Ethnic Karen constitutes around 10% of the total population of the Union of Myanmar/Burma, depending on the source of data being referred to. In terms of geographical distribution, Karen people reside in significant numbers in 2 States (Karen and Mon) and 4 Regions (Ayeyarwady, Yangon, Bago and Tanintharyi) out of 7 States and 7 administrative Regions. Karen also reside inside the territory of the Union of Myanmar/Burma and there are Karen along the Thai-Myanmar/Burma border who are resistance armed forces, political activists, refugees and migrant workers. Another category of Karen has resettled all over the world in different countries for social, economic and political reasons. One thing all Karen people have in common is their love for their people, their culture, and their homeland. No matter where they are, they consider themselves as the stakeholders of the well being of the Karen people in their homeland. On the other hand, because of their life experiences, environment, and background they have a very diverse opinion on how to achieve the sustainable peace and development of their people in a homeland that is shared with many other ethnic groups.
It is a well-known fact that a group of Karen has resorted to holding arms to struggle for autonomy and self-determination for the last 63 years under the name of Karen National Union (KNU). Although all the Karen people did not join the KNU, there have been many different means and levels of support or sympathy to the KNU from most of the Karen people. Many ceasefire efforts between the KNU and the Government have been tried resulting in failure or fragmentation of the group. At this point in time there are at least 4 different groups, those who are still trying to reach ceasefire agreement, those who are still trying hard to maintain the ceasefire condition, those who broke the previous ceasefire agreement, and those who chose to reintegrate with the Government Military. This is simply put and generally categorized, and there are many gray areas that do not fall into these 4 categories.
For those Karen residing inside the 6 States/Regions of the country, there are differences in terms of their geographical identity, dialect, faith, and political affiliation. There are at least 11 major dialects, 2 major faiths and several political party lines. At 2010 election, 3 Karen political parties were established. At this point there are 4 registered political parties and the potential of several other parties to be established or re-established. Apart from that, there are many active Karen political leaders and members in large political parties such as National Unity Party and Union Solidarity and Development Party.
With the current change in the political landscape and the noticeable effort of the newly formed government towards the democratic change, many Karen as well as non-Karen in positions of leadership and responsibility, and seen by the community as leaders share the view that it is a critical window period of transition from now until 2015 election. Many conscientious Karen agree that the ethnic armed groups including the KNU should continue to strive for ceasefire and the ethnic communities should be actively involved in the emerging National political dialogue towards peace. Karen people at the grassroots, especially those whose lives are affected by the arm conflict, also make known their need for ceasefire, security and peace. They want a peaceful environment where they can lead their livelihood, and not depend on relief aids. All other Karen from different walks of life are interested in and also encouraged by the progress of the ceasefire agreement process and disappointed when the process is being threatened.
To bring the Karen people from different groups and places together to discuss this important crossroad, the first preliminary meeting of 50 Karen people from inside the country as well as from the border, widely referred to as Kawthoolei area, was held on 28th and 29th January 2013, at the Ancestors Memorial Hall, Hpa-an Anglican Diocese, Karen State. The outcome of the meeting was a ‘preliminary consensus’ to convene a Karen Affairs Seminar for wider consultations and preparation towards an All Karen Conference in the future. The prioritized issues to be discussed at the Seminar identified at this preliminary meeting were:
Unity for Karen People
Peace for Karen People and the Nation
An All Karen Conference that will focus on the future of Karen
A working group of 11 members was elected at the meeting to prepare for the Karen Affairs Seminar: 3 from the border region (including one Christian leader), 4 from Karen State (including two Buddhist monks), and 4 from in-Country-outside Karen State (including one Christian leader). The name of the group was given as the Working Group for Karen Affairs Seminar. The following is the names of the Working Group members.
- Ashin Sandawara – Chairman of the Group
- Ashin Agga Wuntha
- Robert Htwe
- Father Joseph Thein Khin
- Mathew Aye
- P’doh Saw Hla Tun
- P’doh Saw Tah Doh Moo
- Mahn Aung Pyi Soe
- Saw Win Soe
- Naw Rebecca Htin
- Nant Khin Aye Oo
Secretarial Support Members
- Naw Kanyaw Paw
- Naw Hsar Htoo
Background of the Concept of Karen Affairs Seminar:
The Working Group for Karen Affairs Seminar met the first time on 15 February 2013 to discuss on the actions to be taken to organize the Karen Affairs Seminar. They collectively develop a concept note that captures the purpose and the steps of activities required for the Karen Affairs Seminar and the prospective outcomes and further actions that will lead to an All Karen Conference as a legitimate forum for all Karen people.
Goal, Purpose, and Expected Results:
The goal is for all the Karen people of Myanmar/Burma to achieve sustained peace and development along with others. Our purpose is to unify all Karen of different groups and regions by finding common ground and issues to work together. Through this our expected results were for all the Karen stakeholders, of diverse backgrounds and ideas, to understand each other and be able to embrace their diversities as strength, rather than weakness, for their future journey towards sustained peace and development of their people and the Nation.
Activities Achieved and Outcomes:
Preparation meetings by the working group formed at the Consultation Meeting was conducted three times, on 15 February, 1 March and 27 March 2013.
First Meeting – 15 February 2013:
Four persons from KNU, KYO, and KNU Liaison Office attended the meeting as observers and provide suggestions as seen needed. The meeting agenda included: Reaffirmation of TOR for the Working Group; preparation of list of Invitees and draft invitation card, preparation of background information of the meeting and request for presentations from the invitees; individually or organization-wise, identification of the venue for the meeting; drafting a preliminary letter of information to the KNU about the background and preparation of the meeting; the draft program was discussed, formation of sub working groups and distribution of responsibilities among the members.
Second Meeting – 1 March 2013:
There were also 3 extended working group members from Hpa-an and 4 observers from KNU, KYO, and Hpa-an Culture and literature Group.
The meeting agenda included updates from members. Members from KNU shared with the team that KNU CEC had received the information letter from Ashin Sandawara, and they discussed this in depth and agreed to send 20 representatives, and will also organize the border CSOs working in KNU controlled area to send 30 representatives to the Karen Affairs Meeting. They also would like the working group to know about a series of annual meetings on Karen Unity organized by KNU and Karen at the border and abroad, known as Karen Unity Seminar. This program will also continue as scheduled each year. The working group members believe that these two sets of meeting will complement each other and converge at one point.
During this meeting a facilitating team was organized, with at least 12 members, 4 from Kawthoolei region, 4 from Karen State and 4 from Yangon and outside Karen State.
A total of nearly 250 invitees were finally identified and arrangement made for sending invitation. Each member took responsibility to send out invitations through their contacts. 20 KNU representatives and 30 representatives from Karen CBOs in Kawthoolei region were invited.
The theme of the meeting agreed by the members was “Joining Hands together for a Better Karen Future”. The theme was to be written in Burmese, in 3 Karen dialects, and in English on the backdrop.
Third Meeting – 27 March 2013:
This was the final meeting for preparation of the seminar, including placement of the guests to respective accommodation places, finalizing the program for the opening ceremony.
Convene the Karen Affairs Seminar – 29-30 March 2013:
The Karen Affairs Seminar was held at the Zwekabin Hall, Hpa-an, Karen State and around 200 participants attended.