Dogmeat Diaries 8: From Fearing Army to Fearing Thieves: Karen Communities along the Sittaung River

Dogmeat Diaries 8: From Fearing Army to Fearing Thieves: Karen Communities along the Sittaung River

This post is part of the series ‘Dogmeat Diaries’ by Ashley South and is adapted from an article first published in Tea Circles (5-5-2017), reprinted in The Irrawaddy (10-5-2017). 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.  

I spent a week before Thingyan (the Burmese New Year) in 2017 visiting family and friends in Karen villages, and the Karen quarters of small towns, along the Sittaung River. Further to the east are the Dawna hills, where the government-controlled lowlands give way to foothills which have long been contested between the Karen National Union (KNU) and Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw); further up into the highlands, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA – the KNU’s armed wing) controls its last remaining blocks of extensive territory in Burma (2, 3 and 5 Brigades).

Until recently, most of the eastern side of the Sittaung had been strictly off-limits to foreigners. Here government authority shades into and overlaps with areas under KNU influence; further up into the hills, the KNLA control still quite extensive stretches of forest and sparsely populated villages. However, most parts of the river valley have long been under government control, with no fighting since the 1950s (although Karen insurgents hung on in the Pegu Yomas to the west through to the 1960s).

We travelled up and down between Toungoo (in Karen, Taw-oo), Thandaung Gyi (where we visited the famous Naw Bu Baw ‘prayer mountain’), Kyauk Kyi (Lerdoh) and Nyaunglebin (Kler Lwee Htoo). It was hot and dusty. Some of the houses we visited were large, spacious and relatively cool – with cream plastered walls and gorgeous hardwood timber. There was an impression of faded gentility. Previous generations of these timber-working families who had seen better times, in ‘the British days’ when (as I was often reminded) Christian Karen communities have prospered under colonial rule, building a national identity on the basis of education and literacy.

This was a holiday, and we were socializing, so the brief reflections are not representative of our hosts’ everyday working lives. I was struck by how few non-Christians and non-Sgaw Karen we met. It seems that parts of rural and peri-urban Myanmar can still be characterised in terms of the British colonial administrator and scholar JS Furnivall’s “plural society”.[1] Furnivall argued that colonial Burmese society (or at least the capital, Rangoon) was less than the sum of its diverse parts, with no common national identity, but rather various ethnic communities which engaged with each other only in the marketplace.

The Karen people we met expressed great love for each other – not in the flowery and sentimental way familiar from my own Western culture, but in many quiet acts of emotional help and material support. For example, in a village on the western bank I came across most of the men taking part in ‘given labour’ (loq-a-pey). In the past, this term rightly attracted much opprobrium, as a euphemism for the previous

military government’s widespread practice of forced labour. However, the concept draws on a deep and long-standing tradition of communal labour among the rural villages of Burma (not just Karen). In this small village, the men were cheerfully puffing on cheroots and working together to upgrade the village roads, before the onset of the rainy season. It seemed that their labour really was freely given. I have no access to the dynamics and possible peer pressure involved in mobilising this workforce – but the atmosphere was convivial and focused, with much good-natured banter and a lot of sweat. One of the villages explained to me that, “we have to do this ourselves: if we waited for the government to help us, we would wait forever.”

Particularly in the more conflict-affected villages on the eastern bank, but really across all of the small number of communities I visited, people expressed distrust of and distance from the government, mostly seen as dominated by Burman majority community. This is not surprising, after decades of abuse under successive military regimes. Until after the KNU ceasefire with the government in 2012, the Myanmar Army used systematic forced labour to build military facilities in rural areas and regularly abducted villagers to be used as front-line porters, often for months at a time. I was told stories of numerous killings, including in the context of forcing villages into government-controlled relocation sites.

A few years previously, when visiting a nearby village with European diplomats, local people in a “community meeting” told me and colleagues  about the livelihoods and other problems they faced. Several years after the ceasefire however, they were too fearful (and traumatised) to speak openly. Afterwards as we toured the village, a couple of elders approached me cautiously, and whispered in Karen about the many and various abuses visited on this community by the Myanmar Army. These included torture and disappearances, and the decapitation of several local leaders suspected of contacting KNU. When I reported this conversation back to the ambassador and her colleagues, I don’t think they believed me.

Afterwards as we toured the village, a couple of elders approached me cautiously, and whispered in Karen about the many and various abuses visited on this community by the Myanmar Army. When I reported this conversation back to the ambassador and her colleagues, I don’t think they believed me.

As far as I can tell, many of these Karen Christians have a deep-seated respect for the KNU, and sympathy for the armed struggle for Karen self-determination. However, few of them had much knowledge of – or it seems much active interest in – internal KNU politics, or the emerging and still deeply contested peace process. Several people expressed concerns about logging in gold mining activities in areas under KNU control or authority, and the effects this can have on natural resources and the social fabric. There were worries that the ceasefire would need to further land grabbing by well-connected outsiders.

More than one person reminded me of the English ‘kola wah’ responsibility for abandoning Burma and the Karen, at the time of independence (January 1948) shortly after the Second World War. I was asked if the English would come back again, to guide and support Burma, and protect the Karen from discrimination and abuse.

I was told that little had changed since the 2015 elections, and the emergence of a government led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. After the previous U Thein Sein government’s assumption of power in 2011, people noticed some improvements, including greater freedoms of travel, speech and association. My wife’s relatives could visit each other more easily, and with less fear of abuse. However, livelihood options have not changed much, and there is a perception that the present government has done very little to help Karen communities. People don’t seem to be surprised by this though. There is a perception that the government is far away, and dominated by Burmese Buddhists. The best that Karen communities can do is avoid abuse, and try to “keep our heads down”.

When I asked what has changed, people in the eastern villages said that since the ceasefire, the law and order situation has deteriorated significantly. These days there are more thieves in the rural and peri-urban areas, and reportedly much more drugtaking among the youth.

According to locals, gangs of thieves are mostly outsiders – often retired Myanmar Army soldiers, organised into well-connected networks. The level of crime is petty, but has a major impact on local peoples’ livelihoods and sense of security. In some places, many of the fruits and vegetables grown in small orchards on the edge of town are stolen by the gangs, for sale in the local market. If they are caught in the act at dead of night, violence – or at least the threat of it – can result. Otherwise, the thieves brazenly refuse to acknowledge where their wares come from, if challenged in or on the way to the market. Before the ceasefire, villagers accessing their lands feared arbitrary violence and taxation, or being caught up in the fighting; now that they have better access to their fields and orchards, many live in fear of thieves. I was told that, “it is pointless – and even dangerous – to approach the police, unless you can pay them. We don’t have enough money to pay for justice, so we just have to keep quiet when our goods are stolen”.

The peace process remains in crisis, and particularly post-coronavirus thieves are very active.  In the 2020, elections, it seems that most local Koran people voted for the NLD. Although I haven’t been back in a couple of years, the situation hasn’t changed much.

[1] John Furnivall, The Fashioning of Leviathan: the beginnings of British rule in Burma, in ‘Journal of the Burma Research Society’ (Vol.XXIX, No.II 1939; reprinted Occasional Paper, Department of Anthropology, Australian National University 1991). For a discussion of Furnivall, see Robert H Taylor, General Ne Win: A Political Biography (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015).

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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