Amid a Fragile Peace, Uncertainty and Enduring Scars

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 25 March 2015

THANDAUNG, Karen State — Tamalar Paw and Thar Doh are desperate to see peace in their ethnic Karen State—more so, they say, than Burma’s President Thein Sein and the Karen rebel leader Mutu Say Poe.

“I don’t want to talk about our life. It will shock you,” Tamalar Paw tells me, rocking a bamboo cradle that holds her 1-year-old grandson.

“You know, I lost six kids out of nine because there was no peace in our area,” said the Karen woman in her 50s, between chews of betel nut. “To have peace is really needed.”

Sitting cross-legged not far away from her on the floor, her husband Thar Doh interrupts in a soothing tone: “Oh… we are not alone. Others have faced the same experience as us,” the shirtless 60-year-old Karen man says.

“Ours was worse,” his wife firmly contends. In response, silence from Thar Doh as he stares off into the distance.

Tamalar Paw and Thar Doh were married in the early 1980s in the village of Thay Yar Yu, located about a two days’ drive away from Thandaung Township in Karen State.

As a couple, they have never known peace due to fighting between the government and the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic minority army that has waged one of the world’s longest civil wars. The KNU is not alone, of course: It is just one of Burma’s many ethnic groups that have fought for autonomy and equality since 1948, when Burma regained its independence from the British.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

“Six of my kids died when they were infants,” Tamalar Paw explains, “because we always had to run away from our home whenever the government’s troops came to the village. We had to go into hiding in the jungle, where there is nothing. Sometimes it took weeks or even months [before a safe return was possible].”

“How could they survive there? They died, six of my kids,” she says, with tears in her eyes.

Despite the hardship, there are blessings to acknowledge: The Karen couple has three surviving children, who have in turn given them three grandsons.

The Karen couple’s hope is that their children’s progeny can avoid the fate of generations of men and boys before them, who Thar Doh says were forced to serve as porters for the Burma Army if they didn’t hide in the jungle.

He says his village and surrounding villages each had several dozen households, with the families fleeing into the jungle whenever government troops passed through.

Animals were victims too.

“All of my chickens and pigs were taken away by those soldiers. They were not even enough for them,” Thar Doh says.

Until the late 1990s, the couple was among tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were forced to leave their homes temporarily, or permanently, due to the country’s civil war.

The Burma Army under late dictator Gen. Ne Win’s rule and successive regimes developed notoriety in ethnic areas, greater Burma and beyond the country’s borders. While the ethnic majority Bamar were not spared, the military was particularly unsparing in perpetrating human rights abuses against ethnic minority populations.

According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), an estimated 400,000 internally displaced persons remain in the region of eastern Burma, the Karen couple among that tally.

Unlike Thar Doh and Tamalar Paw, some affected by conflict fled Karen State across the Thai border. The HRW report said that another 130,000 refugees live in nine camps along the Thai-Burma border, where some have been living for nearly three decades. Most, like Tamalar Paw and Thar Doh, are ethnic Karen.

Seeking greener pastures, Thar Doh and Tamalar Paw left their village in 2000 for Thandaung, where they started a new life doing landscaping for a hotel. Since then, their lives have settled down, in a relative sense.

But the couple is aware that peace in Karen State remains tentative at best, and fragile, despite talks between Thein Sein’s government and the Mutu Say Poe-led KNU that have led to the signing of a ceasefire between the two sides in 2011.

“We don’t know what either side [the government and the KNU] is doing,” Thar Doh said.

The government has been pushing for a far more ambitious nationwide ceasefire accord with most of the country’s ethnic armed groups, but that goal remains elusive. The ethnic groups have demanded that federalism be implemented and autonomy guaranteed, but assurances from the government have not fully bridged a trust deficit, and differences on ceasefire-related matters persist.

For Thar Doh and Tamalar Paw, the KNU-government ceasefire and a reduction in fighting do not necessarily presage a lasting peace. Thar Doh and Tamalar Paw still worry for the future of their children and grandchildren, though they acknowledge that their circumstances are much improved in a town where their children can work and grandchildren can attend school.

They haven’t had to flee into the jungle for years.

As the family’s three chickens and one pig laze away the afternoon in various states of repose nearby, Thar Doh indulges in a dark hypothetical.

“They wouldn’t even be enough if they were in our village in the past,” he says of the animals’ ability to satisfy the needs of hungry Burma Army troops.

Tamalar Paw brings our conversation full circle: “Peace is needed,” she utters.