Despite the recent change of government, displaced Karen people hold little hope for justice while Myanmar’s military maintains its presence in ethnic lands.
Monsoon rains drench the cluster of small bamboo huts clinging to the sides of the Salween River bank that separates Thailand from Myanmar. The 475 leaf-roofed huts are home to 3,356 Karen people that make up the displaced community known as Ei Tu Hta.
The camp came into existence in 2006 to house some of the 76,000 Karen villagers driven from their homes by Myanmar Army offensives that year. Current estimates by human rights groups estimate the number of displaced people in southeast Myanmar at between 400,000 and 500,000.
Naw Delay, a former teacher, is undecided if the positive stories following the victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy in last November’s national elections are just political spin or an indicator that she can finally start to make plans to return to her old village.
Like many camp residents, she says the possibility of returning to her farm is a constant conversation point. “We think about going back, but not a lot has changed. The army is still there. The violence may have decreased since the ceasefire, but we don’t have guarantees that the military’s shoot-on-sight orders are not still in place.”
Naw Delay says most of the people living in Ei Tu Hta are scared. Scared of landmines, scared of not being able to feed their families, scared of what sort of future their children will have without education or land, and, most of all, scared of the Myanmar Army.
“We want to be able to work our land without fear, we want to be free of landmines and we want assurances that we won’t have to run again because we are targets of the army,” she says.
The NLD’s overwhelming election win has international governments, investors, hoteliers and international NGOs based in Yangon purring in anticipation of the financial opportunities to redevelop Myanmar’s long-neglected infrastructure. But the rain-lashed banks of the Salween River are a long way from the development euphoria reshaping Yangon.
Camp secretary Lah Pwe Moo does not believe the new government will remove the army from their villages.
“People here have little expectations or hope from the government because we see the situation in our homeland has not changed — if the army does not leave, there is no change. When people see the army on their land, the same army that used us as forced labour, raped, killed and burned us from our homes, we are afraid,” he says.
Lah Pwe Moo welcomes the thought that Myanmar could be more peaceful but questions why the army presence in Karen state is so dominant and why it is still waging war in other states against ethnic people.
“It’s good there are some new freedoms in the cities — travel, newspapers — but ethnic people know all about the fighting that is displacing many villagers in Shan and Kachin areas. Is that a sign the military wants peace?” he asks.
Reports by frontline humanitarian organisation Free Burma Rangers, which has documented 33 armed clashes since May between ethnic armed groups in Kachin and Shan states, confirm Lah Pwe Moo’s fears. It claims government forces have used jet fighters and heavy artillery 17 times, leaving at least 11 dead and nine missing.
Lah Pwe Moo says his immediate concern is what to do when foreign funding for Ei Tu Hta stops next year.
“People are talking about what they can do when the rice supply stops. Some will wait to see what [ethnic] leaders advise them to do and others will decide to leave and see if they can find some way to house and feed their families.”
He is dismissive of suggestions that people in Ei Tu Hta are doing it “easy” by existing on handouts from international donors. Adults only get 12kg of rice a month and children under five get 6kg.
“We struggle to look after our kids,” he says. “People are here not because of what they get, they’re here because they fear the army. We would go back if the army got off our land and left us alone. Move the army out and we won’t need support, we can stand on our own two feet.”
Lah Pwe Moo questions why international governments and aid organisations are quick to forget that his people were battered off their land, used as forced labour by the army, tortured, killed and left with little choice but to run for their lives.
“We lost our farms, houses, plantations — we took only what we could carry, and a pregnant woman in our group died on the way. The army was behind us all the time. We just had to run. Coming here was our only choice,” he says.
He struggles to understand how international NGOs can speak of funding cuts to vital services — health, education and rations — while they spend millions of dollars a year renting compounds in Yangon.
“It makes us angry that some [international] donors also think like this. They don’t consider that their costs — vehicles, air-conditioned offices, big salaries — all eat funds that could be used for health or education.”
To feed the 3,356 camp residents for a month costs 617,540 baht (around US$19,000). The World Health Organisation reportedly pays annual rent of $948,000 for its Yangon office, while the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund office costs a staggering $87,000 a month, well over $1 million a year.
DRIVEN FROM HOMES
Despite the constant rain, Ei Tu Hta residents snatch time between downpours to wash clothes, young men play ball games, small children splash around puddles and school classrooms are full. Elderly men and women, loaded with green-leafed plants and heavy root vegetables, show the strain of long daily treks to jungles to forage for food to supplement their rations. Before they were driven from their homes, many camp residents lived in well-established communities. Now these teachers, farmers and community leaders exist as best they can.
Naw Delay’s voice drops to a whisper when she recalls what drove her to flee. “My great-grandparents and their grandparents farmed our land. The Burma Army declared our area a black zone — shoot on sight for anyone found there. We couldn’t live with the fear any more. When we heard the army was coming, we ran with only what we could carry.”
Naw Delay says the army tortured people “in front of us”, with four village women detained, sexually abused and then killed. All aged under 30, three of them were married. She says her family lost their farm, home, household furniture and possessions.
“They shot all our animals — 30 buffalo, chickens, goats and pigs — and left them in the fields to rot. Burned our barns. Every village house was burned — over 60 of them,” she recalls.
“My three nephews were killed. They had gone back to the village to get food, but the army shot them — they were only 15, 16 and 20. We just escaped with our lives. The army came 30 minutes after we fled.”
Despite her fear of the army, she still hopes she can return home one day. “We still have our land, but the army has run a road alongside it to their camp on the hill overlooking our house. Soldiers come to take water to their camp from our stream. I feel vulnerable, afraid to go back. Two or three years ago, a villager who went back stepped on a landmine near our farm. He died”
Eh Nay Gay, now 30, was 10 when soldiers came for his father. “Soldiers tortured him, tied him to a log in the river and left him to drown. Mother cried for seven days — she still does.”
His mother, Naw Sha Paw, sits huddled, frail against the bamboo wall of their home as she listens to her son’s telling of the wrongs done to her family. Her legs are drawn up against her as if for protection. The month-long trek it took the family to get to Ei Tu Hta took its toll on the elderly woman.
Not long after arriving at the camp in 2006, Naw Sha Paw had a stroke that left part of her paralysed and with limited speech.
Eh Nay Gay places a hand on his mother to calm and reassure her as he talks of the torture and killing of his father and the trek through jungle and over mountains that almost killed his mother.
“It was the hot season,” he recalls. “We had to cross many army roads, avoid patrols and landmines. We only moved at night. There were 300 of us. When the kids cried, we force-fed them to keep them quiet. We were scared they would fire mortars at us. We couldn’t use torches. Every one of us held hands, while some tied rope to keep together. Mother was dizzy, faint and sick.”
Naw K’pru Htoo, who lives with her husband, daughters and mother in the camp, places the blame for her plight directly on the army.
“We had been walking for two days, hiding and running. Soldiers were on both sides. It was cold. I was pregnant with my daughter. My waters broke. I had to stop, I couldn’t go on,” she says.
Without blankets or a floor mat, unable to light a fire and in constant fear of shelling, Naw K’pru Htoo says the jungle was a tough place to give birth. “In a normal world you are taken care of when you give birth. In the jungle I couldn’t get warm. We couldn’t light a fire to heat water to clean myself. I was scared my baby’s cries would bring the soldiers to us.”
The last time Naw K’pru Htoo ran from the army was in 2006 on the back of a ceasefire between the Karen National Union and Myanmar’s former military regime.
“We don’t know if this peace will last,” she says. “All the fighting has meant our families are scattered like leaves. We are ordinary people, we just want to get on with our lives, but I do hope [Aung San Suu Kyi] can bring real peace.”
Naw K’pru Htoo’s mother, Khu Paw, 83, sits in the middle of the room rubbing a thick brown concoction into her stretched-out left leg. She is suffering from a broken leg and is treating it with traditional methods. “I fell on the uneven ground on April 24 and broke it,” she says.
It’s clear from Khu Paw’s eyes the fracture is causing her pain. The thinness of Khu Paw’s leg makes it easy to spot the break. The old woman replaces the pain with a smile and dismisses suggestions she should go to a hospital.
“I’m old. Of course it hurts, but I want to treat it traditionally. There’s no need to waste money on transport, medicine or doctors … and who has the time to accompany me?”
A camp official said it is not uncommon for older people to suffer pain and sickness rather than burden their families with the costs of getting medical treatment.
HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
A Karen Human Rights Group report called “Hidden Strengths, Hidden Struggles” indicates that despite the ceasefire with the Karen National Union and the government, ethnic women still live in fear over personal security, sexual violence, land confiscation and access to a secure income. The report found that women living near army camps fear doing “even the most ordinary activities such as bathing and collecting water”.
The report cites a woman from Toungoo district in Kayin state who described how villagers were afraid to go down to the river because a Myanmar Army camp belonging to Light Infantry Division 66 had been set up in the area. The woman said villagers are facing problems with getting water for cooking, drinking and bathing. Villagers dare not take a bath in the river.
Australian professor Desmond Ball, author or editor of more than 40 books on military intelligence, says Myanmar’s generals spent years crafting, planning and positioning themselves to be in political power no matter who won the country’s elections.
Speaking from Canberra, he concedes that Myanmar has made some improvements but warns that ethnic areas are being robbed off their natural wealth by the military and its “business cronies”.
“Companies, often owned by military personnel and backed up by army units, have displaced ethnic people from land that might hold valuable minerals, or vast tracts of farmland that can be used for commercial rice, rubber and corn plantations, or areas usable for important and profitable infrastructure projects,” Prof Ball says.
In a small airless, concrete room on the Thai-Myanmar border, Col De Kwe says he has been fighting as part of the Karen National Liberation Army since 1987. His family were forced from their home by a Myanmar Army offensive.
While there is major change happening politically, it is a double-edged sword for many ethnic people. “All-weather roads are getting better and it’s easier for people and traders to travel, but it also allows the army easy access to ethnic lands. We have try to find peaceful ways to change the situation,” Col De Kwe says.
He says land confiscated from villagers by the Myanmar Army is one of the biggest issues that needs to be resolved.
“It’s the first thing villagers raise and it’s the same in every village. Most of our people used to own land that the army confiscated and sold to business people — it’s really difficult to deal with,” he says.
“At township level there is documentation of these disputes and investigations of who owns the land, who sold it and to whom. A problem is that as soon as a business buys it from the army, they rush it through to get the necessary ownership papers. This makes it difficult for villagers to contest as in many cases they have lost their papers. This is happening in other ethnic areas as well.”
A 2015 Global Witness report in northeastern Myanmar, “Guns, Cronies and Crops”, investigated how the “military, political and business cronies conspired to confiscate land from ethnic minority villagers in order to establish commercial rubber plantations”.
The 18-month investigation found that by 2013 a staggering “5.3 million acres of land — thirty-five times the size of Yangon — had been leased out to investors for commercial agriculture, the majority without the consent of its owners”.
Col De Kwe says resolving the decade-old land confiscation by the Myanmar Army and regional authorities will be difficult.
“Much will depend on how the [NLD] government can resolve the constitutional issues and the power the military holds through the constitution.”
Chapter 1, Article 37, of the 2008 constitution leaves no doubt over who owns the country’s land. “The Union [State] is the ultimate owner of all the land, and natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the water and within the atmosphere within its territorial boundary.”
Naw Delay and the tens of thousands of other Myanmar citizens tortured, jailed, abused and murdered by the military believe their best hope for retribution may rest with the international criminal courts.
The International Centre for Transitional Justice points out that the immunity clause in the constitution may be “limited by international law and Burma’s international treaty obligations. There is a general consensus under international law that national laws or constitutions cannot provide amnesties for genocide, crimes against humanity or other serious violations of international humanitarian law”.
Naw Delay’s eyes harden as she tracks her few possessions in her small bamboo home before smiling at a gaggle of listening children. She searches for the words that explain what she feels about the abuses the Myanmar Army committed against her and the Ei Tu Hta residents. She is adamant that the carnage and killing that took place in her village should not be forgotten.
“What happened to us should be recorded and there needs to be action taken so that it doesn’t happen again. Villagers lost everything. Our schools, churches and villages were destroyed. How can we forget? I can’t forget.”
*This article first appeared on Bangkok Post, Spectrum on 21/8/2016.