RANGOON — Some 200 members of the ethnic Karen community in Rangoon held a ceremony in Kamayut Township on Tuesday to mark the 64th Karen Martyrs’ Day. It was the first time since the start of the political reform process in 2011 that the event was held in public in Rangoon.
Community leaders of the Karen in Rangoon and Irrawaddy divisions, which are home to hundreds of thousands of Karen, and representatives of the Karen National Party and armed groups the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) attended the event.
Karen Martyrs Day marks the day that Saw Ba U Gyi, the first KNU president, was killed in a Burma Army ambush on Aug 12, 1950, together with eight of his comrades in a remote village of Hto Kaw Koe in Kawkareik Township, Karen State.
The carefully planned assassination is a key moment in the Karen’s more than 60-year-long struggle for political autonomy and Karen Martyrs Day is held to remember all Karen fighters who have fallen in resistance to Burmese rule.
The KNU liaison office organized an event in the Karen State capital Hpa-an, while the armed groups held military parades in their areas of control to mark Martyrs Day.
The Karen leaders gathered at Judson Hall on Tuesday and laid wreaths and bouquets of flowers in front of the portraits of the slain men.
“We marked our Martyrs Day because we intended for our new Karen generation to remember their leaders and because the new generation needs to carry on the unfinished political movements of their leaders,” said Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, director of the Karen Women’s Action Group.
“This celebration was for the first time hosted in Rangoon. Before we only celebrated our Martyrs Day in the liberated area,” she said.
Naw Ohn Hla, a Karen rights activist, said, “We want our new generation to know why our Karen leaders sacrificed their lives.
“Our leaders want to have a federal system in our country, and this was why they struggled in the revolution and paid with their lives for this ideal. Until today, we still could not see [the beginnings of] a federal system,” she said.
Armed groups representing the Karen ethnic minority, which numbers around 6 million, have fought against the Burman-dominated government since 1947. During successive military regimes, the Karen rebels were driven out of Irrawaddy Delta and into small mountainous areas on the border with Thailand.
Some 130,000 refugees, most of them Karen, fled southeastern Burma and continue to live in camps on the Thai-Burma border.
The KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire with the President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian, reformist government in 2012 and there have been relatively few armed clashes between the sides since.