CHIANG MAI, Thailand – “I have been running from war since I was an infant, and it’s not over yet,” said Saw Nyar Kee Htoo, 53, a leader at the community-based Luthaw Paw Day Karen Indigenous Centre, in Luthaw Township, in Karen State’s Papun district.
Saw Nyar Kee Htoo was a good friend of Saw O Moo, who was shot dead by Tatmadaw troops on April 5 on suspicion of being a Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) soldier. The two worked together on community development and awareness-raising activities among indigenous Karen, particularly relating to the conservation of cultural traditions, community forest protection, building seed banks and food security, and vocational training.
As a community leader, Saw Nyar Kee Htoo dedicates most of his time to helping out displaced villagers. His village, Bana Eh Beh Kho, is one of five village tracts in Ler Mu Plaw, an area that has been affected by the recent resumption of fighting between the KNLA and the Myanmar Military (or Tatmadaw).
“We were recording the number of people who had fled from their villages, and providing food and assistance to them,” he said, recalling that the day Saw O Moo (aka Saw Klo Par) was killed.
“He returned home at around 2 pm. At around 5 pm we heard gunshots, but we didn’t know immediately that it was the sound of the shots that took his life. Later there was a notice from the soldiers telling us to come and see them.”
In Ler Mu Plaw, before entering an area military officials communicate with villagers by posting a notice at the entrance or somewhere nearby stating what they want, Saw Nyar Kee Htoo said. These notices do not include a letterhead or author’s name, but simply identify the unit commander at the end. While military personnel in the region regard it as a normal form of communication, the practice is taken as a sign of disrespect by villagers.
Due to the war and instability in the region, Saw Nyar Kee Htoo never had chance to receive formal schooling, but that did not prevent him from becoming a leader at the community center. He started collaborating with the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network in 2007 and launched the Luthaw Paw Day Center in 2012.
The villagers of Luthaw Township were only able to resettle in the areas in 2012, after the Karen National Union (KNU/KNLA) agreed to a bilateral ceasefire with the Myanmar military. Saw Nyar Kee Htoo said that at that time there was hope for genuine peace in the region.
Continuously subjected to persecution
Since his childhood, Saw Nyar Kee Htoo’s life “has been all about fleeing.” Recalling the 1990s, when the Tatmadaw employed a “four cuts” policy to suppress ethnic rebels, he said, “Our homes and our barns were torched and our cows and buffalos killed.”
Under the military junta, Luthaw Township in Papun district was subjected to further persecution. Locals believe this was partly because the area is the birthplace of General Bo Mya, the legendary leader of the Karen revolutionary struggle.
“There is no peace for us; there are now more military troops. There is no guarantee of our safety and the villagers are afraid due to the heavy presence of the Bamar troops,” he said, referring to the Tatmadaw. They never go back. We want them to go back,” he said.
Since March, militarization in the area has intensified due to the Tatmadaw’s rebuilding of an old road connecting Kay Pu and Ler Mu Plaw in Luthaw Township. The increased military presence has left the villagers in fear, Saw Nya Kee Htoo said, adding that whenever word spreads that Tatmadaw troops are coming, people flee their homes. Their instinct for survival has taught them to stay safe by hiding, especially women, who fear rape and torture at the hands of soldiers, he added.
“We don’t want the Tatmadaw to build this road; we don’t need it and if we did, we could build it on our own,” Saw Nyar Kee Htoo said, adding that the Myanmar Military troops should respect the principles established in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
Advocacy groups such as the Karen Peace Support Network do what they can to raise awareness of the IDPs’ suffering, but these have been disrupted by the Myanmar military. Last month, Thailand’s military government blocked the launch in Chiang Mai of a report on the humanitarian crisis in Karen State.
For more than two months now, Saw Nyar Kee Htoo’s family and others have taken shelter in the forest near Luthaw Township’s Ler Mu Plaw area. They are living on rice saved from last year. This year, he said, they have not bee able to harvest their crops, raising concerns over their future livelihoods.