The Irrawaddy

Karen Rights Group: Challenges Persist Despite Ceasefire

Many landmines are believed to have been planted in Karen State’s Mae Tha Waw village during fighting in September 2016. / Saw Yan Naing / The Irrawaddy

MAE THA WAW, Thailand — The ceasefire between the Burma Army and the country’s oldest ethnic armed group the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in Karen State has had both positive and negative effects on the lives of local civilians, according to a Karen rights group.

The Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), which has been documenting the human rights situation in Karen State for years, told The Irrawaddy that while local ethnic Karen now have greater freedom of movement they suffer from displacement, land disputes, continued militarization, and landmines.

“The recent clashes in Mae Tha Waw led to the displacement of more than 5,000 civilians who are still displaced and dare not to return to their own villages due to fear of landmines and possible new clashes,” said Naw Htoo Htoo, program director of KHRG.

“Antipersonnel landmines, unexploded ordnances and other remnants of war—a great danger which has affected southeast Burma for decades—are still prominent after years of ceasefire,” said Naw Htoo Htoo.

Villages remain displaced in Myaing Gyi Ngu and Mae Tha Waw villages of Hlaingbwe Township near Hpa-an from September 2016 clashes between a joint force Burma Army and Border Guard Force (BGF) and a breakaway Karen armed group who split from the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA).

Naw Htoo Htoo, however, recognized some improvements in KNLA-controlled areas after the bilateral ceasefire and nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) were signed by the KNLA’s political wing the Karen National Union and the Burmese government in 2012 and 2015 respectively.

“Villagers are able to travel freely in some areas and have resumed their livelihoods in relative stability and freedom,” she said.

There are fewer reports of killings, theft and looting, enforced disappearances, forced labor, arbitrary arrests and detention, abuse, rape, and torture, according to the rights activist. The recruitment of child soldiers has also reduced.

Relative peace, however, led to land confiscations from large–scale development projects, such as the Asian Highway, hydropower dams, palm oil and rubber plantations, and natural resource extraction such as mining and logging, she pointed out.

“It is worrying that some communities in Burma are being sued by companies for trespassing on their own land which was confiscated in the past. A lot of land confiscation cases before the ceasefire are still not resolved,” said Naw Htoo Htoo.

The placement of landmines and reluctance by the Burma Army to remove them as well as the presence of unexploded ordnance and remnants of war on villagers’ lands is another continuing post-ceasefire threat.

Villagers told the KHRG that the Tatmadaw (Burma Army) had been enlarging nearby bases and amassing rations and ammunition since signing the NCA—making villagers doubtful of the peace process.

“They [villagers] felt that even though there is a ceasefire, it is not a genuine ceasefire because villagers still feel afraid to work on their land near the army bases and areas where supplies and ammunition are transported,” said Naw Htoo Htoo.

After the NCA was signed, the Burma Army troops also gained increased freedom to travel in areas previously contested by the KNLA, according to the KHRG, which also reported that Burma Army troops used local villagers as human shields during operations in 2016.