the rebellion quickly spread throughout 12 of the 40 districts stretching from upper Burma down to the Irrawaddy delta.

British forces brutally suppressed the uprising razing hundreds of villages and, as was often the punishment meted out against dacoits, decapitated rebels and displayed their heads as a warning to others. [20]  In one notorious incident fifteen heads were displayed in front of the commissioner’s office in Prome. The image was soon distributed in veteran politician U Saw’s ‘The Sun’ newspaper, copies of which were then sent to the British parliament. The rebellion was finally crushed by 1932 at the cost of more that 1,000 rebels killed and 9,000 captured and imprisoned. Saya San and two of his closest associates, Saya Nyan, and a hermit called Bandaka, were hanged.

The martyrdom of Saya San further ignited in the young Burmans a desire for independence. Nationalism continued to thrive in the Burman community and the Dobama Asiayone continued to swell with young recruits. The Karen National Association still maintained its belief that the only way forward for Burma was under British auspices – an attitude diametrically opposed to that of the Burmans which drove a further wedge between Karen and Burman society. The latter saw the Karen’s loyalty to the British over their own kinsfolk as tantamount to treason. For some Karen, their involvement in the suppression of the uprisings and their support for the British was and still is a source of pride in an event in which ‘…not only the Karen of the regular services, but also leaders, Elders, and Karen irregulars played a part.[21] While there is little doubt that the Karen were the objects of prejudice by a Burman administration, Karen support for the British colonial authorities was to have a devastating effect on Burman-Karen relations even into the 21st century.

San C Po’s vision of a Karen land was not of based on the desires of the majority Buddhist and Animist Karen who were still principally farmers. Instead, he saw a Karen country servile to the British and Christianity. For San C Po, progress came not with autonomy and a singular Karen identity, but rather with Christian conversion and British evening dress. He extols the latter and suggests that all Karen adopt such dress, [22]    a suggestion that sadly recollects part of Snodgress’s justification for the first Anglo-Burmese War ‘…as there is scarcely an article of dress among the natives, that is not already British or certain to become so.’[23]

While it may not be necessarily true that all members of the KNA shared Po’s views, the majority still believed in what Po described as ‘…the Englishman as brother and protector’, even though Po chastised the British government’s failure to fully appreciate the Karen in times when they were not needed. In relation to Karen support in pacifying the country he wrote:

The [British] Government appeared greatly appreciative of the service rendered, but, once peace reigned and things assumed their normal aspect, the Karen were forgotten just as Joseph was forgotten by the Pharaoh of olden days.

Nonetheless, Po still believed that the only way forward must be with the British despite their failings:

…But the Karen often have occasion to wonder if only a crying child gets more milk; at least it would appear so, judging by all that we see and know. However, friends and countrymen, do not be discouraged, do not falter, but keep on being loyal, cooperate with the Government, lay yourself out for peace and good government, for the day is bound to come, and I see it already coming, when the Karen’s loyalty, his unswerving faith and unalloyed love for the British Government and for his King will be amply rewarded. [24]

The Separation of Burma and Karen recognition

By 1936, the Reforms Act was implemented and it allowed for the separation of India and Burma to commence on 1 April, 1937. The Burmese constitution which was based on that of India, and had been written two years earlier, created 91 Government departments under a parliament consisting of 132 seats – 12 of which were to be given to the Karen as requested by the Karen National Association. The KNA, in a memorandum from Saw Shwe Ba, dated 21P September 1933, requested seats for the Karen constituencies of Irrawaddy Division (7), Tenesserim Division (4), and finally Pegu (1). The divisions were then further separated into areas: Irrawaddy Division to include Bassein (2), Myaungyma (2), Maubin (2), Henzada (1); Tenesserim -Thaton (2), Amherst (1), Taungoo (1) and finally – Pegu (1).

The KNA also asked for each representative to be responsible for one of twelve Karen constituencies based on that area’s population; the total Karen population the KNA estimated was 1,031,200 with Thaton being the largest area and Insein, just north of Rangoon, the smallest.

San C Po, who was also vice-president of the KNA, became a member of the Upper House of Parliament and accompanying him were Thara San Baw and Mahn Shwe Ba, while in the lower house; the Karen were represented by Saw Pe Tha, Mahn Kan Aye, U Po Amyin, Saw Sydney Loo Nee, Mahn Tun Kyin, Mahn Ba Khaing, Mahn Shwe Nyunt, Saw Mya Thein, U Hla Pe, Saw Po Chit, Saw Tha Dwe and Saw Po Min.

The Karen National Association tabled a motion to make the first day of the month of ‘Pyatho’ Karen New Year. Not long after, the British Government recognized 21 December, 1938 as the first Karen New Year (1939)[25] and the KNA sent a goodwill message to Karen everywhere signed by San C Po, Mahn Shwe Ba, U Hla Pe, Sydney Loo Nee and Saw Pe outlining the current situation and posing a question to those Karen who were able to read it:

Today we recall our heritage, our ancient poet, prophets and our tradition of Ywa (God). We believe that every individual, every home, every village has a place in the new advance. Progressive in thinking, constructive in planning, and courageous in living, we can share responsibility with other communities for the making of Burma a united people.
This is a historic day. It is our first officially recognized National Day. It is a day of opportunity. We are emerging from isolation into the stream of national affairs. Our conviction is our two million Karen have a significant part to play in Burma’s destiny.
We owe our existence as a people not to [any] Organisation or any political arrangements [but] to certain distinctive qualities that have been given us. Our traits include simplicity, a love of music, honesty, steadiness, and sense of God. We believe that we can best keep and develop these characteristics in free association with other people.
We are at a crisis. For us the choice lies between seeking protection through isolation, or adventure through active participation in the life of Burma. United ourselves, we could help to make Burma a nation. We recognize that as leaders we must be fully committed to our country from fear, personal ambition, racial and religious prejudice.
Are we ready on this New Year’s Day to put the best traditions of our people at the service of whole country?

The Karen National Association, based out of its offices at No 7 U Loo Nee Street, Karen Quarter, Kemmendine, had finally shown that the Karen were insistent on being a major force in Burmese society. However, while the Karen were able to celebrate the granting of a Karen New Year and British recognition, the Burmans continued to foster separatist ambitions. The British government and its colonial oppression had to be destroyed, and as Japanese eyes turned towards Southeast Asia, young Burman nationalists looked across the sea to help further their own aspirations – the overthrow of the British.


[1] Hall, ‘History of South East Asia’ quoted in Renard

[2] Smeaton, ‘Loyal Karen of Burma’, 219.

[3] Smeaton, 223-224.

[4] J.S. Furnival, ‘Twilight in Burma – Independence and After’, Pacific Affairs, June 1949.

[5] FCO L/PJ/6/521.

[6] Marshall, ‘The Karen People of Burma’, 313.

[7] See ‘Lekhai and their Religion’

[8] Symes quoted in Stern

[9] Mason quoted in Stern

[10] He adopted the middle name ‘Crombie’ from one of his later teachers.

[11] Information based on the number of people in Gaol – ‘often for crimes such as bad livelihood and unable to provide security for good behaviour.’ See Scott, ‘Burma – A Handbook of Practical Information.’

[12] See Marshall

[13] San C Po, ‘Burma and the Karen’

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Mika Rolly, ‘Pa-Oh People’

[17] San C Po, ‘Burma and the Karen’

[18] IKHRA, New Country Historical Journal

[19] ‘The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia.’ Nicholas Tarling, Cambridge, 1999

[20] The practice of beheading dacoits, in Burma and other colonial possessions, was frequently brought up at the House of Commons, see India Office correspondence.

[21] Karen Refugee’s Committee, ‘The Manifesto of the Karen Refugees’

[22] ‘Burma and the Karen’ p86

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] The date for Karen New Year changes every year.

The MNDAA offensive

fa271c88-21d2-424c-80dd-f547a79bad92Implications for the Myanmar Peace Process

In what is further evidence of a particularly unstable peace process, and perhaps a lack of will by some to move it forward, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) launched an attack in the centre of the Kokang region’s capital Laogai (Laukkai) on 6 March. At least 30 people were killed in the assault after insurgents dressed in police uniforms launched surprise raids in and around the town. According to state media, the attacks occurred in the pre-dawn hours with MNDAA troops arriving from the East near the Chinese border and raiding and setting fire to homes, police stations, border outposts and hotels.

Download the full paper here

A Dangerous Calculation

The Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B) Offensives in Shan State


As the Myanmar Government continued to prepare for its ongoing Union Peace Conference to be held in February 2017 a number of attacks occurred in border areas of northern Myanmar’s Shan state on 20 November 2016. An alliance of four ethnic armed groups launched simultaneous attacks on government military outposts and police stations in Muse and Kutkai townships as well as Muse border trade centre. Their attacks also covered Monekoe, Kyukoke, Phangsai, Pangsang, Manken and Kyinsankyawk (Honang).

Led by the Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA), the Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B), which also comprises Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) ostensibly launched the attacks in response to a continuing military offensive launched against its members in August 2016 by the Myanmar military. In a statement released on 21 November 2016, the alliance said,

The Burmese armed forces have been launching offensive attacks in the ethnic territories of Kachin, Kokang, Ta’ang, Arakan and Shan and military pressures are increasingly mounted. The Burmese armed forces have also intensified not only shelling 105 – 120 mm heavy artilleries targeted at innocent civilians but also arresting, torturing and killing indigenous peoples.

Although there are holding discussions between Ethnic Armed Organizations and the Burmese government for a nationwide peace, the Burma army has continued launching more offensive attacks that can break Myanmar’s internal peace. The Burma armed forces have been assaulting to destroy all political and military struggles of the ethnic peoples because they have no will to solve the Myanmar’s political problem by politically peaceful negotiation methods.[i]

To download the full paper please click here

[i] Statement by Northern Alliance, Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) | November 21, 2016

DKBA (Buddhist) on the move


It would appear after losing most of their territory to the Myanmar Army’s Border Guard Force the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, or DKBA-Buddhist, have decided to move operations to northern Shan State. According to a recent Irrawaddy article, the group has joined the Northern Alliance – Burma.

The Northern Alliance – Burma (NA-B) consists of four ethnic armed groups—the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army (AA). The alliance launched an offensive on Myanmar Army positions in several townships including Muse, Kutkai, and Namkham in Shan State on Nov. 20.

The report quotes one of the DKBA’s leaders, San Aung, as saying,

As we could not be active in our former area we have moved to a new area to continue our revolution,

A TNLA secretary Col. Tar Phone Kyaw confirmed that San Aung’s soldiers had joined the alliance and would be “working together to fight the Burma Army.”

The report also notes,

Col. San Aung, who is on the Burma Army watch list, has made long and arduous journeys across the country to join ethnic armed groups in the past. He was once based in Wang Hai with the Shan State Army-North and recently fought with the AA in Arakan State.

It must be noted that it is unlikely that San Aung would have been ‘based’ at the SSPP’s Wanhai HQ, although he would most likely have been there seeking support. It remains unclear how many troops have in fact joined him.

The report notes, quoting the Ministry of Defence, that,

Seven members of the DKBA splinter group surrendered to the Burma Army in Myawaddy Township, Karen State on Jan. 1 after disagreeing with Col. San Aung’s actions.

The decision to move his troops to northern Shan State did not go down well with some of his followers with, according to the President’s Office, 23 more members of the group, misidentified as KKO which is the DKBA – Benevolent, also surrendering because,

. . . they did not accept the attitudes of the Saw Hsan Aung [sic] splinter group

Although it is highly unlikely that the reason given for their surrender,

[they] wanted to live peacefully abandoning the armed line, that they had come to realise true attitudes of the government and Tatmadaw towards the indigenous people

Is accurate.

Either way, the inclusion of San Aung in the NA-B is unlikely to strengthen the NA-B’s bargaining power and only adds future complications when negotiating peace. Meanwhile, whether the other two groups under the DKBA-Buddhist banner, led by Kyaw Thet and  Bo Bi (aka Saw Taing Shwe) will join their colleague remains unclear.


Questionable Motives – Myanmar Security Operations in Rakhine State

51a89393-ec70-41af-bb76-85dd51674f9eOn 9 October, nine police officers were killed and five injured during coordinated ambushes in Maungdaw and Rethadaung Townships in Rakhine state, Myanmar. The night time attacks hit three Border Police posts on the border with Bangladesh. Police said the attackers were armed with knives and “ginkali”, a homemade slingshot that fires iron bolts. According to reports, they were able to steal more than 50 guns and 10,000 bullets from the border posts.[i] Speaking at a press conference the next day Police Maj-Gen Zaw Win, Chief of the Myanmar Police Force, said that the bodies of eight attackers were found. Two attackers were captured alive and one home-made pistol was seized along with two bullets and one cartridge of bullets.[ii]

It was unclear what organisation could mount such coordinated attacks, however, suspicion fell on the Muslim Rohingya, a long-persecuted minority that is dominant in the two townships. Shortly after the attacks, Maj-Gen Zaw Win was quoted as saying,

According to our force members who are working on this case, those who attacked and raided were shouting that they were Rohinghyas, [iii]

Meanwhile, Tin Maung Swe, a senior official within Rakhine’s state government, told AFP that those behind the ambushes were “RSO insurgents”, a reference to the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation.[iv]

The full paper can be downloaded here.

[i] ‘Nine Myanmar police killed in attack on Bangladesh border’, AFP, 10 October 2016

[ii] ‘Nine policemen killed, five injured, one missing in border attacks’, Myanmar News Agency, 10 October 2016

[iii] ‘Nine Myanmar police killed in attack on Bangladesh border’, AFP, 10 October 2016

[iv] Ibid.

Hardly a precedent – KNU postpones 16th Congress

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-1-30-24-pmNot unsurprisingly, the Karen National Union (KNU) decided on 10 November to postpone its 16th Congress until around March next year. Also not unsurprisingly, critics of the current leadership were quick to call foul.  They suggested that the decision was a nefarious attempt to maintain the current, and what they see as illegitimate, positions of Mutu Say Po and Kwe Htoo Win as leaders, whereas in actuality it just clearly made sense not to change negotiators during the current round of peace talks.

Much has been made about the decision which, according to The Irrawaddy, was taken because, ‘those in favour of postponing the congress were worried that electing new leaders—who do not have established relationships with the government and the Burma Army—would disrupt the peace process.’ For many, the decision is tantamount to treason, with at least one disgruntled individual asking the question ‘Anyone out there welling [sic] to chop Saw Mu Tu Say Poe and Kwe Htoo Win head?’

The KNU Congress is recognised as the KNU’s supreme legislative body and it is here that the Chairman, General Secretary, Joint Secretaries 1 and 2 and the Executive Committee (EC), the Central Standing Committees (CSC) and candidate members are elected. The seven KNU districts are responsible for electing the representatives, usually the District chairman and the Brigade commander, to attend the four yearly KNU congresses and two delegates are chosen to become members of the Central Committee. In addition, Central Committee members would provide the ministers for the Health, Education, Culture, Forestry, Mining and Finance.

Democracy loving critics of the KNU leadership seem to be blissfully, and perhaps intentionally, unaware of the fact that there were no congresses held from 1976, when Bo Mya came to power, until 1991.

In reality, under the leadership of Bo Mya, in the eighties and nineties, most political decisions were made by the 33 man Central Committee, or as often as not, the five-man committee of the president’s advisors (see Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity). On many occasions, it would not be unusual for policy statements and changes to be made without any prior consultation at all.   As Smith notes, although congresses were supposed to take place there were none until 1991 resulting in Bo Mya appointing the members himself. These were normally a senior KNLA officer and political governor.

Of course, the main problem stems from as yet unsubstantiated allegations that the votes in the last congress were rigged (see ‘Changing the Guard – The Karen National Union, the 15th Congress, and the Future’) as I noted in this paper,

The 15 Congress was held from November 26 to December 26 and was attended by 171 KNU representatives from all Brigade areas. To control the election process a 7 person election committee was formed and led by the chief election commissioner Pastor Robert Htwe, head of the Karan Relief Centre (KRC). The election committee was responsible for designing and implementing the election process and for counting votes and announcing appointments.

After deliberation and various discussions on how the movement could best proceed in relation to its policies and future role, the 171 representatives voted to elect members to the Central Committee. After votes were counted the names of those elected were announced and the ballots burnt by the election committee. The voting for the Executive Committee leadership was much closer than expected with neither Zipporah Sein nor General Mutu receiving the necessary 51%. As a result, a new vote was called for. David Thackerbaw asked that the new vote be a secret ballot, a request that was refused.

After the second vote, General Mutu won be a clear majority and after the result was announced the ballots were again burnt. Both Major Hla Ngwe Joint Secretary – 1, and David Thackerbaw Vice-president, lost their positions during the election process. David Thackerbaw, dismissive of the results, later that day called for a recount; however, with the ballots burnt after the original results had been announced and with no support for such a move from any other of the attendees the results were upheld.[1]

No evidence has thus far been put forward that suggests any malfeasance on the part of Robert Htwe or those counting the ballot, a number of whom were from the Karen Women’s Organisation and the Karen Youth Organisation. In the absence of evidence, what remains is an unsubstantiated rumour that has consistently been used to cast aspersions on people within the current leadership.

As one would expect in relation to the current situation regarding the postponement of the congress, such critics are unlikely to be subdued by any result that does not fit into their own myopic view of the KNU’s current leadership.


[1] Personal Conversation with KNU EC Member, 6 January 2013. The burning of the votes and other issues relating to the election have caused some controversy see http://dictatorwatch.org/

Questionable Legitimacy

dkba-renegadesRecent Conflict in Karen State

In September 2016, over 4,000 Karen civilians were forced to flee their homes due to fighting between a breakaway Democratic Karen Benevolent Army faction and the Myanmar Army’s Border Guard Force (BGF) in the Mae Tha Waw area of Karen (Kayin) State. Fighting by the group, which has resurrected the name Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)[i] and has sworn allegiance to U Thuzana, the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw,[ii] has been characterised by a number of commentators as being nationalist in nature. However, the origins of the group, and their objectives, do not necessarily support such a hypothesis. Instead, it further illustrates the confusion over the perceived ethno-nationalist conflict of some Karen groups and those that are seeking to perpetuate their own existence at a cost to the local population.

Download here.


[i] Referred to here as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army – Kyaw Htet (DKBA-KH) to differentiate between the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) which signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement on 15 October 2015.

[ii] U Thuzana, or the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw, was the patron of the original Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) when it split from the Karen National Union in December 1994.