P’da Myah raises a sun-bronzed arm and points across a never-ending blanket of green rice fields that disappear into the distant horizon and Myanmar beyond. The faint smudge that makes up the Dawna Range mountains stands flat against a sky sliding into night. P’da Myah is at times excited, nervous and sad as he speaks about being resettled to Australia from the Thailand-Myanmar border.
“I’ve spent seven years in displaced hiding sites and then 10 years at Mae La Refugee Camp with my family,” he said. “My mum died in the camp—in 2007 she passed away. Mum never knew peace in her lifetime—17 years without a real home for us is enough. I will leave for Melbourne in four days.”
P’da Myah has mixed feelings about resettling in a third country. The 30-year-old is caught between wanting to stay and help build peace in his beloved Kayin homeland and leaving to build a stable and secure future for his young family.
“I’ve always wanted to live in peace in my country—that’s always been my dream—but I have never known freedom. I don’t want to lose any more time; I want to learn, get new skills and hopefully come back here one day.”
P’da Myah can be forgiven for losing patience. The Karen National Union (KNU), one of Myanmar’s biggest ethnic armed groups, has been fighting the central government for greater autonomy in Kayin State for 63 years.
The group first signed a peace agreement with President Thein Sein’s reformist administration on January 12, although the ceasefire remains precarious and the consequences of more than half-a-century of bloody insurgency plain to see.
The Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a humanitarian group which works with both internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, estimates that militarization in southeast Myanmar has displaced as many as 450,000 local villagers, with around 145,000 people living in nine refugee camps just over the border in Thailand.
The TBBC and partner agencies have “documented the destruction, forced relocation or abandonment of more than 3,700 civilian settlements in Southeast Myanmar since 1996, including 105 villages and hiding sites between August 2010 and July 2011,” according to a statement on the group’s website.
Like P’da Myah, Kayin journalist Saw Wei Thoo fled his home in the late 1990s after attacks on his village by government troops and has spent more than 10 of his 27 years in Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp located 95 miles (152 km) south of Mae La.
“I have never known peace, and my father has never known peace,” he said. “My country has never had the benefits of the stability that peace brings. My village of 5,000 people has no electricity—that means we have no refrigeration for medicine or food. The roads in and out of my village are unusable in the wet season.”
The KNU was Burma’s first ethnic insurgency group and began fighting central government in 1948, shortly after the end of colonial rule. The Kayin people believe Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities were granted autonomy in the Panglong Agreement signed by Gen Aung San on February 12, 1947, which the government later abandoned.
Saw Wei Thoo stresses that most refugees and displaced Karen want to return to their homeland if there is genuine peace.
“Given the right circumstances, all [people] want to return to their homes and land,” he said. “The problem is guaranteeing their security and safety. Our country has a massive landmine problem and most ethnic people don’t have legal documents to claim or prove ownership of their land.”
Homeless on Our Own Soil
The mighty Salween River runs from China through Myanmar and separates Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province from Kayin State. After an hour-and-a-half of river travel from the bustling Thai hamlet of Mae Sam Lab, a large sandy beach with a homemade sign declares you have reached Ei Tu Hta Camp. Nestled behind a 30-meter-high sand dune, 700 small bamboo huts are home to nearly 4,000 IDPs.
Saw Nya Ter is the camp leader at Ei Tu Hta and was a rice farmer before being driven from his home in 2006. He says the offensive of the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, at the time was relentless.
“All the people [in Ei Tu Hta] had rice farms, fruit and nut plantations,” he said. “The Burmese [Myanmar] Army destroyed many farms, thousands of acres of rice and plantations all gone—what a waste.”
Although a TBBC report, Displacement and Poverty published in October 2011, confirms the wanton devastation that Saw Nya Ter and Saw Wei Thoo experienced firsthand, the latest reports indicate that the picture may be changing.
TBBC figures released on October 31, 2012, show that the numbers of people displaced between August 2011 and July 2012 dropped to an estimated 10,000.
Attempting to build on the recent reform process, the Norwegian government has pledged US $5 million towards an initial round of pilot projects known as the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI) that aims to prepare the ground for the eventual return of IDPs.
The MPSI is set to last for six months, after which a Peace Donor Support Group—made up of Norway, the United Nations, Australia, Britain, the World Bank and the European Union—will take over and potentially work with refugees, providing the political situation is conducive.
But the MPSI recently drew flak from community and civil society groups. In an open letter to Norwegian Ambassador to Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar Katja Nordgaard, a collection of ethnic Shan organizations said, “MPSI’s flawed, rushed and [opaque] peace fund consultations have not been and will never be acceptable to ethnic communities and community-based organizations.”
In response to its critics, Norway attempted to clarify its position by stating that the initiative was just the start of a much longer peace process that must take place internally in Myanmar.
Nevertheless, the barrage of criticism and counter-arguments from all sides has left displaced communities—including ethnic Karen, Shan and Kachin among others—in a state of confusion about the MPSI. Grassroots organizations warn that unless there is more inclusion, transparency, honesty and proper consultation, the scheme is heading for failure.
And the situation for ethnic people on the ground remains undeniably dire. “Findings suggest that 59 percent of households in rural communities of Southeast Myanmar are impoverished, with the indicators particularly severe in northern [Kayin] areas where there have been allegations of widespread and systematic human rights abuse,” said the October TBBC report.
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2012, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, also warned of the consequences of a continued lack of legal proof of land ownership.
“Land confiscations and the consequent forced eviction of individuals and communities often lead to poverty, displacement and ruined livelihoods,” he said. “Given the expected wave of privatizations and increase in foreign investment, along with accelerated economic development, there is likely to be an increase in land confiscations, development-induced displacement and other violations of economic, social and cultural rights.”
Saw Nya Ter agrees that lacking proof of ownership for their land is a major concern for many camps residents. “We hear rumors that our land and farms have been sold and in some cases even sold again,” he said, adding that most people in the camp do not have government-issued identity cards.
“Some may have had [identity cards] in the past but nobody here now has papers. People here can’t go back until they are guaranteed security and access to their farms. We don’t trust ceasefires, we have to have guarantees before we can go home.”
Saw Nya Ter says the government has two weapons to get people off their land—the widely condemned 2008 Constitution, which decrees that all land is actually owned by the state, and the Tatmadaw.
“They beat us in law and if that doesn’t work they burn us off our land,” he said. “Villagers look around and say ‘how can we have a ceasefire when there are now many more soldiers in our land?’ If they want a ceasefire [then they should] leave our land and return to the army camps.”
In addition, a recent public spat between KNU leaders added fuel to rumors that the organizations was in danger of splintering into factions—adding yet another level of uncertainty for displaced communities.
Tensions among the rebel leadership reached critical levels after a go-it-alone delegation negotiated with government officials on September 29 to open a liaison office in Hpa-an, capital of Kayin State.
Three KNU leaders—Gen Mu Tu Say Poe, the head of the KNU’s Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) military wing; Saw Roger Khin, the head of the Health and Welfare Department; and the recently deceased Padoh David Taw, secretary of its peace committee—were relieved of their positions.
The KNU then held an emergency meeting on October 25 and 26 to resolve their differences over the dismissal of the three leaders. Kayin community organizations, religious leaders and others from inside Myanmar, along the border and from overseas, urged the KNU to resolve its internal conflict, unite and continue its ongoing peace talks with Naypyitaw.
In response, the group issued a statement that reinstated the two remaining outcasts and said it had “resolved the problem of ‘weaknesses’ that had arisen within the organization, through consultation and under the guidance and the leadership of the KNU, all the participants at the meeting agreed to march on, in accordance with the basic principles and policies of the KNU.”
Despite the tensions and differences of opinion, there appears to be a renewed determination within various KNU factions to build unity. Both Gen Mu Tu and Saw David Tharckabaw, the KNU vice-president, stressed the far-reaching consequences that a division within the KNU could have on peace talks with the government.
Internal conflict is not the only issue that worries those involved in or affected by the ongoing negotiations. Kayin civil society organizations, as well as the KNU, have recently voiced concern that the peace talks could give business groups an unfair advantage.
KNU General-Secretary Naw Zipporah Sein brought up the involvement of the Dawei Princess Company and Yangon-based non-profit organization Myanmar Egress in ceasefire negotiations, and asked the government to clarify the situation.
President’s Office Minister U Aung Min, Naypyitaw’s chief peace negotiator with ethnic armed groups, added to these concerns in a taped video interview with the Karen Information Centre.
“Mostly, I work with U Hla Maung Shwe, the businessman. When there is a trip, we estimate the cost and pay for it half-by-half,” said U Aung Min. “Until now, we haven’t used any money from the government. Until now, the government doesn’t have a budget line for this. The Parliament hasn’t allocated any money for this.”
A Kayin district leader, who asked to remain anonymous, said his area is already earmarked for massive development and it is vital that all business deals are scrutinized for a conflict of interest.
“It is naïve to think [businesses] are there for our interests,” he said. “They are not, they’re driven by their own needs and interests.”
Law Eh is a senior officer in the KNLA, and battled-hardened after spending 27 of his 55 years fighting a guerrilla war against the Tatmadaw. Smart and with a university degree to prove it, Law Eh is matter-of-fact in his assessment of the current situation.
“We are in the initial phase of the ceasefire now—getting to the next stage is hard and slow,” he said. “This time it is different. The lower ranks of the Burmese Army don’t want to fight, the people don’t want any more fighting—they are the same as the Karen.
“If the ceasefire does not work out, then we can expect more of the same. If that happens, no one benefits.”
This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.