(I use “Karen State” and “Burma“ since many of the events addressed here took place before the renaming).
Researchers, journalists, and aid workers who met the Karen communities along the Thai-Myanmar border have surely encountered his face a dozen times at least – on posters in people’s houses or on banners during the annual Karen martyr’s day celebrations. Saw Ba U Gyi, up to today, is the face of the Karen rebellion. He is best known as the founder of the Karen National Union (KNU). Ba U Gyi was a committed politician, who repeatedly voiced the Karen cause in negotiations with the British and the post-independence Burma government, and eventually resorted to an armed struggle. This article aims to explore the life and legacy of this Christian Sgaw Karen man, born in a village far away from later Karen State, who in the years prior to the civil war lived in London to study law, married an English woman, and became a father of three. Saw Ba U Gyi was murdered in 1950, at 47 years of age. He remains of symbolic importance for the Karen National Union as an organization, which remains active and influential, and for many Karen who have been directly or indirectly affected by the violent conflicts in Eastern Myanmar.
Saw Ba U Gyi was born in October 1903, in a village near Bassein (now: Pathein), the capital of Irrawaddy Division. Ba U Gyi’s father was a landowner, and he was also the headman of the village, facts that made him relatively wealthy and influential. The British had ruled Burma for several decades by that time, and they had turned the Irrawaddy Delta region from a laid-back and scarcely populated part of the country into the country’s main rice producing area. In this process, thousands of migrants came from upper Burma and from India, to turn swamps and jungles into rice fields for large-scale cultivation. This endeavour brought about vast changes for the Karen and Burman people in the region who had previously mainly practised subsistence farming and fishing. Many of the Karen people had adopted Christianity as well as ideas of the importance of formal education. People increasingly moved to towns, and livelihood patterns changed. What is known about Saw Ba U Gyi’s life has thankfully been published by his grandson, Paul Sztumpf (2011) in order to enable both, Karen and non-Karen to understand more about what he and his family had experienced. Ba U Gyi’s father belonged to a family of Christian Sgaw Karen. In his village, however, there was also a sizable Burman Buddhist population. According to reports, both groups lived in peaceful coexistence, but inhabited separate parts of the village and contact between them remained limited. Community life in each part of the village was centred around the church and monastery respectively. Village life was generally marked by the seasons, by agriculture and by the cycle of traditional festivals. Ba U Gyi’s father, as village headmen, was responsible to care for all people’s concerns. He supported community projects such as Bassein Sgaw Karen High School named Ko Tha Byu. The Ko Tha Byu Church and the Theological Seminary remain the center of the Sgaw community of Pathein up to today.
Not much is known about Ba U Gyi’s mother, who he grew up with, together with his two older, and two younger sisters. What we do know is that Saw Ba U Gyi went to a Baptist high school where he was taught by foreign missionary teachers. Saw Ba U Gyi grew up with the awareness of being Karen and Christian, and thus belonging to an ethnic and religious minority. Increasingly, and not least because of British policy, hostilities emerged between Karen Christians and Burman Buddhists. The British had recruited many Karen into the police and the armed forces. While among Burman nationalists the wish for independence grew, in the eyes of some Karen leaders British rule seemed to grant some degree of protection and privileges to the Karen. Difference in loyalties should become one of the major dividing lines of an emerging conflict that would shape the fate of the Karen people for decades to come.
After completing high school, Ba U Gyi was sent to London to study law and train as a barrister, together with his cousin. He arrived in London aged 18, and he would stay for eight years. While studying in London, he met Renee Rose Kemp, an English woman, a talented seamstress, who worked as a shop window dresser in one of London’s main shopping areas. The couple started dating, went for dinner, to the cinema, and dancing to Charleston. They married in 1926, and a year later their son Michael Theodore was born. After finishing his degree in law in 1926, Ba U Gyi had to be trained in a lawyer’s association, until he could finally call himself a barrister three years later. In 1929 Ba U Gyi finished his training, and became father of a second child, a girl named Thelma Resa. By the end of the same year, the whole family boarded a ship to Burma. Saw Ba U Gyi was now 26 years old (see Sztumpf, 2011).
Saw Ba U Gyi and his family set up their home first in Pathein, and later in Myaungmya, a nearby town which is home to a large Karen population until today. Pathein and Myaungmya had now for many years marked by to commerce. They were urban centres with mostly Burmese, but also Karen, British, Indian, and Chinese inhabitants. Respectively, a variety of food, music, movies and products was available. The family lived here for several years, and Saw Ba U Gyi run his office as a lawyer. He spent his free time exchanging ideas with students and teachers from the Karen High School, and playing football and golf. Photos of those days show him wearing a western-style suit and driving a Ford V-8RD.484. In court, he would wear a gown, like a British barrister. Renee adapted to the new life in Burma. She had a friend in a fellow foreign Lady in town, the Scottish wife of Ba U Gyi’s cousin, who had also spent his student years in London.
Before long, circumstances became more challenging. The Great Depression had taken a toll on Burma. Farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta were highly indebted to moneylenders or absent landowners. Economic struggles led to intensifying tensions in the country’s population and fostered nationalism and hostility toward immigrants and ethnic minorities. Indians and Chinese in particular were targeted and at times they became victims of violent attacks. Furthermore, the British, too, made more and more use of violent suppression. Recruiting members of ethnic minorities into their army fostered divisions. In 1930 the Saya San uprising was answered with a major military act by the British, with many of the 10.000 involved soldiers being Karen. Within the political realm, a Burmese elite started to emerge around Aung San and his companions, who attempted to lead the country toward independence.
When the war reached Burma, Saw Ba U Gyi left to his native village and four years should pass until he could see his family again. By April 1942 large parts of Burma were under Japanese control. What was left of the British army as well as hundreds of thousands of Indians fled toward Arakan under horrendous conditions. Among the masses of refugees were Ba U Gyi’s wife Renee and their two children. Upon his return, Saw Ba U Gyi found his house empty. With luck and the help of influential friends his wife and children could leave Indian exile to return to London, on a weeks-long journey from Bombay by ship.
In Burma, violence between Karen and Burman groups erupted in several parts of the country. Many Karen were branded traitors, having fought for the British. Burman nationalists had managed to set up the Burma Independence Army (BIA). Saw Bah U Gyi’s cousin and lifelong friend Pe Tha was killed alongside his Scottish wife and their children, as were countless others (Karen as well as Burmans) in the area around Myaungmya, a Karen stronghold. It is those traumatic events that arguably constituted the root of Saw Ba U Gyi’s evolving political agenda, and his four principles that the Karen National Union (KNU) upholds until today (see below).
Saw Ba U Gyi initially worked together with General Aung San to prevent violence and support reconciliation between and within communities. Living in Yangon now, he formed the Karen Central Organization (KCO). The KCO was recognized as an official body representing the interests of the Karen by the ruling political powers. Having been in contact with the Japanese, Saw Ba U Gyi at one point even went to Japan for a visit. In 1944, the British were ready to reinvade Burma. They had planned this undertaking carefully, having trained thousands of Karen as soldiers. Some of them would later become leading figures in the KNU. A growing Karen ethno-nationalism fuelled the conflict, depicting the Burmans as the enemy. General Aung San tried to keep a balanced position between the various political interests, but now oriented more strongly towards the Allies that after the victorious battle of Imphal (India) in July 1944 could be expected to drive the Japanese out of Burma. The Japanese surrendered in September 1945. Only a few weeks later, a delegation of seven young leaders from Burma was invited to Ceylon, to start negotiations. Aung San went, and with him Saw Ba U Gyi, to represent the Karen. The responsible British commander to lead the negotiations had a liberal orientation. He promised Aung San Burma’s independence within three years. However, the country’s infrastructure had suffered, the economy was set back. Several different groups with competing interests started to participate in the race to shape the new Burma, and a number of these groups set up their own armies.
The KCO made official demands to the British for a Karen state, either as a separate state or as an equal partner in a federal dominion. It was also Saw Ba U Gyi who used the word “Kawthoolei“ for this state (which translates to “a land without evil“), a term that is still in use among Karen communities today (Keenan, 2008, 3). However, ultimately none of the demands for such a state were answered. The Karen leaders envisioned equality for their people, a chance to shape their own destiny without having to live as second-class citizens. In August 1946, a delegation of Karen, led by Saw Ba U Gyi, reached London to present their cause. Arriving at the docks, he was reunited with his family. Saw Ba U Gyi soon realized that his mission would not succeed. While the Karen leaders received recognition for their past services, no one supported them in their demand for a state of their own, regardless of promises that might have been uttered in the past. These demands were basically ignored. Saw Ba U Gyi returned to Burma, disappointed and without his family. He and his wife decided to divorce (Sztumpf, 2011).
While Aung San continued to negotiate details on Burma’s independence, Saw Ba U Gyi reorganized the KCO, and formed the Karen National Union (KNU), with the idea to unite Karen of several religions with a shared hope for a separate state. However, other organized Karen groups had been established in the meantime, and not everyone was agreeing on specific demands. There were differing views, for instance, on the areas that a Karen state should encompass. Saw Ba U Gyi soon resigned from Aung San’s cabinet as a sign of protest. It remains unknown whether Aung San’s attempts to overcome tensions and conflicts between different ethnic groups could have been successful. He was assassinated in July 1947, together with other members of his cabinet. A few months later, in January 1948, Burma officially gained independence. The British left, but the “Karen conflict” remained unsolved.
Negotiations with the new government under U Nu took place, but for Saw Ba U Gyi, the offers by the leading party did not leave enough room for Karen rule. Consequently, they were rejected by Karen representatives. Decades of divide-and-rule had imposed distrust. When the talks went silent, the Karen under Saw Ba U Gyi resorted to direct action. A period of unrest and violence started, not only between Karen and Burmans but also on other fronts. On February 11, 1948 Karen people started demonstrating in different parts of the country. In the violent incidences of the following weeks, many Karen soldiers as well as parts of the Burmese army acted independently from their leaders. Karen villages were attacked but the Karen army seized the township of Insein which it held for 100 days. The Burmese army could eventually claim it back, and the KNDO (Karen National Defence Organization) had to resort first to Toungoo, and after long fighting, further back into the mountains of Karen country. U Nu and Saw Ba U Gyi attempted to negotiate, but no solution could be reached. In 1950, a KNU congress under Saw Ba U Gyi was organized, and the organization specified its demands. In this context, Saw Ba U Gyi formulated his famous four principles that are uphold by the KNU up to today:
1. For us surrender is out of the question, 2. The recognition of Karen state must be complete, 3. We shall retain our arms, 4. We shall decide our own political destiny.
The post-independence period saw widespread insurgencies in different parts of the country, of which the Karen rebellion was one. Martin Smith estimated that around 60.000 people died in Burma within the first two years of resurrections alone (Smith, 1991, 119). On the 12th of August 1950 Saw Ba U Gyi was travelling through Papun district in today’s Karen State that was created in 1952 with nine of his colleagues. They had no guards. The group had been staying in Karen villages, in one of which their trust was eventually betrayed on that day. Saw Ba U Gyi and his colleagues were attacked and killed by government troops. Ba U Gyi’s body was taken to Moulmein, where it was thrown overboard near the coast, to ensure that no Marty’s grave could be set up.
Up to today, the 12th of August is celebrated as Martyr’s day in Karen State.
Aims, Achievement, Legacy
While we have some information, many details about Saw Ba U Gyi‘s role in the turbulent times during the Second World War and after independence remain unclear. Why did he fail in the negotiations? Did he overestimate the loyalty of the British, and the unity among Karen? What drove him to ultimately resort to an armed struggle? Who were his close allies? Who betrayed him? Today, he is often presented as a unifying Karen leader, famous for his four principles and his persistence to achieve the goal of a Karen state. However, several people remember him personally as someone who would clearly have preferred to solve things peacefully. As a passionate lawyer who respected regulations, someone who was open to compromise, and certainly not a hardliner (Thawnghmung, 2012, 47–49). However, Saw Ba U Gyi was also greatly disappointed by the British and the newly set up Burmese government alike, both of which largely ignored the demands of the Karen he represented. He had witnessed the horrendous deaths of many friends and fellow Karen in the 1942 Myaungmya incident, and he was under pressure to bring forward the wishes of many who feared repression and revenge by Burmans more generally and the Burmese military more specifically.
These people’s fears were not unfounded. The “Karen conflict“ should develop into a decade-long brutal war. The Tatmadaw attacked the KNU controlled areas viciously, killing thousands and displacing even more. Entire communities were forced to hide in the jungles. At times more than 120.000 lived in refugee camps in Thailand, and tens of thousands still do. For a long period, the Karen National Union held large parts of the country’s Karen state under its control. Financed mainly through cross-border trade and taxation, the KNU managed to set up state-like structures, including an elected leadership, a strong army and several civil organizations, such as a women’s groups and a youth group. However, the KNU, despite being one of the most influential ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, is far from representing all Karen. Many sub-groups have emerged and there is a high degree of fragmentation among the Karen. Moreover, the majority of the Karen people do not live in Karen state, and thus far away from the KNU controlled territories. And while most Karen are Buddhists, the KNU has from the very beginning been dominated by an educated Christian Sgaw Karen elite. Internal conflicts and fragmentation within the KNU have led to the foundation of several armed splinter groups, such as the Buddhist-led DKBA in 1994. Conflicts between different armed Karen groups, shifting loyalties, and repeated attacks by the Tatmadaw have weakened the organisation over the years. Nevertheless, identification with the KNU remains strong in the refugee camps on Thai ground and probably among many communities living in Karen state, not least because these were directly affected by violent conflicts in past decades. The KNU remains one of the most important non-state parties in peace process negotiations. Its current leader Saw Mutu Say Poe has signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government in 2012. However, new clashes have occurred since then and the conflict seems far from over. Karen leaders have repeatedly emphasized that their struggle does not aim for an independent state, but for a life in peace and without fear, for being able to preserve their culture and language, for a Karen area under Karen leaders. Its founder’s role today is a symbolic one. For many, Saw Ba u Gyi remains the face of the Karen struggle. His photo is omnipresent in KNU-influenced areas (including refugee camps) in people’s homes and in public buildings, and especially during celebrations, where as a symbol, it serves the reproduction and performance of “Karen-ness“. As always, collective ethnic identity is also defined in distinction to “the other“, in this case mostly the Bamar. Keeping the struggle alive is thus also a continuing manifestation of differences, in ethnicity and religion, long fostered and instrumentalized by different sides, during the rule of Burmese Kings, during colonial time, during military years. For most Karen people on the ground the struggle has first and foremost been about hopes for safety, respect, and the freedom to keep and perform their ethnic identity.
I want to thank Paul Sztumpf, the grandson of Saw Ba U Gyi, for sharing information and his views with me in an email correspondence.
Keenan, Paul (2008). Saw Ba U Gyi. Voices of the Revolution. KHCPS paper.
Smith, Martin (1991): Burma. Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. Zed books.
Sztumpf, Paul (2011): The life and times of Saw Ba U Gyi. E-booklet.
South, Ashley (2011): Burma’s longest war. Anatomy of the Karen conflict. Transnational Institute Burma Center Netherlands.
South, Ashley (2008): Ethnic Politics in Burma: States of Conflict. Routledge.
Thawnghmung, Ardeth Maung (2012): The „Other“ Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities And The Struggle Without Arms. Lexington Books.