Dogmeat Diaries 9: Down the Tanintharyi River

Dogmeat Diaries 9: Down the Tanintharyi River

This post is part of the series ‘Dogmeat Diaries’ by Ashley South and is adapted from an article first published in The Irrawaddy (11-1-2017). Read the first entry here for an explanation about the series’ title choice.

Dr Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Between 1992 and 1994, he worked as an English teacher along the Thailand-Burma border. This was followed by three years coordinating relief supplies to ethnic Karen and Mon refugees and internally displaced people, who had fled armed conflict in Myanmar. Since then, Ashley has mostly worked as a consultant for the aid industry and in academia. 

The Dogmeat Diaries recollect (not necessarily accurately) and reflect upon Dr South’s experiences working in and on Myanmar over several decades. During this period, he published extensively on ethnic armed conflicts and peace processes in Burma and Mindanao (politics of legitimacy and governance); politics of language and education; and most recently on climate change and “deep adaptation” in Myanmar 

Ashley’s academic and policy-orientated publications are mostly available at: www.AshleySouth.co.uk. The Dogmeat Diaries are intended to supplement this more analytic work, providing some snapshots and impressions of life beyond the beaten track in Burma.  

The Tanintharyi River (Sgaw Karen: Tennawtharee Kloh) gives its name to the southernmost region of Myanmar, through which it flows more-or-less north to south, before bending and flowing out to the sea at Myeik. This is the Karen National Union (KNU) Mergui-Tavoy District (Karen National Liberation Army 4 Brigade).

The middle sections of the river were under KNU control until February 1997, when a huge Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) offensive overran the area south of Myitta, down through the old district headquarters at Minthamee Htee (Htee Kee, on the Thailand border) and the big village on the river at Minthamee Hta (Htee Hta). Over the next few months, the Tatmadaw established bases further down the river in areas that had once been KNU/KLA strongholds. Most of the civilian population fled, either into hiding as IDPs in the dense jungle and steep hills to the west of the river, or into Thailand. Many ended up in the refugee camp at Tham Hinn, near Suan Pung in Ratchaburi Province; others settled as “externally displaced persons” in Thai Karen villages along the border.

After the KNU ceasefire of January 2012, some people started moving back to the river valley. For example, the village of Htoe Htae Hta was abandoned in 1997. A few months after the 2012 ceasefire, at the end of the rainy season, it was re-established as the main KNU administrative hub on the middle stretch of the river, the headquarters of the KNU’s Ler Muh Lah Township, one of six making up the District. The following year the KNU built a clinic, a hospital, and a high school. This remains the only KNU high-school in the District, although there are nearly 200 “mixed” schools in Tanintharyi Region, with teachers provided by both the government and KNU.

The rehabilitation of Htoe Htae Hta and four other KNU administrative villages in Tanintharyi Region was a major statement of intent by the KNU, establishing control in the middle stretches of the river, in an area of outstanding natural beauty which has never been under the control of any central government in Burma or Myanmar. The effort has been supported by Japan’s Nippon Foundation, which has financed the building of 100 new houses for KNU family members in each of these locations. Other international organizations (INGOs, UN agencies and donors) have also started working in areas which were previously inaccessible due to the years of armed conflict. Most of these international organizations operate as directed by the Myanmar government, and often fail to recognize the authority of the KNU. Knowingly or otherwise, their programs tend to support the extension of state authority into areas where the Myanmar government is still regarded by local Karen communities as alien and illegitimate. This can undermine local trust in the peace process. In the meantime, civilians in KNU-controlled areas receive very limited international aid.

I returned to Htoe Htae Hta in April 2014, after my only previous visit in 1996, prior to the exodus. I was there again to celebrate Karen New Year on 29 December 2016. The journey downriver from the new KNU District headquarters at Ahmla (a little to the south of Htee Hta) took about nine hours in a long-tail boat, made from a dugout log with side planks and a long and noisy “scorpion tail” engine. I was travelling with the family. We stopped overnight along the way at two Karen villages to celebrate Christmas (which occurs on different days in different villages among Karen Christian communities) and to distribute gifts to the schoolchildren. At this time of year the river was still quite high, so we could motor through the shallows and rapids.

International organizations' often fail to recognize the authority of KNU - their programs tend to support the extension of state authority into areas where the Myanmar government is still regarded by local Karen communitie

When we made the journey back in April, we often had to get out of the boat to walk around these navigational hazards while the skillful boatmen picked their way through the rocks. Although much of this stretch of the river was logged in the 1990s, the forest has started growing back. As we headed south the banks became more heavily wooded, with good forest cover in the hills and mountains extending up from the river to the east and west (with stretches of pristine forest purportedly remaining in the interior). We saw hornbills, different types of monkeys, a huge monitor lizard, many beautiful flashing blue and gold kingfishers, an elephant poking its head from the foliage to drink from the river, a wild chicken which flew across the river in front of our boat, many eagles and buzzards, and swallows darting down to the surface of the river to catch insects – and later in the trip two Asiatic black bears kept by villagers as pets.

The villagers we met along the way had incredible fortitude, great generosity and gave us a loving welcome. Many were in the process of returning to re-establish their old settlements after two decades ‘in hiding’ in the jungle or living precariously on the edges of Thai society across the border. We encountered very few people who had returned from the refugee camps in Thailand. However, several families had moved back down to the riverside villages from hiding sites deeper in the forest, and also many people who had spent most of the last 20 years as undocumented illegal migrants in the Thai-Karen border villages (but how can a person be “illegal”?). We heard stories of suffering and fear from returning villagers. One lady told us of her family’s experience in 2002, when two of her brothers were murdered on separate occasions in the same week by Myanmar Army soldiers, and whose sister died later that month in childbirth, while on the run in the jungle. People returning from Thailand told us that they were fed up of living in fear and insecurity across the border, and wanted to return to their home villages and re-build their lives in the freedom of Kawthoolei (the Karen homeland). The struggle and effort involved in re-building their villages was huge. These are poor people, with very few material possessions and wearing old and often tattered clothes, living in mostly bamboo houses, doing swidden rice farming supplemented by wild food from the jungle and fish from the river. A tough life.

Over the past few years, families have begun to return in order to claim their land. During the years of armed conflict and suffering, the Myanmar Army would often confiscate land in order to build military bases or deny the KNU access to territory. Since the 2012 ceasefire, land-grabbing has become more widespread, mostly on the part of private companies developing large-scale agricultural plantations (e.g. rubber and oil palm plantations). Despite the dangers and lack of trust, some Karen civilians are returning to their land in order protect ancestral farms from misappropriation, despite mostly not having official government land title documents. (Many villages have been granted land lines by the KNU.)

The Tanintharyi River is still magnificent along most of its length, as there is no industrial activity on its banks, and so far no hydropower projects have disturbed its flow. The interconnected forests and rivers in this area are home to some of the best biodiversity and sites of beautiful natural resources remaining in mainland Southeast Asia. However, since the ceasefire, there have been increasing activities on the part of gold-miners and other extractors. On my most recent visit, six large rigs the size of buses and many dozens of smaller rafts operated along the middle stretches of the river. These cause disruption through stirring up sediment, and longer-term damage through changing the flow of the river – particularly the larger mining rigs, which have thrown up mile after mile of piled rocks and stones along the riverbanks, disrupting the river during the rainy season. In addition, the use of mercury presents a terrible threat to the health of living organisms including the returning human population. The goldmining also produces arable, if localised, noise pollution. As one villager told me: “if I could, I would pick up those gold-mining rigs and throw them over to the other side of the mountains, so we never have to see them again.”

Aware of these concerns, the District KNU limits gold-mining to certain stretches of the river. The KNU also allows far less logging along the river and in the adjacent forests than in previous years.

Trading and infrastructure development at Htee Kee has increased significantly over the last few years - at least until the onset of the Covid pandemic.

However, in 2016 private companies associated with individual KNU leaders agreed a Memorandum of Understanding with a Chinese company, to develop an industrial zone at the old KNU headquarters of Htee Kee, with linked hydropower and road-building projects on and across the river. This has yet to be implemented, but could have significant impacts on local environmental and social dynamics. In the meantime, trading and infrastructure development at Htee Kee has increased significantly over the last few years – at least until the onset of the Covid pandemic.

This Htee Kee project illustrates a dilemma faced by the KNU. In the context of the 2012 ceasefire and the 2015 NCA, the government and Myanmar Army are restricting the KNU’s ability to raise taxes from villagers, as it had in the long years of armed conflict. While, for the time being at least, the KNLA no longer has the same need to replenish stocks of ammunition, the KNU is faced with unprecedented organizational and personnel costs, including expenses to support its new roles in the peace process. For the District KNU, gold-mining and other such projects are essential sources of funding – although some KNU leaders, and many civil society actors and community members, question whether this income counterbalances the social and environmental damage caused by such projects.

The challenge for the KNU is to demonstrate that it can be an effective and credible government in areas under its control, by protecting the environment and regulating business activities. It is no easy task for the KNU to transform from an insurgent organization, with a skeletal administrative structure offering limited health and education services to conflict-affected communities, and re- imagine and reposition itself as a local government. It is yet to be seen if the KNU will be able to maximize the advantages of its presence on the ground, during the period between the ceasefire and the negotiation of a comprehensive political settlement to end decades of state-society and armed ethnic (majority-minority) conflict.

Dr Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Between 1992 and 1994, Ashley worked as an English teacher along the Thailand-Burma border. This was followed by three years coordinating relief supplies to ethnic Karen and Mon refugees and internally displaced people, who had fled armed conflict in Myanmar. Since then, he has mostly worked as a consultant for the aid industry and in academia, focusing on ethnic and humanitarian politics in Myanmar, and the southern Philippines. Most of his publications are available at: www.AshleySouth.co.uk.

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