Looking Back on Karen Celebrations in Minnesota

70th Karen Martyr’s Day

Karen Martyr’s Day commemorates the death of Saw Ba U Gyi, the first president of the Karen National Union. Ceremonies are held every year around August 12 to honor Saw Ba U Gyi and those who have died or been injured fighting for the independence of the Karen. This year marks the 70th anniversary of that day in 1950.

Saw Ba U Gyi’s 4 principles are often shared in remembrance of his death. They are:

  1. Surrender is out of the question
  2. The recognition of the Karen State must be completed.
  3. We shall retain our arms.
  4. We shall decide our own political destiny.

Because of Minnesota weather, morning ceremonies were often paired with afternoons of sports tournaments, free meals, and other outdoor activities. Usually, such festivities would be reserved for less somber days, like Karen New Year. But, with new year celebrations in December and January, August proved better for finding outdoor soccer fields.

Here are some of the best photos from past years, including one from the 54th Karen Martyr’s Day back in 2004.

54th Martyr’s Day tournament organized by the Karen Community of Minnesota
Speeches are give in front of a symbolic portrait of Saw Ba U Gyi at the 65th Karen Martyr’s Day Ceremony
Youth perform a Karen bamboo dance for the 63rd Karen Martyr’s Day Ceremony
Community members bring their presentation of flowers at the 59th Karen Martyr’s Day Ceremony

KOM and KCM (Karen Community of Minnesota) made the difficult decision earlier this year to not organize a large in-person gathering to commemorate the 70th Karen Martyr’s Day because of the coronavirus pandemic. But, the community is finding unique ways to honor this important day online.

For the first time, we will be hosting a virtual panel discussion, along with KCM and The Urban Village, on August 12th to reflect on the history of the Karen fight for independence. We will be sharing the live stream on our Facebook page the evening of August 12th for everyone to view.

“Each and every one of us Karen has a responsibility to contribute to accomplish the goal that our people set out to achieve so long ago. The original purpose since 1945 was to gain our independence. On August 25, 1946, Saw Ba U Gyi, along with other leaders of the Karen Central Organization, went to London in an effort to regain control of their own homeland from the British who occupied Karen State in Burma at the time. That is the foundation of this whole thing. We do not want to forget that effort of Saw Ba U Gyi and our early leaders who sacrificed their lives for the independence of our land, which we are still working on to this day.” – Eh Tah Khu, KOM Co-Executive Director

The Urban Village is also holding a raffle for two paintings and the winner will be announced during the live stream event.

The Karen Organization of America held an international essay writing contest, whose winners will be announced in August.

Another option for anyone looking to learn more about Karen history and culture, KOM is holding our first virtual Karen Culture Presentation on August 21st.

In the words of our Co-Executive Director, Eh Tah Khu, “Let us not forget the original purpose of Karen Martyr’s Day.”

Karen Wrist Tying Ceremony

Another August Karen tradition is the wrist tying ceremony. This ceremony goes back before either Christianity or Buddhism were practiced in the Karen community and is meant to bring the spirits of the Karen people together. Wrist tying ceremonies also include traditional dancing and other celebrations of Karen culture.

There are seven materials used in the ceremony:

  1. A glass of cold water
  2. Three white threads
  3. Seven rice balls
  4. Seven triangular-shaped lumps of sticky rice in the packages
  5. Seven boiled bananas
  6. Seven branches of flowers
  7. Seven pieces of sugarcane

While we don’t know of any wrist tying ceremonies being held in Minnesota this August, pictures and videos of past ceremonies can be enjoyed.

Stay safe and happy August!

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