Since the military coup on 1st February 2021, fighting between Burma Army soldiers and its opposition has broken out across the country, including in Karen State. Regions that have seen some of the most intense fighting are those under the control of the Karen National Union (KNU), a 70-year-long conflict that was quiet before the coup, but has since escalated into an intense battle displacing tens of thousands of civilians.
Since the coup, it is estimated 150,000 people have been displaced in Karen State alone, with more than 1,000 fleeing for safety over the nearby border into Thailand.
Among those displaced by the conflict are Naw Paw Paw, who lives in Mutraw (Hpa-pun) District, a KNU-controlled area. Until a few months ago, she grew seasonal fruits on her farm, but since the Burma Army started its offensive, she has been unable to return to it.
“I have grown seasonal fruits like durian in my farm. Since being displaced by the fighting, I have lost a lot of money. It is now the durian season, but I can’t return to my farm [for the harvest],” Naw Paw Paw told Karen News.
Naw Paw Paw said she had to leave her home in January 2022, because of fighting, and has not been able to return since. She said she feels heartbroken every time she thinks of the destruction of her crops.
“I make K700,000 to K800,000 by selling durian a year. My farm yields 150 viss of turmeric powder a year. A viss of turmeric powder is sold for K8,000 in Hpa-pun town. I have lost a lot of money because I am fleeing from the war.”
Naw Paw Paw is not the only one in the region to suffer financial hardship due to the conflict. The majority of villages in Hpa-pun Township, a traditional stronghold of the KNU, are facing similar problems, with hundreds of thousands of residents forced to flee due to the fighting.
In December, more than 20,000 villagers in the Lay Kay Kaw area of Dooplaya District, which is under KNU control, were forced to flee artillery shells fired by the military, as well as air strikes.
In addition to causing fear and trauma, displacement creates long-term financial difficulties for those affected. Across Karen State, like the rest of Burma, much of the population is reliant on agricultural work to make a living. Forced to leave the land they have grown crops on, sometimes for several generations, many no longer have access to earning a living.
Traditionally the main products in Karen State have been rice, maize, sugarcane, tobacco, betel nut, rubber and groundnuts. In 2019, the State produced 1.28 million tons of maize, rice, paddy, groundnuts and rubber, generating substantial funds for the local economy.
The State’s current economic situation is unknown, but the insecurity caused by the fighting suggests far-reaching impacts on people’s livelihoods. A recent report by the Karen Human Rights Group explained that residents who were able to harvest their crops were often unable to sell them, adding that food insecurity is now widespread.
Before being forced to flee, many residents in Lay Kay Kaw grew and sold maize. A maize farmer, who didn’t want to be named, told Karen News.
“I suffered financial losses, I borrowed money from others at interest to grow my maize. I had to buy pesticides for my farm. I also had to look after and pay for treatment for my chronically ill father.”
Some maize growers in Lay Kay Kaw borrowed money from businesses in Thailand to grow their crops. Now, with many unable to return to their land because of the conflict, they are falling deeper into debt as interest rates bite.
Farmers are now sleeping in the forest at night and returning to work in the daytime. Some are fearful of retribution from Burma Army soldiers, making them too scared to return to their home villages and farms.
In January 2022, Burma military fighter jets conducted at least three airstrikes on territory controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army’s Brigade 5, dropping 14 bombs and 182 artillery shells, according to local news reports. The KNU’s Department of Information confirmed that local people had been killed by the air raids.
Ko Soe Paing, an aid worker supporting displaced people in Lay Kay Kaw town, called on donors to support local residents who are unable to cultivate their crops.
“Some farmers have invested about K100,000, but they only earned K50,000 because they were unable to harvest their maize on time. If the fighting continues, local people will not be able to plant and grow crops next year. Displaced people cannot even live in their own homes, so it is impossible to farm. More donors are needed for the displaced people. Only maize and pulses can be grown in these border areas. If the locals can no longer farm, there will be no food production.”
Saw Paw Leh Kale Lahmu, a manager of a camp for internally displaced people in Mutraw District, said he believed the Burma Army deliberately targeted civilians, accusing them of being members of the KNLA, the KNU’s armed wing.
“The Burma military junta planted landmines in farms and fired artillery shells at people working the farms. So far, we have not seen any change in the behavior of the Burma Army.”
According to data compiled by the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) there were more than 140,000 IDPs in all seven districts controlled by the KNU. Due to this displacement, many people are now unable to work.
Local groups in Karen State have called on the military junta to end their attacks as soon as possible, so displaced people can resume their livelihoods, and humanitarian assistance can reach those displaced.
Many people in Karen State have been deprived of their livelihoods since the conflict re-started, said Saw Nandar Suu, a spokesman for the Karen Human Rights group.
“The local people in Karen State can no longer work in agriculture due to the ongoing armed conflicts. They are mainly engaged in seasonal agriculture, so they are struggling to make ends meet as they are unable to engage in agriculture.
They have no income and are yet to receive appropriate humanitarian assistance. The displaced people lost their jobs and their livelihoods – their rights have been violated.”
Saw Nandar Suu said the Burma Army needs to stop committing atrocities against villagers.
“This situation needs to get better. The humanitarian aid situation for displaced people in Karen State is very limited and assistance did not reach all of the displaced people. It is impossible for those fleeing the war to make a long-term livelihood. Therefore, the Myanmar military needs to stop attacking the people immediately. Only then will the people be able to resume their livelihoods. There is an urgent need for public safety. We call on all parties to work together for the emergence of a government that listens to the people’s voices and rejects the recognition of the military junta that has now seized power.”