Despite Burma Army promises to withdraw its soldiers and stop a construction of a contentious road at the center of the military conflict, thousands displaced villagers are unable to return to their villages in northern Karen State.
In an interview with Karen News, Padoh Saw Tender, chairperson of the Karen National Union’s Mutraw (Papun) district said that although the road construction has stopped and the Burma Army soldiers have retreated back to their permanent bases, there are still issues that need to be resolved before the villagers can go home.
“It is still early for them to start going back because the condition need to be completely agreed to and settled, especially in regard to their safety. [Burma Army] retreated, but villagers are still concerned that they are still be active. Due to the military tension, there need to be also assurances that there is no danger for the returning villagers, including the danger of landmines.”
Padoh Saw Tender pointed out that villagers face difficulties making a living when they return, as most of the people are farmers and the disruption caused by the fighting means they will have missed the important seasonal time for preparing and planting crops.
“People with farmland in the lowlands can still work their farms.” Padoh Saw Tender said. “But for villagers who work shifting cultivation in the highlands, they will not be able to do that anymore as the preparation season has already passed.”
In early March this year, the Burma Army restarted work on the road between Kay Pu – Ler Mu Plaw. The additional Burma Army soldiers deployed as security for the construction entered KNU restricted areas and this led to armed clashes with the Karen National Liberation Army. The Burma Army advancement resulted in more than 2,000 villagers to be displaced.
On May 17, the Karen National Union delegation led by its chairman, General Saw Mutu Sae Po met unofficially with Burma Army’s Senior General, Min Aung Hlaing to resolve the tension between the two sides. The meeting reached an agreement to temporary halt the road construction and for the advancing government troops to retreat to their permanent bases so the displaced villagers could return to their homes.
Padoh Saw Tender is concerned with the term “temporary” used in the agreement to halt the road constructions, pointing out that wet season would have also eventually “temporarily” stopped the road works. In addition, according to sources from Mutraw district, the Burma Army completed 16kms of the Kay Pu- Ler Mu Plaw road construction out of the proposed 24kms.
“It’s still of concern to us because this could mean that they will continue the road building sometimes later. We are worried that they may continue it in the next dry season and this again would cause problems for the villagers.”