Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Fifty Years in the Karen Revolution in Burma

Fifty Years in the Karen Revolution in Burma: The Soldier and the Teacher

Saw Ralph
Naw Sheera
Edited by Stephanie Olinga-Shannon
With an introduction by Martin Smith
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Fifty Years in the Karen Revolution in Burma
    Book Description:

    Fifty Years in the Karen Revolution in Burma is about commitment to an ideal, individual survival and the universality of the human experience. A memoir of two tenacious souls, it sheds light on why Burma/Myanmar's decades-long pursuit for a peaceful and democratic future has been elusive. Simply put, the aspirations of Burma's ethnic nationalities for self-determination within a genuine federal union runs counter to the idea of a unitary state orchestrated and run by the dominant majority Burmans, or Bamar.

    This seemingly intractable dilemma of opposing visions for Burma is personified in the story of Saw Ralph and Naw Sheera, two prominent ethnic Karen leaders who lived-and eventually left-"the Longest War," leaving the reader with insights on the cultural, social, and political challenges facing other non-Burman ethnic nationalities.

    Fifty Years in the Karen Revolution in Burma is also about the ordinariness and universality of the challenges increasingly faced by diaspora communities around the world today. Saw Ralph and Naw Sheera's day to day lives-how they fell in love, married, had children-while trying to survive in a precarious war zone-and how they had to adapt to their new lives as refugees and immigrants in Australia will resound with many.

    eISBN: 978-1-5017-4695-6
    Subjects: History, Asian Studies, Military Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Timeline of Key Events
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    (pp. 1-10)
    Martin Smith

    Until a 2012 ceasefire with the government, the armed struggle by the Karen National Union (KNU) was among the longest-running conflicts in the world. From the outbreak of fighting in January 1949, the KNU’s history reflects a time of turbulence and state failure in Burma (modern-day Myanmar) that has continued until the present day. Even in 2019, after seven years of KNU ceasefire, ethnic peace remains uncertain and political solutions have not been achieved.

    The consequences have been profound. No reliable figures exist for the humanitarian toll. But it is generally accepted that over one million lives have been lost...


    • 1 EARLY LIFE
      (pp. 13-20)

      When I was a small child, my grandmother would make egg pudding for me. I remember her saying, “If you want pudding, you can go and collect the eggs and I can make pudding for you.” Every day I gathered the eggs, and every night she cooked pudding for me. One day she asked me, “Do you like pudding very much?”

      “I like it so much I even want to be called Pudding!” I shouted excitedly.

      The name stuck, and to this day my brothers and sisters still call me Pudding.

      My full name is Ralph Earnest Hodgson. I was...

      (pp. 21-31)

      In 1941 a group of nationalist leaders known as the Thirty Comrades, led by General Aung San, went to Japan to receive military training and weapons.¹ The Thirty Comrades wanted to gain independence from the British, so they recruited a small army of mostly Burman men and formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA). With Britain and its allies occupied on the Western Front in Europe, the Japanese started invading other countries in Asia. With support from the Thirty Comrades and their new army, the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942.² The British didn’t have any reinforcements to defend Burma, so they...

      (pp. 32-43)

      When I first started at the locomotive workshop in Insein, my Burmese colleagues were friendly, and we respected one another. But as the political situation destabilized, slowly the Burmese workers changed. After they undertook basic training in the local Burmese militia defense groups, known as the Burmese Territorial Forces (Sitwundan in Burmese), my Burmese colleagues began talking and acting differently. They started to treat the Karen workers differently and stopped being friendly. They would come to work armed and in their militia uniforms. They became proud and bossy, which made all of the other workers unhappy to be around them....

      (pp. 44-53)

      After two months we were healthy and ready to move again. The villagers wanted us to stay longer and protect them from the Burmese soldiers. These people had suffered before at the hands of soldiers during the Japanese occupation, and we were worried that there might be reprisals if the Burmese army found these people helping us. If even one Karen soldier was found, there would be trouble.

      We had a meeting about our destinations. Soldiers were told to join new units heading in the direction they wanted to go. I decided to join the troops going to Taungoo because...

      (pp. 54-69)

      One day in 1950 Bo San Gyaw and Major Billy were on their way from Hlaingbwe to Mawchi Mine. They dropped in to visit overnight and told us about the Light Brigade. The brigade had obtained some artillery equipment, and didn’t know how to use them, so they asked for an officer to go and organize the artillery unit. In 1950 I was promoted to a lieutenant and transferred to the Light Brigade headquarters at Hlaingbwe, near Hpa-An, in Karen State in southern Burma. I think the military hierarchy chose me because I had more education than others; I could...

    • 6 FAMILY
      (pp. 70-75)

      I met Tharamu Naw Sheera Ba Tin while I was working in the Hlaingbwe area in the late 1950s.¹ Our unit was a mobile column moving from township to township in Hpa-An district. I met Sheera in Paing Kyon village, also known as Ta Kreh, where she was a teacher. She was the daughter of Saw Ba Tin and Naw Mae Mae of Et Et village, Tavoy district. I admired her and fell in love.

      After a few years I decided to marry her. At first, I kept my decision to myself and didn’t even tell Sheera. I had thought...

      (pp. 76-91)

      In 1970 I was posted to general headquarters in Manerplaw as general staff officer number two (G2). I worked in the Intelligence Branch. I was in charge of intelligence from General Headquarters (GHQ) down to the battalion level. My commander was the general staff officer number one (G1), Colonel Marvel, who found Manerplaw too cold so went to Bangkok to work in foreign affairs. In 1974, I was promoted to G1 as a full colonel to take his place. I didn’t care about the weather. I was only forty-four years old. As G1 I was the chief military strategist for...

      (pp. 92-101)

      In the early 1990s Manerplaw was the target of major SLORC offensives; by 1992 these offensives involved more than ten thousand troops. However, the KNLA had managed a successful defense, taking advantage of their battle tactics and the SLORC’s lack of familiarity with the area.

      Sleeping Dog Hill was close to Manerplaw. If the enemy were to capture it, they could bombard Manerplaw from there. We needed to hold the hill so they couldn’t shell Manerplaw. It was like a delayed reaction. The enemy wanted it, so we knew we had to protect it, and posted our soldiers there. There...

      (pp. 102-112)

      After arriving in Mae Sot, we lived in Mae La refugee camp (known as Bae Klaw refugee camp in Karen). There were about twenty-five thousand people living there at that time. We stayed with my son Saw Ler Paw, his wife Karen, and their young son Ernest.

      In August 1997, Thai intelligence took my family and me to Bangkok, where we stayed in an apartment in the Maneeloy Burmese Student Center that had been set up for democracy refugees who had fled Burma after the suppression of the 1988 protests. We applied for and were granted UNHCR refugee status, and...


    • 10 CHILDHOOD
      (pp. 115-119)

      The village I grew up in, Et Et, was paradise. It was a small village, with only sixty to seventy houses, and remote—a two-hour walk to the next village and sixty-six miles from the district capital Tavoy (now Dawei). We were poor. We didn’t have many material possessions. We grew all our own food and made everything we needed. We didn’t have medicine and we only had a primary school. But there were no burglaries, no thieves, and we weren’t afraid of anything. There was no fighting. It was peaceful.

      I was born in 1932, the eldest of ten...

      (pp. 120-122)

      At this time the villagers had no sense of politics, so the Burmans often bullied them. The Burmans wanted to divide up the Karen villages so they looked to find fault with them and often blamed villagers for crimes in the area.

      Soon after the Japanese left, one of the nearby Burman villages had a problem with robberies, and the villagers said that the burglar was a Karen. They accused my father of having a gun and instructing Karen villagers to rob the Burman village. The Burman villagers also accused my father of being close friends with the Japanese during...

      (pp. 123-127)

      In 1952 I went to Bible school in Tavoy for three years. I wasn’t scared to leave my village as I went with some of my friends. To get to the school we traveled by boat to Tavoy, then by car from Tavoy to the school, which was on the edge of town. It was built on the corner of a big farm, and they had a girls’ dormitory close to the school. The boys’ dormitory was far from the school. The boys’ and girls’ dormitories were separate, but we had classes and meals together.

      There were about fifty students...

    • 13 MARRIAGE
      (pp. 128-131)

      I first met my husband, Ralph Hodgson, when I was teaching in Pe Krew village in Hlaingbwe township. He was stationed with the KNLA there. He knew the couple that I was living with. Before I went to the house in the village, Ralph used to call the couple I lived with “Mum and Dad.” Every time Ralph went to the village, he stayed with that couple. But when I was living there, he would go and stay at a different house. When he came to visit them, he met me.

      When I first met him, I wasn’t interested in...

    • 14 CHILDREN
      (pp. 132-141)

      After two years of marriage, in 1963, I had my first son, Dey Law. Before I gave birth, Ralph organized a place for me to go and live in a village with a midwife. They built a house for me and I lived alone. The night I gave birth to Dey Law, the frogs were croaking really loudly, so the house owner decided to call him “frog croak.” Karen people often do this. Sometimes when a VIP comes, they name the child after them. There are lots of “Ralphs” in Kawthoolei named after my husband.

      Two weeks after I gave...

      (pp. 142-148)

      The Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) met on April 5, 1985, to reestablish and reorganize itself.¹ All the women who lived near Manerplaw were invited and I joined because I wanted to do something for the Karen women and for the future.

      KWO membership was open to all Karen women eighteen years and older, from all religions. Girls under eighteen were could join the Karen Youth Organization (KYO), which had its own constitution and was also under the KNU.

      At its first meeting the KWO held elections for leadership positions ranging from chairwoman, vice chairwoman, general secretary, treasurer, and auditor down...

      (pp. 149-157)

      In the mid-1990s there were conflicts between Buddhist and Christian Karens. I was really scared that there would be a split in Karen society. I had friends who were Buddhist. There had never been any conflict between the Buddhists and Christians in the KWO. The Burmese army tried to influence the Buddhist Karens and persuade the two religious groups to separate so that the Karens would be less powerful. They weren’t really trying to influence the women. When U Thuzana and his followers built the temples, they asked the Buddhist women to help build them. If they said no, though,...

    • 17 AUSTRALIA
      (pp. 158-164)

      When we found out we were coming to Australia, I praised God. I made a little feast, invited everyone, and had a thanksgiving service. Before coming to Australia, we went to a training session about Australia in Bangkok. We learned about life in Australia. For example, if the family stays at home rather than eating out, they can save money. I learned about the different colors of cabbage in Australia. We only had one color in Burma. We learned that when we arrived in Australia, we would have to go to Centrelink, the welfare department. I wasn’t afraid about going...