Oscar Baaye says his people are being ethnically cleansed by the Myanmar military regime, and it was time for the retired engineer to leave Washington state and help.
KAREN STATE, Myanmar — Shortly after Christmas, Oscar Baaye packed 50 pounds of books and a hammock into a suitcase and left Bellingham for a remote jungle outpost in the heart of this rebel-controlled territory in eastern Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Baaye, a retired engineer, went to support the Karen National Union (KNU), an armed ethnic resistance movement that has been fighting the Myanmar government for more than 60 years.
A resident of Bellingham since 1988, Baaye is a member of the Karen tribe. He says his people are being ethnically cleansed by the Myanmar military regime, and it was time for him to leave Washington state and help.
Now, he spends his days in a bamboo army barracks, alongside KNU resistance fighters.
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The insurgents say they are fighting for control over their land, a swath of mountains and valleys they claim on the eastern border of the country. The Karen run their own schools, supply their own electricity and have their own government. They say they are fighting for autonomy for the Karen people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Myanmar, as well as freedom for all the country’s people from the brutal military regime.
Since the British left Burma in 1948, as many as 20 different armed groups have fought the government, and all have failed. Most come from eastern Myanmar, a politically important region on the Thai border rich with teak wood, oil and heroin.
Nearly all the ethnic resistance movements fighting for autonomy have signed cease-fire agreements with the junta. The KNU, the largest and longest-running armed resistance in the country, is the only group that continues to fight.
Slipping in to Karenland
To reach the KNU headquarters, Baaye, 67, first traveled to eastern Thailand, then boarded a small wooden boat to cross the Moei River illegally into Karen State, or, as he calls it, Karenland.
A KNU soldier looks out from behind a rocket launcher in a small thatched guard post overlooking the river. Beside it, a wooden sign reads, “Welcome to Karen National Liberation Army Headquarters.”
The decades of fighting have played out on the land of the Karen people, mostly farmers. The Myanmar army continues to burn down Karen villages and rice fields each month. Women are routinely raped and children captured for use as child soldiers and porters.
As a light rain begins to fall on the mountainside encampment, Baaye ties his hammock between two trees.
Around him, skinny teenage boys patrol the camp with semiautomatic weapons slung over their shoulders. In flip-flops and fake U.S. Army gear, the ragtag Karen army is outnumbered 25-to-1 by better-equipped Myanmar troops.
But Baaye and the Karen resistance still believe they have a chance.
“Soon we will have an autonomous Karen State,” he says. “Dictatorships never last. Stalin, gone. Idi Amin, gone. Hitler, gone. Dictatorships never last.”
Late arrival to the cause
Although he is Karen, Baaye grew up far from the fighting, in Myanmar’s capital city, Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon). He says he lived a privileged life, the son of a shop owner, and knew very little of the struggles in the eastern region.
He moved to the United States in 1968, and came to Washington state in 1988, but he didn’t learn about the Karen struggle until he retired in 2003. “I began meeting Karen refugees in Washington and all over the U.S.,” he says. “They told me their stories and I was horrified. I took up Karen awareness as my full-time mission.”
He began wearing Karen dress, a red or pink woven tunic adorned with braids, as a way to open conversations about the Karen struggle.
“Everyone will have noticed a man in Bellingham in the last two or three years wearing this traditional dress,” he says. “It’s not a costume; I don’t wear it for special occasions. It is my clothing.”
This is his first trip to Karenland, and he describes it as a personal odyssey. When friends and family asked why he was leaving the comfort of Bellingham for the jungles of Myanmar, “I joked and gave the same reason Emerson and Thoreau gave when they went to jail. Why are you not going? Why are you not supporting the Karen cause?”
Baaye takes his breakfast of beef stew, boiled greens and rice in the canteen, a long bamboo hut with a blue tarp roof. Soldiers wash their tin plates in the fast-moving river and young women stir massive pots over open fires on the sandy riverbank. Today is the first day of a unity seminar, and Karen leaders from across the globe have traveled to the remote camp to discuss the future of the movement.
After breakfast, roughly 100 of the visitors gather in an open-air bamboo hall and salute the Karen national flag. The leaders speak in Karen language about strategies and challenges, and recite the movement’s four principles in English:
“Surrender is out of the question. We shall retain our arms. The recognition of Karen State must be complete. We shall decide our own political destiny.”
Locked in violence
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962 and has not had a constitution since 1988, when the army violently suppressed pro-democracy protests and the current junta took power.
In September, the junta crushed peaceful protests that were triggered by rising food prices but expanded to include demands for democratic reforms. The U.N. estimates the crackdown killed at least 31 people, and thousands more were detained. Under intense international pressure, the junta has announced plans for a referendum in May on a proposed new constitution written under military guidance, to be followed by general elections in 2010.
The junta’s domestic and international critics, however, say the plans are undemocratic because they do not involve open debate and bar Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, from taking part in the elections.
Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won the last elections in 1990, but the military refused to hand over power.
Suu Kyi’s party is sympathetic to the Karen cause, although not supportive of its violent methods. The KNU has been criticized for planting landmines and enlisting child soldiers into its ranks, and for continuing to pursue a seemingly unwinnable war in a heavily populated area.
Baaye says he will take up arms only as a last resort. He is interested in developing the educational arm of the KNU. That’s why he brought 50 pounds of books to the jungle.
“I have a revolutionary spirit,” he says, “and education is at the heart of any real revolution.” He wants to open a library and develop the schools in Karen State.
The fighting in Karen State has heated up in recent weeks, as the annual dry-season offensive spreads across the region and Myanmar troops take hold over Karen villages deep in the jungle.
KNU Secretary-General Padoh Mahn Sha, a close friend and mentor to Baaye, was shot and killed in broad daylight Feb. 14.
Still, Baaye says he is confident he is doing what is right for his people.
“It is about upholding simple human rights,” he says. “We are all brothers in this world. If we allow for dignity of one group of men to be trampled, it will have a ripple effect on all of us.”
Baaye plans to return to Bellingham next month to continue his solidarity work. But one day, he hopes to move to “Karenland” for good — “once our country is free.”
Anna Sussman and Jonathan Jones are freelance print, radio and video journalists, and founders of backpackjournalist.org. They currently live in Bangkok.