On Monday, June 18, thousands of Karen people gathered in front of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. to bring attention to the persecution they face at the hands of the Burmese government. Over a dozen speakers addressed the crowd with speeches in both English and Karen to discuss the ways for them to peacefully push for an end to the genocide in Myanmar.
The Karen people in Myanmar have been fighting the world’s longest running civil war for over 60 years, dating back to the end of British colonization in 1948. The state is run primarily by the military that has forced the Karen people to become refugees in their own land. They have no religious or political rights and are trapped in a country that is rife with corruption and chaos. Despite the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015, the Burmese Army has constantly broken the peace to destroy Karen villages. Minorities there live in constant fear of being murdered or raped, and they lack basic freedoms.
Of the approximately 20,000 Karen gathered in front of the Capitol Building, many had traveled from across the United States to attend the rally. Since the 1980s Karen refugees have been resettled in America, with the largest communities residing in Minnesota, New York, and Nebraska.
The Karen people have enthusiastically adopted America as their new home. One young Karen man from Texas spoke with a heavy southern drawl and described himself as an “Asian cowboy.” Many of the speakers emphasized their gratitude for the liberty and freedom they enjoy here. One man from the crowd even grabbed the mic to loudly proclaim “Thank you America!” These people were waving American and Karen flags together as well as proudly carrying the flags of Arkansas, South Carolina, Indiana, and many others states that have welcomed them.
Several of the speakers acknowledged the importance of having an ally like President Trump leading America. Lotplar Laywah, one of the leading activists, referred to the president as having “a well-known reputation by being the champion in a fight for universal human rights. People around the world look up to this [Capitol] hill when their rights are being threatened.”
At one point, a speaker led the crowd in a patriotic song he had written entitled “America and Kawthoolei,” about the friendship between the two nations. For the Karen people, “Kawthoolei” represents their ancestral homeland, the territory that their people have resided in for millenia. According to Laywah, “Kawthoolei” directly translates as “land without black spot” or “land without evil.” This desire for safety in a land of their own is what motivates the Karen people.
Other speakers cited American civil rights figures such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy as examples of peaceful protestors. The overwhelming message of the day was one of peaceful activism and unity. They spoke about the need to work with all of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, particularly the Kachin, Shan, and Rohingya peoples who have also suffered heavily at the hands of the Burmese majority.
Former Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) spoke at the rally and echoed the sentiments of other speakers by laying out specific political objectives to aid the Karen people. He argued that the situation in Myanmar constitutes ethnic cleansing and genocide on a national scale and called on Congress to recognize it as such. If the situation does not change “significantly” in the next 30 – 60 days, he encouraged Congress to use the Global Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions upon the Burmese Government.
Other speakers also condemned the current leader of the Burmese government, Aung San Suu Kyi, who, before coming to power, was a world-renowned advocate for human rights and even received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her criticism of the military junta. Since overwhelmingly winning the 2015 election, she has received criticism from prominent diplomats, the U.N. Human Rights chief, and numerous international human rights organizations for turning a blind eye to the abuses of the military and failed to recognize the massacres it routinely carries out.
Several people were carrying signs with pictures of Saw Oh Moo, as a reminder of the brutal repression the Karen fear from the Burmese Army. Moo was a peace advocate who had returned to his village to help organize assistance for the people displaced by the violence. He was shot by the Burmese in April, leaving behind his wife and seven children. This sort of response has become typical for dissidents who oppose the Burmese.
Most of the international media’s attention has been focused on the Rohingya Muslims who have suffered many of the same discrimination that the Karen people have faced, but the estimated 6 million Christian Karen must not be forgotten. Most Karen are Baptists as a result of the pioneering missionary work of Adoniram Judson in the early nineteenth century. Their churches and organizations have endured for centuries but are now being threatened by the Buddhist Burmese government. Laywah gave an example of the repression by recounting an example of how the Karen will build a church only to see the Burmese build a pagoda in close proximity and set up obnoxious loudspeakers. These speakers will blare noise until the Christians are driven away.
Laywah quoted a Burmese general who had expressed his desire to eradicate the Karen saying “One day, if you want to see the Karen people, you’ll have to go and watch at the museum.” The Karen take such animosity as a personal challenge to keep fighting against those who want to destroy them.
The Karen people have a love for democracy and liberty. They advocated a peaceful end to the conflict that has torn apart Myanmar for decades and called for political reforms that will allow minorities to live in democratic freedom. The Karen called on the United States to act decisively to pressure the Burmese government to end the genocide. In these difficult times, Laywah pointed to his faith in God as support. He ended his speech by reminding the crowd “with God, all things are possible.”