The United States has been mired in controversy when it comes to Confederate statues. Do we accept that the Confederate monuments are a part of our history? Does their removal threaten to erase history, preventing us from learning anything? Would that callously disregard the heritage and loss of life of those in the Confederacy, many of which were simply just soldiers in a war over their heads? Or does the existence of these statues continuously serve as a reminder of a part of the U.S. that committed treason and flung this country into the most casualty producing war in its history? Do many see it as a monument to the part of the nation that wanted to continue with slavery?
I’m sure the answers to these questions will be discussed in a civil, organized fashion on Facebook and Reddit threads.
Well, at least we have statues to argue over in the first place.
Myanmar/Burma — The Karen people live in eastern Burma, near the border of Thailand. In the past, they have been subject to brutal, persistent violence from the Burmese government (who have now shifted their attention to the Rohingya in the west). The government has used rape as a weapon against them, killed countless children, and burned families in their homes. They have been doing this since the end of WWII. Cease-fires have come and gone, though the most recent cease-fire has managed to hold for a couple years now. This allows for some much-needed infrastructure to be built, from the health and welfare necessities like hospitals and schools, to the cultural landmarks they desire — like a statue of the Karen National Union’s (KNU) founder, Saw Ba U Gyi.
However, just as the military has found ways to prevent the Karen from building hospitals on their land, they have also prevented the building of this statue, now for the second time. The first attempt at erecting the structure was in December, but soldiers stopped it from happening. Now again, they have prevented its building in a town in southern Karen State. The government has openly expressed its fear that such a statue would inspire the younger generations of Karen toward rebellion.
Saw Ba U Gyi was the KNU’s first leader and president. He grew up in Burma but studied law in England, and rose through the ranks of the Burmese government. Eventually he began to work for the independence of the Karen, working with the British to secure it. This was in the late 1940s, and the Karen had sided with the British during the war. However, despite the fact that the Japanese lost (and the Burmese government with them), the Burmese government was still in charge and the British colonial overlords eventually allowed them rule over the Karen anyway.
Saw Ba U Gyi wouldn’t have it, and he sided with the Karen. They fought for their independence, continuously asking the British to back them up as they had backed up the Allies in the war. They asked for representation in the Burmese government, their own land, their own seaboard on their land — they asked for the right to bear arms. They were granted none of these things by the British or the Burmese government.
Saw Ba U Gyi fought alongside the Karen in the ensuing years, and was killed in one such skirmish. To prevent a martyr’s grave, the Burmese government threw his body into the water at sea.
He lived by four principles that remain in the minds of those in the KNU and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) today:
- Surrender is out of the question
- The recognition of the Karen State must be completed.
- We shall retain our arms.
- We shall decide our own political destiny.
The Karen continue to struggle for peace and independence today, in the longest standing civil war in modern history.
Featured image and other image of statue courtesy of Facebook — KNU KNLA public page.