Photo: Soldiers from KNLA 201 Battalion stand in formation, December 2011 (Alex Bookbinder).
As peace talks press forward in Karen State, one village is hopeful for the best, but bracing for the worst.
For as long as it has existed, Htee Baw Day – an isolated hamlet perched on a mountaintop in eastern Karen State – has known little security.
A steep, rooty path, bisected by streams and fallen logs, provides the villagers’ only access to the outside world, and the closest settlement is at least two hours’ walk away. The Moei River – marking the frontier between Thailand and Burma – takes four hours to reach over treacherous, vertical terrain.
For the families that live in the village, their relative proximity to the border has been fortuitous. “We stay in this area because it is under KNU [Karen National Union] control, and if the army attacks, we can go to Thailand,” says Paw Moo Poe, a village elder.
Htee Baw Day has been razed to the ground twice, he says – once by the Burmese army in 1999, and ten years later by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army or DKBA, most of which has now transformed into a government-sponsored “border guard force” militia. After the village was destroyed last time, most of the 22 families who lived there fled over the border to Thailand. Just seven have returned, and their crops now grow around the charred remains of abandoned homes.
Over six decades of civil war, tens of thousands of civilians in eastern Burma have become well-acquainted with this kind of insecurity, and have lived in constant fear of attack by the Burmese army and its allied paramilitaries. Htee Baw Day is located in what is known as a “black zone,” or insurgent-controlled “free-fire” area, where government troops have impunity to abuse civilians.
If all goes to well, however, the residents of Htee Baw Day – and hundreds of villages like it around Karen State – will be able to breathe easier soon. Political realities on the ground began to change in 2012 when the KNU and its allies entered into a ceasefire with the government. Negotiations leading towards a comprehensive peace plan are underway, albeit cautiously.
Previous efforts at securing peace in Karen State, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, ended in failure. And as far as Hpa Moo Poe is concerned, there is no reason to believe anything will be different this time. “We have experienced this before: the two sides talk, but the talks always break down. Again and again,” he said.
Saw Ngwe, 62, originally came to Htee Baw Day in 1995, after the Karen National Union (KNU) was forced to cede much of its territory to the government after the fall of its provisional capital, Manerplaw. The village’s proximity to Thailand attracted his family to the area, but the fighting soon followed them.
“Before 1999, we could stay here easily. There was not so much fighting here – it was further inside [Karen State],” he said. “We were protected because we were near the border. But after 1999, the government had a plan to clear out all the KNU, and we were forced out.”
He and his family returned from Thailand most recently last year, and have started to farm their land once again. “Now it is a little bit better, so we feel confident to live here,” he said.
But the families who have chosen to return feel as though they are living on borrowed time. “I don’t believe in the peace process, because we have had to move many times … we always come back to the same place, because even though we have to leave, this is our home,” said Naw Moo Bu, whose family has spent three stints living on the Thai side of the border. “Before we left, we had buffaloes and goats, but we lost everything. We aren’t going to buy new ones, because we can’t be sure there is going to be peace,” she said.
Denied the ability to farm in Thailand, the families that have returned have done so at least partially out of desperation. “We are not sure about our safety. We came back to plant crops and grow our food,” said Paw Moo Poe. “If we stay on the other side, we cannot grow crops, so it is best for us to stay here.”
In some respects, life in Htee Baw Day has improved markedly over the past two years. Residents report they feel much safer when travelling, as they now have little reason to be afraid of run-ins with government-aligned forces. “Things have changed. In the past, the enemy came here all the time. But now, they never come,” said Paw Bu, a farmer who lives in the village.
Despite recent efforts to remove them, landmines – thousands of which litter the Karen Hills – still menace Htee Baw Day. “After the ceasefire was signed, the KNU soldiers came to clear the landmines. But they didn’t clear everywhere: just the places where we usually walk, and where we grow our crops,” said Paw Bu. “There are still landmines around here.”
The government has offered them resettlement in state-controlled areas, but Paw Moo Poe is wary of their intentions. “The Burmese government said we could move to a new village, and they would provide us with clean water and sanitation equipment. But we don’t trust them,” he said.
Htee Baw Day has no electrical power, running water or access to social services provided by the government. The village has no school, and many of its children study in Thailand. “The government wants to build a village near the road, but we don’t want to live there … If the ceasefire breaks, we will not be able to leave quickly because we will already be in their territory,” Paw Moo Poe said. “By staying here, we will be safer.”
Tenuous steps towards peace haven’t undone 60 years of mistrust; violent breaches of the ceasefire still occur. Last month, the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) released a report documenting abuses across the state, which noted that “some forms of human rights abuse … remain of serious concern, [but] others have almost disappeared. At the same time, new forms of abuse and local concerns are emerging in the evolving security environment.”
The report details a litany of violations against civilians since 2012, including the shelling of villages and extrajudicial killings, and notes that as the peace process solidifies, displacement related to development may serve as a new flashpoint for civilian grievance.
“I think scepticism and concern regarding the peace process is very understandable, given Karen communities’ long history of suffering and abuse during the armed conflict,” said Ashley South, a consultant with the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, a Norwegian-backed programme that attempts to facilitate cooperation between the government and ethnic armed groups. “My personal view is that the peace process is problematic in a number of ways, but still represents the best opportunity to address the political, social and economic causes underlying decades of armed conflict in Myanmar.”
It is difficult to deny that the negotiations between KNU and the government since 2012 have been the most successful in decades, and they have already brought about signs of progress that would have been unlikely in the recent past. Both Naypyidaw and Burma’s myriad ethnic armed groups want to see a nationwide ceasefire pushed through by the end of the year, even if the two sides fundamentally disagree on what it should look like.
This past week, the KNU’s central executive committee travelled to the capital, where it met with Burma’s top civilian leaders and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, the most recent in a long line of consultations between the two sides. But Naypyidaw’s newfound closeness with the KNU may just be a function of divide-and-conquer tactics to undermine unity between Burma’s ethnic armed groups.
If it is able to secure peace in the south, some fear that the government forces will intensify offensives in the north, targeting the Kachin Independence Army and its allies, and – perhaps – ignite armed conflict with the notoriously reclusive and well-equipped United Wa State Army, with which the government has had a ceasefire arrangement since the 1990s.
Closer to home, the KHRG report claims that the military has increased its footprint in Karen areas since 2012, fortifying existing bases across the region while continuing to rotate troops to the front lines, despite ongoing talks.
“In my opinion, the single development which could do the most to build trust and confidence in the peace process would be the withdrawal of Myanmar Army troops from some frontline positions,” said South. “My understanding is that the KNU have secured an agreement in principle to this effect, during recent meetings with the commander-in-chief and president in Naypyidaw.”
The Norwegian-backed peace support initiative has come under intense criticism since its inception in 2012. Its detractors claim its activities make the peace process appear to be more durable than it really is, and help justify the diversion of resources away from refugee camps on the Thai side of the border, which their residents – as well as residents of villages close to the border, like Htee Baw Day – still feel provide a necessary safe haven.
But through its efforts, the KNU’s relief and development arm – the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People – now receives funding from international donors, and the KNU agencies that provide social services across vast swathes of Karen State can now do so openly.
“It’s very important that MPSI and other initiatives make clear that foreigners cannot guarantee peace,” South said. “However, the ability to work in previously inaccessible, conflict-affected areas is a demonstration of the realities of the peace process.”
The high politics transpiring in Naypyidaw or Oslo mean little to those on the ground in places like Htee Baw Day, whose desire to escape insecurity speaks to fundamental needs that are as yet unfulfilled. “If we can be sure there will be peace, we will have a big feast – pigs, buffaloes! But of course we are not sure, so not yet,” joked Naw Moo Bu.
The residents of Htee Baw Day and thousands of similar villages throughout Burma’s ethnic minority regions can do little but ride out the ebb and flow of the peace process as developments occur. “I’m just a villager – I depend on my leaders,” said Saw Nge. “If the leaders say that it is peaceful now and that it is stable, I will believe them.”