Celebrating Karenni National Day inside Thai refugee camps, 2007
Q: How do we demonstrate national pride?
With patriotic anthems and firework displays; with rowdy crowds and waving flags; with reverent memories of freedom fighters and previous generations? However we show the glory of our country or culture, we do so to celebrate its physical reality. We exercise the legitimacy of our identity.
But what if a country – as measured by the factors of the developed world (i.e. a seat in the UN, a national airline, borders on an atlas) – does not exist? What if, by these indicators, it is not a country, but merely a group of people with a shared culture and history?
Maybe the greater question is, how do you define a nation? And what, exactly, can you celebrate when a majority of the world does not believe in yours?
Karenni State is one of the smallest “ethnic states” classified in Burma; squashed between the larger Shan State and the more infamous Karen State, it is not even open to tourists. Yet it has never, by any historical account, considered itself part of Burma. Throughout the entire reign of Britain’s colonial powers, both Her Majesty and the Burmese Kings recognized that “the State of Western Karenee shall remain separate and independent, and that no sovereignty or governing body of any description shall be claimed or exercised over that State.” – Treaty signed June 21st, 1875.
Today marks the 137th anniversary of this claim to nationhood. Inside the Karenni camps along the Thai border, refugees dressed in their traditional clothes or donned shirts saying “I (heart) Karenni.” Students carried banners and marched with hundreds more behind them. There were speeches and flags, a reminder of this people’s unity and hope in the face of adversity.
“After you leave,” a coworker told me, “we hope you will still be a voice for Karenni people. We worry that no one will know about us, or our struggle, because when they look at a map, we are not there.”
Remember, whenever our national holiday falls on the calendar, that we celebrate the freedom of recognition – and let us appreciate all those unknown nations who have yet to achieve this goal...
To read more about the various ethnic states of Burma and their struggles towards recognition and/or independence, visit the Burma Partnership or follow news of Burma’s ethnic conflicts at the BBC.
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My deepest apologies to my Karenni friends and co-workers, and to those readers upset by my misuse of the Karen flag. As a journalist, it is always embarrassing when our enthusiasm for a story blinds us to mistakes; because yes, I should and DO know and respect the difference between national flags.
Thank you to those who pointed out this error.
I have changed the image to the appropriate Karenni flag and hope to reassure my audience that I remain an advocate of the Karenni people.