February 14, 2018

Today marks ten years since agents of the military dictatorship in Burma assassinated our father, General Secretary of the Karen National Union, Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan.

We miss him every day, not just as a father, but also for his political guidance he gave to us, to the Karen nation, and to people of all ethnicities and religions in Burma. We seek to honour his legacy in our own work, and through the work of the Phan Foundation, established in his memory, and the memory of our mother Nant Kyin Shwe.

Our country, which has already known so much suffering, is going through one of its darkest periods. Human rights violations now are worse than they have been in a very long time. It is more difficult to bear as in recent years many felt that there was more hope for a brighter future. Those in whom so much hope had been placed, now with some degree of power, have continued many of the policies of the previous military dictatorship and military backed government. This is another disappointment which prolongs the suffering in the country.

Many people have kindly told us how the leadership and experience of our father is so badly needed in Burma today. In addressing today’s challenges, we often discuss amongst ourselves, what would our father have done?

Seeing how the Burmese military had used ceasefire agreements with other ethnic organisations as a way of weakening them, corrupting them, and extending their own territory, our father was opposed to any negotiation process which was not genuinely designed to reach a political solution.

He stated that if the Burmese military wanted a nationwide ceasefire, they should start the process by declaring their own ceasefire. Since the ceasefire processes began under the military backed government of President Thein Sein, the military have continued to attack ethnic organisations, continued to kill civilians, continued to use rape as a weapon of war. In Kachin State and northern Shan State conflict has significantly increased. The Burmese military have increased their spending on arms, which are only ever used against the people of Burma. There is no indication the Burmese military have any genuine intention for peace in our country. Their goal remains the same, take our freedom, take our lands, take our resources, and if we resist they take our lives.

The NLD-led government has continued with a peace process that was never designed to bring about genuine peace and a political solution. Even if the government had genuine good intentions, which we do not believe it has, they do not control the military, and the military has set conditions on the process which will mean ethnic people will only get their rights if the military decide to give them. We don’t believe this will happen.

Some Burman civil society organisations, and the international community have in effect sided with the government of Burma, and the agenda of the military, in pressuring ethnic organisations into agreeing to ceasefires which in the long term are undermining our decades’ long struggle for basic rights and protections.

Where is the equivalent pressure being put on the Burmese military to declare a ceasefire? The Burmese Army are the aggressors, but instead of pressure and demands for them to announce a ceasefire, they receive training and arms from the international community.

Our father’s predictions of the dangers of being drawn into a process which is not genuine are being proven true.  We believe that instead of continuing with the current peace process, it is time to work to build a process that is designed to reach a genuine political solution. This process must be fair and more inclusive.

In centuries past we Karen were a divided nation, and this allowed our oppressors to treat us like slaves. By working together we became stronger, we were able to promote our rights and improve our situation. It is through greater unity that we will finally achieve our goal, the right to self-determination, free from oppression, with our people and our culture protected. Our lack of unity is the most powerful weapon the Burmese military use against us. Disunity within the Karen nation enabled the military government to assassinate our father.

Our father was one of the main voices within the Karen National Union arguing for unity with all ethnicities and religions within Burma, welcoming 88 Generation Students into Karen territories. He played a leading role in alliances bringing people together, not just to oppose the military, but to build a better, positive future for the country, one based on democracy and human rights for all, regardless of our ethnicity or our religion.

The Burmese military has been very effective at divide and rule policies. Not just creating division between ethnicities, but also forcing division within them.

Our father would be deeply saddened to see the division that exists in Burma today. He would be saddened by the division between ethnic organisations, which have not approached peace negotiations in a unified way. He would also be very concerned at how, as a result of the policies and attitudes of the NLD-led government towards ethnic people, towards the peace process, and its defence of the military, there is growing mistrust from many ethnic people about what is starting to be seen as a Burman dominated government which is siding with the military.  Our father always sought unity for a federal democratic Burma.

We have no doubt that our father would be horrified by the actions of the military against the Rohingya minority. He would not have been fooled by the lies and denials of human rights violations committed by the Burmese military, as those same lies were used against us when the military were burning Karen villages and raping Karen women. He was a strong ally and friend of the struggle of Rakhine for their rights and freedom, as are we.  We believe he would have seen the encouragement of hatred and violence against the Rohingya, and the support for nationalists, as a deliberate political strategy by the Burmese military to divide the people, and to divert them from fighting their true enemy, the military. We must never underestimate how clever and devious the Burmese military are that they can fool the people into cheering their own oppressor.

Our already divided nation is becoming even more divided. Talk of unity and strength in diversity have become empty words. Intolerance of people with different religions is growing. Intolerance of people with different political views is also growing. It seems like the decades of living under military rule where anyone with differing views was seen as an enemy and threat have embedded themselves into the culture. The democratically elected part of the government, and leadership of some ethnic organisations, seem to share the same intolerance to criticism. To insult, abuse and threaten someone who has views you disagree with seems to be acceptable to many. This is not the tolerant society with freedom of expression which so many have sacrificed so much for.

Instead of focussing on what divides us and who we hate, we should be focussing on what kind of country we want to live in. We need to build a positive vision of how we want our country to be that goes beyond the slogans of peace, democracy and unity.

Most people want to get rid of the military drafted 2008 Constitution, but where is the discussion on what should replace it? At present any proposed amendments will essentially be left to the government, military, and those who sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement, if it ever does reach that stage, which is unlikely.

Shouldn’t there be a much broader process involving all political parties, all civil society, all sectors of society as well? Could that process of drafting a new Constitution be used to unite us, both in what we have in common and want for the future.

Unity wasn’t just a word for Padoh Mahn Sha, he lived it. Taking in fleeing students after the 88 uprising and hosting NLD MPs and other ethnic organisations was a risk he supported because he knew we needed unity. He risked his life being held hostage and negotiating with other groups when there were splits, and travelled through dangerous jungles and mountains, through conflict zones, to meet other ethnic organisations and build unity.

Today we need unity more than ever. We must be united not just by opposition to our common enemy, the military, but also by what we are for, real democracy, human rights, women’s equality, and religious freedom. A diverse nation of many ethnicities and religions, different, but equal. If he were alive today, this is what our father would be working for.

Saw Say Say Phan

Nant Bwa Bwa Phan

Nant Zoya Phan

Slone Phan


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