HLAING BWE TOWNSHIP, Karen State—After a long, bumpy ride through the dusty countryside, representatives of Japan’s Nippon Foundation, along with several government officials, arrived in the rebel-controlled heartland of Karen State on Tuesday in order to deliver aid in the impoverished area.
In Tarit Poe Kwee, a village located a few hundred kilometers north of the state capital Hpa-an, Nippon Foundation Chairman Yohei Sasakawa addressed a crowd of several hundred ethnic Karen villagers, who had gathered to receive a 52-kilo rice donation each.
“We will try to have peace in this area,” he told them. “Please put your hope in a peaceful future.” Sasakawa said his foundation would support more development projects in education and health care in Karen State in the future.
The Nippon Foundation travelled to the region, which is under control of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), together with Karen State Border Affairs Minister Col Aung Lwin and an escort of ten armed government policemen and five plain-clothes officers.
Much of central Karen State is deeply impoverished after decades of conflict between ethnic rebels and Burma’s government. Towns and villages lack paved roads and electricity, while most villagers toil on small patches of rice field amid scrub forest.
The Karen rebels reached a ceasefire agreement with the government in January 2012, but many civilians in the state remain displaced by conflict. According to the KNLA, Hlaing Bwe Township alone has some 20,000 displaced villagers living in camps, where conditions are dire.
The Karen at Tarit Poe Kwee village looked undernourished and poor. Many said they were glad for the Japanese aid delivery. “I want to say thanks to (the Nippon Foundation) for their help,” said Un Tin, a Karen woman in her forties. “We need so many things here, as we are poor.”
Shwe Hel, aged 83, said the ceasefire had brought a marked improvement in the villagers’ daily lives. “We are happy to have peace. Now, we can do our own job, grow paddy peacefully,” she said, before adding, “But, I do not trust the Burmese. I only trust my Karen people.”
Both state officials and Karen leaders welcomed the Japanese delivery of some 70 tons or rice, along with footballs, volleyballs and badminton rackets for the village children.
“I am glad, very glad to see truck loads of aid. I’m happy to see Japan show their support for our peace process,” Zaw Min, Karen State’s chief minister said during a press conference at Hpa-an,
Karen National Union defense minister Roger Khin was also present at the conference and said he was grateful for the support, adding that he appreciated the government’s allowed for the aid to be delivered.
“This is the first time humanitarian aid passed to our refugees legally and easily because we have ceasefire agreement,” he said.
The needs of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Karen State are many, Roger Khin said. “We cannot solve these many difficulties for IDPs without help from the government, local authorities and aid groups,” he added.
The Nippon Foundation has taken a keen interest in resolving Burma’s ethnic tensions and has promised to donate US $3 million in emergency aid and to support education and health care development in rebel-controlled areas.
In December, the foundation said that it was “unprecedented” for such a large aid package to be delivered in these areas with government support. It also reached an agreement over this aid delivery with a collection of 11 ethnic groups known as the United Nationalities Federal Council.
The Nippon Foundation has become active in Burma at a time of rapidly expanding Japan-Burma ties. The East Asian nation has cancelled more than US $3 billion in foreign debt owed by Burma. Japanese multinational firms meanwhile have announced large investment projects in the country that have surpassed many other foreign investment projects.