Guest Column

Peace and Trust in the Karen Hills

By Ashley South 14 February 2017

The peace process in Burma may be in crisis, not least due to widespread fighting and serious human rights abuses committed mostly by the Burma Army in Kachin and Shan states. But across southeast Burma, ceasefires are holding and communities are beginning to recover from decades of armed conflict. There are huge needs for livelihoods and basic human security in these conflict-affected areas, which remain isolated from government-controlled Burma and feel like another country.

In mid-January, I spent three days walking through what the Karen call Lerdoh Township, in the Karen National Union (KNU)’s Kler Lwee Htoo District. Officially, this area is designated Kyaukkyi Township, Bago Division by the central government. I was returning to this area after half a dozen visits between 2008 – 2015.

Before and After the Ceasefire

When I first visited these hills in 2008, I took part in a five-week trek with the KNU and Free Burma Rangers, a Christian humanitarian group. It was cold, beautiful, heavily forested in parts, and very isolated. During the first part of the trip, we traveled through KNU-controlled areas, staying in Karen villages. Later, we moved cautiously through jungle areas that had been cleared out during the previous decades by the Burma Army’s “four cuts” counterinsurgency campaign.

I met with villagers who had fled from the lowlands a few years prior and were now living a precarious existence “in hiding”—frequently shifting location to avoid Burma Army “hunt and kill” patrols. They had previously been irrigated rice farmers, with enough crops to live year-round, and often a small surplus. Now, as upland swidden (slash and burn) farmers, they could rarely cultivate enough rice for six months each year.

In April 2012, following the confirmation of a ceasefire between the KNU and the government, I accompanied Charles Petrie to the Kyaukkyi area, to help initiate the first Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI) pilot project. It operated under the mandate of Norwegian support to the peace process, as requested by the Burmese government, and the trip was undertaken at the invitation of the KNU central and district leadership.

We traveled with Burma government and army officials to the frontline, before being handed over to the KNU and walking into the Keh Der Village Tract. We spent two days talking to villagers and confirming the findings of a needs assessment undertaken in the area by the KNU’s relief and development wing, the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People.

On the basis of this assessment, the MPSI facilitated a series of consultations which brought together conflict-affected communities, government and army officials, and KNU/KNLA leaders.

It was extraordinary to hear the Keh village tract leader—a diminutive but tough IDP, who spoke only Sgaw Karen—sitting just a few yards from the Bago Division border affairs and security minister, and telling him how much the villagers appreciated the peace process, but also asking whether the minister (a Burma Army colonel) could guarantee that he would not burn down their villages again.

The minister was not pleased, and for a moment it seemed that this sensitive encounter would not turn out well. However, the minister said that he recognized the lack of trust, and that they would not burn down their villages again. He added that he knew the village tract leader wouldn’t believe this, so they would have to continue meeting and learning to trust each other.

A few weeks later, once the project was underway, the MPSI facilitated another consultation, with another encounter between these two gentlemen.

At this point, Karen villagers had been walking down from Keh Der across the military frontline to collect supplies. Burma Army soldiers questioned them along the way—not particularly aggressively, but in a way that frightened villagers, who had only ever met government soldiers in the context of violent encounters, with the military trying to kill them (as suspected KNU supporters).

These encounters were intimidating for the project beneficiaries, as the village tract chairman explained. Again, the minister was unhappy, stating that the Burma Army was like a parent, and had the right to question wayward children. However, he again calmed down after a while, and issued instructions to the light infantry division operations commander not to bother the villagers with further questions, so as not to intimidate them.

Afterwards, the minister embraced the village tract leader, and told him it was brave to raise such issues, and they would learn to trust each other. I have been privileged to witness a few such moments, which have inspired me to see the possibilities of real transformation through the peace process. However, it remained a challenge to ‘scale up’ from local peace-building, to achieve something which could be generalised in other areas. Of course, ongoing fighting the part of the country also undermines confidence in the peace process.

Five Years Later

When I first visited Keh Der, the village was abandoned. There was just one small hut – a staging post on the journey up into the hills, where the original Keh Der villagers had fled nearly 40 years ago.

In the years since, they had been living in small settlements in KNU-controlled areas, moving frequently to avoid Burma Army patrols. I remember asking why villagers had not fled to refugee camps in Thailand, and was told that they wanted to stay close to their ancestral lands. I was struck by the dignity of these villagers, and their strong animist commitment to locality.

In 2013, some displaced villagers started returning to Keh Der and other villages in the area, testing the reality of the peace process. These pioneers were beginning to rebuild their communities. Most people in this area are Sgaw-speaking, and mostly animists with just a scattering of Christians. No one I spoke to would admit to speaking Burmese.

Villagers repeatedly stated their fear of the Burma Army. I was told several times that local people value landmines, which they perceive as defending their fields and communities from army incursions. Many returning villagers have access to potential farmland, but are unable to cultivate this due to security concerns (including Burma Army occupation of their lands), and a lack of tools necessary for rice cultivation.

One young man told me, “If there is real peace, I can live in my own village and on my own land, and can be safe and secure. However, we still fear the army, and worry about the future.”

These fears were exacerbated by a Burma Army incursion in the area in 2014, which resulted in a firefight that left one Karen soldier dead and one injured.

A middle-aged woman told me, “We dream of peace, and the ceasefire is a good start, but we still fear the Burma Army.”

Many people worried that the ceasefire would break down, or that the peace process would facilitate improved access to their communities for the Burma Army. Therefore, most villagers strongly opposed upgrading roads into the hills, which could be used by the army to access these remote areas.

As they do not speak Burmese or English, villagers have little access to news. Most expressed little knowledge of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement of October 2015. Only two among the many I asked knew the name of Burma’s president.

Some were aware of the 2015 elections but none had participated, explaining that this was not their business, but something related to the distant and feared government. The widespread perception seemed to be that the elections took place in another country—government-controlled Burma—and were therefore of little relevance to villagers. Many people said they had heard of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but didn’t know much beyond that “she was trying her best.”

Several people expressed variations of a typical villager comment; “the KNU and Burma governments should delineate positions, so that we know where we are safe in KNU-controlled areas and where we are not.”

In an informal fireside discussion with village elders, I was told quite unambiguously, “We support the KNU. We want the Burma Army to withdraw and their government to leave us alone.” One should be cautious in generalizing these attitudes to other Karen communities, but they are striking nevertheless.

Before the ceasefire, very few villagers visited government-controlled areas. Such visits were dangerous, fearful and secret. Since the ceasefire, only a minority have ventured into government-controlled areas to visit markets or relatives, but numbers are increasing and less fear is reported.

In time, people in this area may learn to identify with the central government. However, trust and confidence will be built slowly, and will likely depend greatly on demilitarization and a reduced Burma Army presence.