The boisterous crowd suddenly falls silent as booming drums signal the start of the military parade. Smartphones are whipped from pockets by Karen of all ages who have been gathering since before dawn.
The highlight of the 67th Karen Resistance Day is underway with the first-ever march-past by every brigade of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an unprecedented show of military might and defiance by the armed wing of the Karen National Union.
The January 31 parade was the culmination of a day of music and traditional dancing interspersed with more sombre reflection over photos and stories of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for independence. More poignant reminders of what is being fought for came in an exhibition on Karen state’s natural treasures – rivers, forests and wildlife.
Saw Ha-re, 71, had arrived here at KNLA Brigade 7 headquarters on the Thai border the night before, after an 11-hour motorbike ride from his home in Bago, southern Myanmar.
“I am proud to see our troops so strong and organised. And I am heartened by the speeches of our ethnic leaders. I see hope,” he said. “I would like to see all of us united.”
Born in the Irrawaddy Delta, Saw Ha-re fled civil war between Karen and Burmese troops as a youngster. Like hundreds of thousands of fellow Karen, his family was forced to relocate many times by the war.
Internal splits among the leadership have hampered the Karen cause over the 60-year course of a conflict described as the world’s longest civil war.
“I’ve followed and encouraged our army as they fight for our land. But it’s very discouraging to see repeated internal conflicts among our leaders. We used to be united, but the deceitful enemy has weakened us,” Saw Ha-re said.
His words accurately reflect the strengths and weakness of ethnic Karen, who have fractured into several different groups over the past half a century.
The latest threat to Karen solidarity is the nationwide ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government signed by the Karen National Union (KNU) and seven other ethnic armies in October.
Last month’s Resistance Day saw a speech by KNU leader Saw Mutu Sae Poe in which he explained the reasons for signing the peace deal under the country’s political road map. But he made no mention of the growing and widespread concern over the decision among Karen people and their leaders. Some are already worried about further fragmentation.
“I support all the leaders who have fought for all of us, but their sincerity is crucial,” Saw Ha-re said.
“A leader needs to be sincere to himself, to his people, to comrades and to those ethnic armed groups who are our allies. Lastly, the Burmese side cannot really be our friends. They are not truly sincere. Keep some distance from them.”
Distilled from a lifetime of bitter experience, Saw Ha-re’s words are not to be taken lightly. That experience is shared by the thousands who gathered for Resistance Day speeches by leaders of the KNU and other ethnic groups.
The man most had come to hear, though, was General Baw Kyaw Heh, KNLA vice-chief of staff, who is preparing to step up to command the ethnic army this year.
“Our weapons should stay in our hands. Once we surrender, it’s the end of the battle,” said the general. “We are holding onto the weapons so we can protect our people, our land,” he added.
The words of defiance were exactly what Saw Ha-re and the crowd around him had been waiting for. They knew all too well that the signing of the national ceasefire had not brought an end to hostilities. And there is no guarantee that the Myanmar army will keep its promises in the future.
“We need to recall the factors that caused the Karen to fragment into five separate groups,” the general continued. “Why have the Karen fight among each other? What is the ultimate goal of the Karen Army? It’s solely for the Karen people. We need to unite. Now!”
The speech offered a clear signal that the Karen armed groups will now work together under one command. And that hope was further bolstered by the presence at the ceremony of the Karen Border Guard Force (BGF), who had previously formed an alliance with the Myanmar army. It appears the BGF is back on board with the Karen.
Saw Ha-re mounted his old bike for the long ride home buoyed by renewed hope. How long that optimism will last is uncertain, but it’s a precious feeling to cling to after a lifetime of suffering.
PASKORN JUMLONGRACH is the editor of www.transbordernews.in.th.