Guest Column

Christmas and Karen New Year on the Tanintharyi River

By Ashley South 11 January 2017

The Tanintharyi River (Sgaw Karen: Tennawtharee Kloh) gives its name to the southernmost region of Burma, where it flows north to south, before bending and flowing out to the sea at Myeik. This is the Karen National Union (KNU)’s Mergui-Tavoy District—the largest of the Karen armed group’s seven districts, corresponding to the Fourth Brigade of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the KNU’s armed wing.

The middle sections of the river were under KNU control until February 1997, when a huge Burma Army (Tatmadaw) offensive overran the area from Qui Wah Wah down through the old district headquarters at Minthamee Htee (Htee Kee) and the big village on the river at Minthamee Hta (Htee Hta).

Over the next few months, the Tatmadaw established bases farther down the river, in areas that had once been KNU strongholds. Most of the civilian population fled—either going into hiding as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the dense jungle and steep hills to the west of the river, or fleeing to Thailand. Many ended up in the refugee camp at Tham Hinn, near Suan Pung in Ratchaburi Province. Others settled as “externally displaced persons” in Thai-Karen villages along the border.

After the KNU ceasefire in January 2012, some people started moving back to the river valley. For example, the village of Toe Htay Hta (the headquarters of the KNU’s Ler Muh Lah Township, one of six making up Mergui-Tavoy District) was abandoned in 1997. A few months after the 2012 ceasefire, toward the end of the rainy season, Toe Htay Hta was re-settled as the main KNU administrative hub on the middle stretches of the river. The KNU established a clinic and hospital, as well as a high school.

The rehabilitation of Toe Htay Hta and four other KNU administrative villages in Tanintharyi Region has been supported by Japan’s Nippon Foundation, which has financed the building of 100 new houses for KNU family members in each of these locations. Other international organizations (INGOs, UN agencies, and donors) have also started working in areas that were previously inaccessible due to years of armed conflict. These include many areas of “mixed administration,” where authority is shared (or contested) between the KNU and the government.

Most of these international organizations operate as directed by the Burmese government, and often fail to recognize the authority of the KNU. Knowingly or otherwise, their programs tend to support the extension of state authority into areas where the Burmese government is still regarded by local Karen communities as alien and illegitimate. Such activities on the part of international relief and development agencies can undermine trust in the peace process on the part of local stakeholders.

I returned to Toe Htay Hta in April of this year, after my first—and only previous—visit in 1996 (on a mission providing relief supplies to Karen IDPs in the area). I was there again to celebrate Karen New Year on Dec. 29, 2016, together with my little family. Our journey downriver from the new KNU District headquarters at Ahmla (a little to the south of Htee Hta) took about nine hours in a longtail boat, made from a dugout log with side planks and a long and noisy “scorpion tail” engine. We stopped overnight along the way at two Karen villages to celebrate Christmas (which occurs on different days in different villages among Karen Christian communities), and to distribute gifts to the schoolchildren. At this time of year the river was still quite high, so we could motor through the shallows and rapid; when we made the journey in April, we often had to get out of the boat to walk around these navigational hazards, while the skillful boatmen picked their way through the rocks.

Although much of this stretch of the river was logged in the 1990s, the forest is growing back. As we headed south, the banks became more heavily wooded, with good forest cover in the hills and mountains extending up from the river to the east and west. We saw hornbills, different types of monkeys, a huge monitor lizard, many beautiful flashing blue and gold kingfishers, an elephant poking its head from the foliage to drink from the river, a wild chicken that flew all the way across the river in front of our boat, many eagles and buzzards, and swallows darting down to the surface of the river to catch insects—and later in the trip two Asiatic black bears kept by villagers as pets. It was also wonderfully refreshing to spend nearly a fortnight with no internet or telephone connection.

Yet my strongest impression was the incredible fortitude and spirit, and great generosity and loving welcome, of the villagers, who were returning to re-establish their old settlements after two decades in hiding in the jungle or living precariously on the fringes of Thai society. We encountered very few people who had returned from the refugee camps in Thailand, but large numbers who had moved back down to the riverside villages from hiding sites deeper in the forest, and also many people who had spent most of the last 20 years as undocumented “illegal migrant”’ in the Thai-Karen border villages.

We heard stories from the former of decades of suffering and fear, amid human rights abuses on the part of the Tatmadaw. One woman told us of her family’s experience in 2002, where two of her brothers were murdered on separate occasions in the same week by Burma Army soldiers, and whose sister died that month in childbirth in the jungle. People returning from Thailand told us that they were fed up with living in fear and insecurity across the border, and wanted to return to their home villages and re-build their lives in the freedom of Kawthoolei (the Karen homeland). The struggle and effort involved in re-building their villages was huge. These are poor people, with very few material possessions and wearing old clothes, living in mostly bamboo houses, working on their livelihoods through swidden (rotational upland) rice farming, supplemented by wild food from the jungle and fish from the river.

The Tanintharyi River is still magnificent along most of its length, as there is no industrial activity on its banks, and so far no hydropower projects have disturbed its flow. However, since the ceasefire, there have been more activities on the part of gold miners. The companies holding the gold mining concessions are often from Dawei or other parts of Burma; many of the workers are Kachin, who learned their gold-mining skills on the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River.

At present, six large rigs (the size of big buses) operate along the middle stretches of the river, and many dozens of smaller rafts. These cause local disruption to the river, through stirring up sediment, and longer-term damage through changing the flow of the river. This is particularly true for the larger mining rigs, which have thrown miles of piled rocks and stones, which disrupt the river during the rainy season. In addition, the use of mercury when searching for gold presents a terrible threat to the health of living organisms along the river, including the returning human population.

As one villager told me, “If I could, I would pick up those gold-mining rigs and throw them over to the other side of the mountains, so we never have to see them again.”

Although there is less logging along the river and in the adjacent forest than in previous years, the gold mining operations and plans for the region’s future “development” are dubious. Private companies associated with individual KNU leaders have recently agreed on a memorandum of understanding with a major Chinese company to develop an industrial zone at the old KNU headquarters of Htee Kee, with associated hydropower and roadbuilding projects on and across the river. The latter aspect could have huge impacts on local environmental and social dynamics, but the MOU was negotiated with very little transparency and no input from the local community.

This project illustrates a dilemma faced by the KNU. In the context of the ceasefire, the government and the Burma Army are restricting the KNU’s ability to raise taxes from villagers, as it did in the long years of armed conflict. While, for the time being at least, the KNLA no longer has the same need to replenish stocks of ammunition, the KNU is faced with unprecedented organizational and personal costs, including travel and logistical expenses to support its role in the peace process. Some KNU leaders consider gold-mining and other such projects as essential sources of funding. Other leaders, and many civil society actors, question whether this income counterbalances the enormous social and environmental damage caused by such projects.

It will be no easy task for the KNU to transform itself from an insurgent organization—with a skeletal administrative structure offering limited health and education services to conflict-affected communities—to a local government, at least during the interim period between the agreement of a preliminary ceasefire and the negotiation of a comprehensive political settlement to end decades of state-society and armed ethnic conflict.  The challenge for the KNU is to demonstrate that it can be an effective and credible government in areas under its control, or where authority is shared with the government, for example by protecting the environment and regulating business activities.