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|Zipporah Sein, General Secretary of the Karen National Union.
Photo by Stephanie Guyer-Stevens
Saturday night here in Mae Sot, a town that is home to quite possibly as many Burmese immigrants as Thais, there were fireworks going off in street corners when Aung San Suu Kyi was finally seen on BBC news, leaning over her fence and greeting thousands of people who has been allowed to gather outside her home.
There was a general atmosphere in the town of relief, hope for the future and fear of what’s still unknown, and a strange feeling for many residents here of being able to voice all these emotions aloud. Despite being on Thai soil, it seems that it never feels completely safe for Burmese refugees to unlock the powerful devotion they all apparently share for Aung San Suu Kyi.
Just hours before we received the news about Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest, I returned to Mae Sot from the northwest of Thailand where I interviewed Zipporah Sein. (For security reasons, I can’t disclose her location.) Zipporah is now the General Secretary of the Karen National Union. She is only woman to hold one of the top five leadership positions in the largest of Burma’s ethnic groups, and the only ethnic group to never have signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military.
Zipporah, a strong supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, now finds herself in tactical counterpoint with her, since she leads a group, the Karen National Union, that has fought the Burmese military since the end of World War II, while Aung San Suu Kyi has consistently maintained a stance of nonviolence in her dealings with the military dictatorship.
The Karens’ armed resistance with the Burmese military began after World War II, when the government began to ramp up an effort to suppress the Karen, the largest and most powerful non-Burman ethnic group in the country. The Karen battle for self-determination – their original goal being of creating an independent nation state-- has instead been transformed into one of self preservation, staving off decades of attacks on their civilian population by the Burmese military. The attacks have weakened their forces, and created a situation of constant fear throughout Karen state.
“We aren't taking arms to fight against the government for our benefit, we are struggling for our freedom and our rights,” Zipporah told me
Aung San Suu Kyi’s release has, understandably, drawn the focus of the international media. But, she says, attacks by the Burmese military, the SPDC, are continung in the ethnic regions. In Three Pagodas Pass, the Karen National Liberation Army, or KNLA, joined forces with a splinter faction that had once been rivals, the DKBA, to support each other in fighting attacks by the Burmese military as they are in another Karen region, Wah Lay. There are reports of brief exchanges of gunfire from throughout the state. And in another ethnic region, Shan State, the South Shan Army has been holding off military forces for almost a week.
Zipporah’s predecessor as leader of the Karen, Pado Manh Sha, was deeply involved in negotiations with both the Burmese military and the pro-democratic forcesrepresented by Aung San Suu Kyi and her political movement when he was assassinated in 2008. Zipporah succeeded him. She continues to follow in his footsteps in pursuinga tripartite agreement between the ethnic groups, the democratic political movements and the military as the only route to a real democracy in Burma.
She is hoping that the current climate of severe dissatisfaction with Burma’s election results, both in Burma and around the globe, coupled with Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent powerful statements focused on collaborative dialogue, might finally pave the way for the various pro-democracy forces within Burma to coalesce in a united front.