The Karen in 2017: Resilience, Aspirations and Politics (Part 4)

Tea Circle reviews the last of four panels from a recent Oxford workshop on the Karen. Parts 1, 2 and 3 can be found here, here and here.

The fourth panel of “The Karen in 2017” workshop was a roundtable discussion that sought to pull out some themes from the day’s presentations. Moderated by Matthew Walton, it combined the perspectives of long-time Burma/Myanmar-engaged individuals with those of a newer generation of scholars working in a different socio-political context.

Martin Smith, one of the most highly-respected authors on ethnicity and conflict in Myanmar who is affiliated with Prospect Burma and the Transnational Institute, provided an extended historical perspective, based on his decades of work in the country. He wryly noted that the peace process was becoming similar to Myanmar’s protracted conflict in that it was rapidly growing into the most complex in the world. But beyond all of the stakeholders and overlapping mechanisms, one simple question remained: Who had (and has) the support of the people? This is obviously a challenging question in relation to Karen issues, but needs to be answered to ensure that a political “end game” emerges, as opposed to the indefinite continuation of “conflict as a way of life.”

Benedict Rogers, author and Burma analyst for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, suggested that the question of a political settlement also had to be considered in light of political division within the Karen National Union (KNU). With the flourishing of civil society organisations (CSO), especially after the first round of ceasefires in the 1990s, the demand for inclusion in political discussions had increased significantly. This has not only put pressure on KNU leadership, but also on the democratic forces that are now in power who had been at least partly aligned with ethnic alliances after 1990.

Justine Chambers, a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology, Australian National University, reminded everyone of the significant impacts on the economy of southeast Myanmar that have been partially the result of the 2012 ceasefire: trade flows with Thailand and a transformation in media and communications technology. Picking up on Ben Rogers’ point, she said that, although some of the general conflicts seem to be the same as they were thirty years ago, the social landscape is very different today. For example, women’s CSOs might have limited points of access to the formal peace process, but are able to have an impact through other channels.

Richard Dolan, a DPhil candidate at the Oxford Department of International Development, highlighted some important political developments, with ongoing discussions about merging the five main Karen political parties, and wondering about how that will affect not only elections, but also the Karen State government’s engagement with the KNU. Another important shift is from what scholar Ashley South has called “zones of relative autonomy” to what Dolan called “zones of relative possibility”, where social services are still sometimes organised around religious leaders, but often exist outside the formal patronage of churches and monasteries and also include a broader range of civil society actors and networks. All of this creates a much more variegated landscape with competing power centres.

The panellists discussed the controversial and problematic questions related to Karen identity, including the very existence of a Karen identity. Martin Smith pushed back against what he called a “completely bizarre” debate about Karen identity and whether the Karen really existed. This came from writings like anthropologist Peter Hinton’s essay “Do the Karen really exist?,” which found a response in work by other scholars such as Mikael Gravers. Smith worried that the constant questioning of Karen identity was undermining, not just to political identity, but to very real questions about the boundaries of Karen State and other parts of Myanmar that had a predominantly Karen cultural influence. Even the changing of the name Karenni to Kayah was a highly political and delegitimising act. In relation to this, Richard Dolan warned that the academic-activist-development communities must also guard against a preoccupation with Karen ethno-nationalist identity at the expense of other forms of Karen identity and agency now finding expression after the conflict and outside the peace process.

Other participants noted the politicised nature of what it is to be ‘Karen’, wondering if it might be better to try to de-emphasise the ethnic nature of this conflict. One person shared a suggestion from a friend to rename the eponymous states from Karen and Kachin to Hpa-an and Myitkyina States, given the large (and growing) numbers of non-Kachin and non-Karen in their respective states. But others pushed back strongly against proposals like this, arguing that states might be arbitrary, but we also need to respect the sense that people are fearful of losing their demographically-defined territory. We also shouldn’t be too quick to use phrases like “over-politicisation.” For example, the question of what the language of instruction should be in Karen schools needs to be politicised – there needs to be negotiation and discussion about what language is taught and who benefits.

The panellists also considered the complex question of hope. Benedict Rogers insisted that hope was essential to motivate work, both with and among the Karen working for peace or simply stability and fulfilling basic needs. Justine Chambers also saw encouraging possibilities in the way that a reduction in conflict is enhancing connectivity, making it possible not only for outsiders to learn more about Karen communities, but also for the Karen to learn more about the diversity of groups and identities within their own ranks. Richard Dolan stressed his preference for the term “aspiration” in this context, conceptualising it as a type of agency in an uncertain and highly structured situation, as well as seeing it in the renewed possibility of young people making long-term plans for their future. Martin Smith acknowledged that the southeast region appears to be a “success story,” but worried we haven’t paid sufficient attention to the potential appearance of dynamics that have unraveled peace and stability elsewhere, in other parts of Myanmar and beyond.

When the discussion was opened up to the floor, one participant posed an important question: Where does the decision-making authority lie at the centre? Than Shwe used to be the central authority, but it’s not entirely clear how things have changed since his time. Certainly, the military remains deeply embedded in politics, but it is also a diverse and diffuse actor, with its own power centres.

Benedict Rogers pointed out that the defined roles and increased legitimacy that come from situations of active conflict are weakened or threatened during a ceasefire process. The contrast with the KIO was again useful here, although certainly a renewal of active conflict wouldn’t be desirable simply to help the various factions of the KNU come together. A participant lamented that, in contrast to the embeddedness of conflict and militarisation, the practice of peace was more difficult and would take time and effort. He noted that he had often seen children standing with their parents guarding roads or property; this was evidence of early, entrenched sentiments of militarisation. But there were encouraging possibilities, such as the development of the Salween Peace Park, an initiative supported by the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).

Another important point raised was that investment remains a major priority for both the military and the NLD government, a point of consistency with previous decades. One participant noted that sympathetic regimes in Asia had put pressure on the previous military government to bring peace to the country’s border regions, otherwise no investment would be forthcoming. The present stall in FDI, compared with the optimistic predictions of five years ago, suggests that this dynamic still holds today. But, if economic factors are important, where are the opportunities for Karen communities (beyond a small elite already benefitting from a conflict economy) to take advantage of these and secure a sustainable future?

One concern expressed by participants was that, by focusing on the dynamics within the Karen (of intra-group conflicts, persistent militarisation, factionalisation, etc), scholars might be highlighting important facets, but are also deflecting attention from the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military. Ironically, this takes away agency from the Tatmadaw, making it seem as if the military doesn’t have a strategy or set of motivations, when it’s clear that it does. While we want to understand nationalist movements and their internal dynamics, there is a risk that this sort of focused analysis can make it seem as if all of the reasons for conflict in Southeast Myanmar are to be found within Karen society, when that manifestly isn’t the case.

Overall, the panel presentations and discussions provided a number of hints of voices that have been absent from the dominant narratives related to the Karen over the past thirty years. Questions of women’s voices and agency, as well as the role and prominence of a younger generation (whether situated in Myanmar, Thailand, or in the further diaspora community) will need to be considered, especially as a recent crackdown in Thailand on migrant workers looks to have forced the issue of refugee repatriation back onto Myanmar. The 2012 Karen ceasefire, alongside the broader opening up in Myanmar’s politics, has certainly brought change, but whether it has been meaningful and positive depends very much on people’s position, both geographically and socio-economically.