Background information: Geography, the People, Political History
Burma, as it is known today, can be divided into two distinct parts: the central Burman populated plains (Burmans constitute two-thirds of the total population); and the seven mountainous frontier states, which encircle it. Each of these states is named after the ethnic race that predominates there: the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Arakan and Shan. Together the ethnic states cover 60% of the area of Burma. Karenni State is the smallest of those states.
Karenni is regarded as one of the least accessible and poorest areas in the Union of Burma (Myanmar). Over half a century of conflict and neglect has left Karenni State lacking in basic infrastructure, with poor transport and communication links, inadequate health care, widespread illiteracy and little or no social and economic development. Mortality rates from malnutrition are common, treatable illnesses are high and the number of schools, teachers and students is the lowest in Burma.
Transport between Karenni State and Central Burma is poor and there is no international border crossing to and from Thailand. Current road building projects are being carried out using conscripted labour using inadequate tools; consequently they do not last.
Most of the population are subsistence farmers, with crops grown using lowland farming and upland shifting cultivation. Most of the hydroelectric power of Burma is produced in Karenni State, with little benefit to the local population. There are also tin & tungsten miles and the rich teak forests have been plundered to serve the needs of neighbouring Thailand whose own teak supplies are protected. As well as logging other unregistered cross-border trading includes cattle smuggling.
The Burma (Myanmar) Military Government does not allow foreigners to travel to Karenni State.
The area has always been known as Karenni (coming from Kayin, Karen, and ni, red in Burmese) but on 5 October 1951 the Constitution Amendment Act renamed the area Kayah, after the largest ethnic group in the State. This was an attempt by the Burmese Government to deny Karenni's historical claim to independence and create a rift between the Karenni and the Karen.
The Karenni resistance leaders have retained the name of Karenni as the State’s name both to ensure historical continuity and to recognize that their country is made up of many diverse indigenous groups.
THE KARENNI PEOPLE
Karenni is a religious and ethnically diverse territory. The following groups are mentioned in the 1983 census: Kayah, Geko (Gaykho), Geba (Gaybar), Padaung/Kayan, Bres, Manu-Manaus (Manumanao), Yintale, Yinbaw, Bwe, Paku, Shan and Pao. Other ethnic, though non-native groups living in the state are: Kachin, Karen, Chin, Burmese, Mon, Rakhine, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepalese.
The main ethnic tribes can be classified under the heading ‘Karen’. It is believed that the Karen migrated from Mongolia in about B.C. 2015, moving south towards Karenni where they finally settled in the Demawso area around 739 BC.
The first language for all these groups is their own individual mother tongue, but the Kayah (Karenni) language is widely spoken as a language of unity, though the teaching of ethnic languages is forbidden in schools. A script was developed for the Kayah language in 1962. It was invented by Hteh Bu Peh just after he graduated and he started teaching it secretly in Loikow in 1963.
Amongst those who have some state education Burmese is also spoken.
Whilst the majority Burmans are Theravada Buddhists, in the ethnic states Christianity and animism predominate. While some have retained the traditional Kay Tyoboe religion, many of the Karenni are Baptists or Roman Catholics, though traditional pre-Christianity festivals and practices still unite the community at festival time. Religion is another factor, which has caused resentment between the ethnic groups and the generals who run Burma using a muddle of Buddhist, military and Marxist principles. Christianity arrived in Karenni via the Baptists in the 1860s and the Italian "Missioni Estere di Milano" (PIME) who made their first trips into Karenni in 1877.
Karenni has been under illegal Burmese occupation since the Burmese Government invaded their independent state on 9th August 1948.
For centuries the ethnic states were run as autonomous regions, with Karenni adopting a similar system of government to Shan State, with whom it maintained a close political relationship. Karenni was ruled by Sawphyas (princes), who had no history of paying tribute to any of the Burmese monarchs. This was confirmed in June 1875 when an agreement was signed between the Burmese King Mindon and the Viceroy and Governor General of British India recognising the independence of the four western Karenni states:
“It is hereby agreed between the British and Burmese Government that the State of Western Karenee shall remain separate and independent, and that no sovereignty or governing authority of any description shall be claimed or exercised over that State.”
In the 19th century Burma had come under British rule in a series of three Anglo-Burman wars (1825 to 1885). Under the British the ethnic states were not ruled directly from Rangoon; their autonomy was recognized and the traditional leaders continued to govern according to customary practice. Western Karenni was different; it was not included within the borders of the colonial state of Burma, though after years of conflict between the Saophya of the Karenni state of Kantarawaddy and the British, the British became involved in Eastern Karenni in 1888. They treated Kantarawaddy similarly to the Native States of India. By contrast Karenni’s neighbour, Shan State, was incorporated into British India.
The Karenni in fact proved to be loyal friends of Britain, aiding them considerably in the defeat of the Japanese occupation forces in World War II. At great cost to themselves the Karenni formed one of the most active units of the anti-Japanese Force 136. One of the leaders, Thai Ba Han, was described by U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Burma, as the Aung San of the Padaung. At the time members of the British forces gave their word that they would protect the Karenni in the future, a promise they soon reneged on.
Things went wrong when Burma hurriedly obtained independence in January 1948 shortly after the assassination of the Burmese leader, Aung San. Prior to this the British had held various consultations, but Karenni, which considered itself an independent country, did not feel it necessary to participate in all the discussions and attend the meetings, which they assumed did not concern them. The British, recognizing Karenni’s independence, initially tried to persuade Karenni to join a Frontier Areas Administration Board, but the Karennis decided not to join for fear of losing their independence and sovereignty. The Burmese Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) also made efforts to convince the Karenni that they should join the Union of Burma, but Karenni leaders were not interested as they wanted to retain self-determination and they did not trust the Burmans to give equal rights and respect to the ethnic minorities.
The Karenni therefore responded by establishing their own United Karenni Independent States Council in September 1946, composed of chiefs and elders from Kantarawaddi, Kyehpogyi, Bawlake and Mangpai States.
In February 1947 the other members of the Frontiers Area signed the Panglong Agreement, accepting the accession of their states to Burma with the intention of forming an independent Union of Burma. Karenni leaders did not attend or sign. In June 1947 Karenni leaders, Go Bee Turee and Saw Thein offered to enter into a treaty of alliance with Burma once it gained independence, but made it clear they had no interest in discussing the proposed constitution of an independent Burma.
Despite this, by means of fabrication and duplicity, Karenni protests were stifled and in September 1947 Karenni State was incorporated into an independent Burma, without the knowledge of the Karenni Supreme Council and the consent of the Karenni people. There was one concession: the 1947 Constitution granted the Kachin, Karenni and Shan a certain amount of autonomy in their own ethnic states and the right to cession from the Union of Burma after ten years. This pledge has never been honoured.
Burma gained its independence from the British on January 4, 1948. From the beginning of the Union of Myanmar Karenni nationalists opposed being part of the Union.
On August 9th 1948, the AFPFL Burmese government under Thakin Nu, invaded Karenni State and since then has occupied the State through force.
Following independence democracy did not last long in Burma. In 1962 General Ne Win seized power in a military coup, set up a one-party system, closed Burma down to the outside world and crushed all dissidence both in the Burman and ethnic regions. The repression, already bad, grew considerably worse after Burma’s brief flirtation with democracy in 1991. Following Aung San Sui Kyi’s election victory the National League for Democracy (NLD) was prevented from assuming government, democracy was suppressed, political parties de-registered and the MPs who had stood for election in Karenni were either arrested or driven into exile.
THE STUGGLE FOR SELF-DETERMINATION
Since August 9th, 1948 the Karenni people have resisted the unlawful Burmese occupation and endeavoured to regain control of their own state, its traditions, culture and languages. At the forefront of this struggle is the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), which since 1957 has led both the armed struggle and organized aid to the oppressed Karenni people. It runs a de-facto government, which strives to offer health care (including mobile health teams to serve the IDPs), education, welfare and defense to the Karenni people.
For over 50 years the Karenni have fought to regain their independent state while the Burmese regime has forced many of the minority groups into so-called cease-fire agreement, which have not benefited the people of those areas at all. In 1995 the KNPP entered into a verbally agreed cease-fire, which broke down within months as the Burmese military continued to pursue its ethnic cleansing agenda against the Karenni people
Meanwhile the world has ignored the plight of the Karenni people, focusing attention only on the dominant Burman population and Aung San Suu Kyi. In recent years, especially since the massacre of protesters in Rangoon on 8/8/88, the Karenni have recognized that their struggle is not in isolation. Virtually everyone in Burma is suffering under the current government (the State Peace and Development Council - SPDC), so despite having a legitimate claim to independence the Karenni have now agreed to a federal union of Burma which would allow a measure of autonomy for the minority states. This compromise solution is in line with the policies of some of the other ethnic states.
LIFE UNDER THE SPDC
Karenni suffers under the iron rule of a military occupation force with the ethnic people denied their economic, social and cultural rights. Exploitation and rapid depletion of the natural resources, forced sale of agricultural products, extortion, forced labour, forced relocation of whole villages and crops, destruction of houses, planting of landmines around crops and villages, torture, rape, extra-judicial killings, burning of villages, expropriation of food supplies and livestock, arrest without charge, false accusations and exploitation of the poor have all been well documented by Amnesty International.
The number of armed groups in Karenni has increased. As well as the Tatmadaw and the opposition Karenni Army, there are also cease-fire groups (principally the KNPLF) who aid the SPDC in return for economic concessions and rewards for its leaders and small splinter groups. All have brought the war directly to the villages.
The regime denies a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. It claims it activities are aimed at wiping out the Karenni insurgent forces, but the people are the victims of their “Four Cuts” counter-insurgency measures. They see the ethnic rebels as their defenders and for this they are punished by the Burmese army which is constantly inflicting abuses on the civilian population, burning and looting villages to force the villagers out to strangle any support for the rebels and keep the Karenni under close military control.
The Tatmadaw also maintain that they are helping protect the villagers, in return for which the villagers have to provide them with food and unpaid labour, including being taken to the front line to act as porters for ammunition and as human landmine sweepers. Women, children and the elderly are not exempt from this conscription.
There is no access for third party impartial observers or legitimate humanitarian aid.