Giulia Garbagni draws on the St Antony’s archives to describe the Karen petition for statehood.
St Antony’s College Library in the University of Oxford houses an interesting collection of documents, part of which was donated in 1975 by Peter Murray (1915-2000), civil servant in Burma and later British ambassador to Cambodia (1961-1965) and Ivory Coast (1970-1972). During a brief period of study at Oxford (1937-38, at Merton College), Murray had the opportunity to meet G. E. (Godfrey Eric) Harvey (1889-1962), a prominent historian of pre-colonial Burma (author, among others, of History of Burma, published in 1925) and a career colonial servant in Burma for twenty years himself. Pupil and professor maintained contacts during Murray’s years in the Civil Service, up until Harvey’s death in 1962. Their correspondence, however, represents only a small part of Murray’s donation to St Antony’s College collection – the bulk of the material (donated by Harvey’s daughter, Mrs D. Brink) is comprised largely of Harvey’s exchanges with S’au Joshua Poo Nyo, who, after serving under Harvey in the Burma Frontier Service, later became President of the Karen National Union (KNU) in 1950.
The exchanges between Harvey and S’au Joshua Poo Nyo start out in a somewhat idyllic situation, in 1947, when Poo Nyo still lived in Rangoon, in the Karen Quarter of Thamaing. Harvey, who at the time was already back in Oxford, maintained a vivid interest for the fate of both his former colleague and the Karen state. Their private correspondence, albeit often dealing with mundane topics (such as Poo Nyo’s difficulties in finding a proper razor in Burma, or Harvey’s descriptions of family gatherings in Scotland), provides us with another valuable piece to the picture of the first years of Kawthoolei and also works as a faithful record of the experiences of many Karen through those of S’au Poo Nyo. This post aims to highlight one topic in particular, a subject which plays a central role in the papers: the possibility for the new-born Karen State to appeal to the United Nations, in the hope that the (equally new) organization would recognize it as an independent nation.
The early 1950’s were years of unprecedented hope in the principles of national self-determination and international law. While the most notable UN appeal of the time was that of the Dalai Lama for Tibet, in November 1950, the Karen had been eyeing other precedents to advocate their cause since the end of the war: “If such a magnanimous spirit could possibly be expressed in the Balkan States [referring to Macedonia’s independence from Bulgaria and the autonomy given to the states of Czechoslovakia], we believe and trust that the British Government could do as much and more still for the loyal minorities in her Dominions, so that they could live secure and grow up unhindered as Progressive Nations under the guardianship of the British Government.” In a pamphlet sent to the British Prime Minister in 1947, the KNU added to the list: “Burma was separated from India, Northern Ireland from Southern Ireland […]” and concluded: “Where there is a will, there is a way.”
S’au Poo Nyo: seeking UN’s recognition
After taking up the new position as “Secretary in the Ministry of Karen Affairs of the Govt. of Burma” in January 1948,  Poo Nyo lamented the lack of personnel and organization within the institution – “The other Ministries i.e. the Kachin, Shan, are settling down but mine is still a one-man show”, but remarked enthusiastically: “Atmosphere in the whole country appears charged with all kinds of possibilities; I may even say that one can smell it. So, let us hope for the best whatever happens.” It took less than a year for the atmosphere to change drastically, and he then reported that “no step is taken to keep it [the vernacular press] within decent bounds”. As a result of such direct targeting from the press, Poo Nyo’s hopes were completely replaced by disillusionment: “I […] greatly fear that whatever ‘golden opinions’ were won must have entirely vanished by now as Karen opinion does not exist even in Burma leave alone foreign countries.” Poo Nyo was forced to flee Rangoon following violent attacks to the Karen quarter in January 1949. After almost a year of silence, in October 1949, he wrote back to Harvey from Toungoo (and suggesting as an alternative address Maesaut, Thailand):
“You perhaps heard on the wireless that as far as we Karens are concerned, our Karen State of Kawthoolei is an accomplished fact. We would therefore like to go up to the U.N.O. for recognition.”
Harvey must have been surprised by such determination coming from someone who could be considered a “reluctant” rebel leader. An educated bureaucrat who read Shakespeare and often criticized British literature, Poo Nyo seems to find himself at the top of the Karen political circles more for necessity of “choosing sides” during the outburst of inter-ethnic violence in early 1949, rather than because of fervent nationalism:
“As a Government servant, I did not have the confidence of the Karen political leaders while as a Karen, I was not trusted by the Government. The result was that when the real shooting started, my house being in a Karen quarter, I had no alternative but to remain with my family and people, not that I regret it seeing that my own Government never wanted me as it turned out. There is thus no turning back for me.”
Nevertheless, the U.N.O. [United Nations Organization] option suggested by Poo Nyo stands out as a unique approach to Karen independence, pursuing a legal international process rather than guerrilla operations or open conflict. Harvey immediately pledged his support to the initiative and reached out to Andrew Boyd, of the United Nations Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: “I fear it can’t be done, & even if it could, UNO is already overburdened”, yet insisting that “even a fatuous attempt at making an application might at any rate result in some badly needed publicity.” For a curious coincidence, Boyd too happened to have served in Burma (in the 14th Army) and confided to Harvey: “[…] personally I have great sympathy for the Karen cause”. However, after suggesting that the matter was “beyond UN’s scope, being a primarily domestic dispute between a national government and an internal minority,” Boyd wrote again to Harvey a few days later, pointing him to a UNO Economic & Social Council resolution “which seems relevant” and “is really the only appropriate way in which a minority group can lodge a complaint against its own government”. Therefore, Harvey immediately informed Poo Nyo that the only option for him was to submit a complaint under Art. 55c of the UN Charter, to be anonymously forwarded to both the Burmese Government and the UN Commission on Human Rights. Attaching the booklet The Charter Explained (“though the least unintelligible I could find, they aren’t very readable”), Harvey reassured Poo Nyo over the option of petitioning the UN within a human rights framework – quite a different thing than reclaiming national sovereignty: “Don’t be misled by the fact that art. 55c covers only human rights: the officials concerned assure me human rights are, like ‘conduct prejudicial to good discipline’ in Army regulations, a general clause which can cover even the complaint of a minority goaded into rebellion.”
In his reply, Poo Nyo expressed his puzzlement in front of a somewhat vague application of UN norms: “The rules are there but I often wondered whether they were made to be followed,” mentioning the examples of Indonesia (not a UN member at the time, yet receiving “all the recognition which the UNO can bestow on any state”) and Nationalist China (still representing China at the UN but far from exerting factual sovereignty over the mainland) and reaching only one certain conclusion: “power politics are certainly bewildering to me as they have always been”.
With the outburst of the Korean War, Poo Nyo’s enthusiasm at the idea of engaging the UN started oscillating between resignation (“I greatly doubt whether there is a point in doing anything at all about our case. What the repercussions of the Korean flare-up will be I cannot imagine.”) and renewed conviction (“Under prevailing conditions, I do not see how peace can find its way into Burma except via the United Nations as in the case of Kashmir”). Another event in international politics worried Poo Nyo: the Burmese recognition of Communist China. “[…] if the Chinese Communists decide to walk into Burma either on account of its rice or because of its strategic position, again what happens then? And you know better than I do that the Chinese be they Communist or Nationalist consider the Silver and Jade mines of Burma their property.”
Harvey’s personal views on the “UN option” are somehow more cryptic. At times he showed great faith in the potential of the new organization: “I am sorry for the people of Korea, a mere pawn in the game. But the way UNO as a whole – though not all of the members – have reacted is a healthy spin of sanity returning in the world slowly.” However, he grew more outspokenly doubtful when Poo Nyo’s strategy took the unexpected direction of linking Karen independence to the legend of its Israeli origins – as I will now show.
The “Israeli way” to the UN
After reading a newspaper article on Thakin Nu’s visit to Israel, Poo Nyo wrote Harvey: “I would therefore be much obliged if you can kindly take the trouble to find out and put me in touch with somebody either in Israel or elsewhere who takes an interest in the subject; i.e. the connection between the Israelites of old and the Karens.” Harvey’s attempts to dismiss these theories had little success.
In fact, mixing biblical narrative and nationalist pride, Poo Nyo revealed an unprecedented fervor:
“I understand that the Jews have been the most persecuted people on earth and that they had for long yearned for a home in the land which was once their own. […] The Karen case is very similar to that of the Jews, only in our case, there has not yet arisen among those who know the Karens, a Balfour courageous enough to champion their cause. Undoubtedly, at least part of the reason is that unlike the Jews, the Karens have never had a penny in this world of materialism and as a corollary, they have never had a look-in in international affairs, or national affairs, for that matter. […] My point however is that having understood as a nation what persecution means, the Jews are in a position to appreciate to the full the entire connotation, attendent [sic] on misery and humiliation which another tiny ‘nation has undergone and is, undergoing […] Or, has the modern Jew become too sophisticated or hardened in all respects and beyond approach?
[…] If as the contributor of the news item concede, there are some Jews who even though remotely, connect the Jews with the Karens, then surely such individuals will not turn a deaf ear to our story. I have also heard that even such an august body like the UNO is particularly solicitous about the welfare of minorities and self determination for themselves and its main concern is the uplift of underdeveloped countries; but how can we Karens expect either assistance or sympathy from that world organisation when we have no country of our own. In all respects the Karens and the Burmans are poles asunder […] You might as well expect the Chinese and the Japanese to live together amicably – in spite of their affinities – as wish that the Karens and the Burmans live together in a brotherly manner. […] but as you know, while the Burmans were given independence for their treachery, the Karens as I told you, were thrown to the wolves and designated ‘rebels’. […] The few determined men and women who remain will however see that the torch is carried on even after they themselves are dead and buried. I bear in mind the fact that after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses never stepped foot on Canaan although he was shewn it.”
Even Poo Nyo had to admit: “I have let myself go somewhat in this letter but if it is not you whom I can tell, then there is nobody else.” Over the years, Poo Nyo’s “reluctant leadership” had evolved in a deeper consciousness of his political role, often embracing a cynical realism: “[…] in an immoral world moral suasion is not enough: right is powerless without might” – accompanied by a deterministic sense of history: “[…] after all, the thing [the Karen-Burmese civil war] was bound to come and it is just as well it came during out time and not during the times of our children.”
Somehow mirroring Poo Nyo’s disenchantment, Harvey echoed his cynicism: “I can’t think of any Jew who could be willing to correspond with you: it isn’t only their senior officers who are preoccupied, but their whole society seems to lack leisure, building up a new state on infertile soil, surrounded by enemies, with little family life, sharing communal farms, even elderly women as well as elderly men working all-out”. And again: “[…] events abroad which would have caused an outburst of indignation a generation ago are now passed over with indifference, usually on the ground that it’s exaggerated especially if it takes place in one of the new democracies or an ex-colony.” Harvey’s frankness hit the UN as well: “UNO is a broken reed; most people on UNO regard the Burma Govt as a model of good behavior with its well known Buddhist tolerance, its benevolent & statesmanlike attitude towards the misguided Karens &c &c.” The implications for Poo Nyo were bitter ones: “Whatever the real situation, are you not technically, for international purposes, ‘a Burmese citizen[’], just as German Jews, even when undergoing persecution, were none the less German citizens.” These words must have been quite painful to Poo Nyo, who, from Mae Sariang a few months earlier, had written: “Prudentials [the insurance company Poo Nyo was trying to get his gratuity from] want me to give them –– amongst other things –– my nationality and I’ll rather lose the money than be called a Burman.”
Poo Nyo never submitted a complaint to the UN. After briefly moving to Bangkok around 1956, he eventually returned to Rangoon in the early 1960s. In his last letter to Murray he mourned the “immeasurable loss” of Harvey’s death: “No human being could have done more for a fellow human being than what Mr. Harvey did for me both officially & privately. I’ll never again find a friend like him either among my own kind or outside.” And concluded:
“Many thanks for your felicitations regarding my being “back home”. The irony of this return ‘home’ however is that I haven’t even got a house now to live in; my own house was burned down in February 1949 & now they won’t even give me back the site of the house & what is more, my application for my BFS [Burma Frontier Service] gratuity has been summarily rejected. So, that’s ‘negotiated peace’!”
The letters do not give us any further insight into S’au Poo Nyo’s life back in Rangoon, or into the reasons behind his choice to distance himself from the KNU armed rebellion. His desire to reunite with his family and children (often mentioned in his letters) might have played a role in his decision – as his son Arthur studied at London’s Imperial College of Science thanks to a Burmese Government scholarship, Poo Nyo had to cut all contacts with him since 1949, “for fear my letters might compromise him.” It is also easy to speculate that Poo Nyo, an educated civil servant aware of the bureaucratic dynamics of the state, well understood that by the 1960s the Kawthoolei independence movement had lost its momentum. It is equally easy to imagine that, as a rebel leader with little military experience, and whose first thought in 1949 had been that of achieving a peaceful settlement with the central government through the international legal procedures of the UN, Poo Nyo would have hardly played any relevant role in orchestrating the guerrilla activities that would dominate the KNU strategy for the following decades.
“5 December 1949. Occasion: Marriage of my daughter, VIOLET. Place: St. David’s, Toungoo.
Personalities: L to R. My son-in-law S’au Thet Wa (you can find his name in Seagrim’s Morrison & Diary by Guthrie), my daughter VIOLET, our uncle U PO BYU who gave away the bride, he’s now 95 years old, my younger daughter, STELLA & then of course, my good SELF.” 
Giulia Garbagni is currently an MSc Candidate in Modern Japanese Studies at the University of Oxford, St Antony’s College, where she researches Japanese foreign policy towards South-East Asia – in particular, Japan’s ODA strategy in Myanmar.
She holds a Bachelor Degree (Cum Laude) in International Relations from Bologna University, Italy, and a Double MSc in International Affairs (Distinction) from Peking University and the London School of Economics. Her main area of academic interest covers the international relations and history of East and South-East Asia.
You can reach Giulia at: firstname.lastname@example.org