Karen communities along the Sittaung River

Ashley South visits rural Karen communities on holiday.

I spent a week before Thingyan visiting family and friends in Karen villages, and the Karen parts of small towns, along the Sittaung River. Further to the east are the conflict-affected Dawna hills, where the government-controlled lowlands give way to foothills which have long been contested between the Karen National Union (KNU) and Tatmadaw, then further up into the highlands, where the Karen National Liberation Army (2, 3 and 5 Brigades) still controls extensive territory. Often on the eastern side of the Sittaung, we would be in areas where foreigners had until a couple of years ago been denied access, and where government authority shades into areas under the influence of the KNU. However, most parts of the river valley have long been under government control, with little fighting since the 1950s (although Karen insurgents hung on in the Pegu Yomas to the West through to the mid-1970s). Nevertheless, many of these areas can still be considered ‘conflict affected’, as local Karen communities have faced decades of oppression on the basis of their ethnic and religious identity.

We spent time in villages and Karen urban quarters, between Toungoo (Taw-oo in Sgaw Karen), Thandaung Gyi (where we visited the famous Naw Bu Baw ‘prayer mountain’), Kyauk Kyi (Lerdoh) and Nyaunglebin (Kler Lwee Htoo). It was hot and sometimes dusty – although I think a little cooler than the same time last year. Some of the houses we visited were large, spacious and relatively cool – with cream plastered walls and gorgeous hardwood timber. I had the impression of faded gentility, and timber-working families who had seen better times – particularly in ‘the British days’, when, as I was sometimes reminded, Christian Karen communities prospered.

This was a holiday, and we were socializing, so these 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, JS Furnivall’s “plural society”. In The Fashioning of Leviathan: the beginnings of British rule in Burma, he 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.

Photo Credit: Saw Edward Win
Photo Credit: Saw Edward Win

I was also struck by the great love that people express 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 loq-a-pey (“volunteer labour”). 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 Christian 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 was indeed freely given. Of course, 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 villagers explained to me that, “we have to do this ourselves: if we waited for the government to help us, we would wait forever.”

Photo Credit: Saw Edward Win
Photo Credit: Saw Edward Win

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. This is perhaps not surprising, after decades of abuse, including systematic forced labour and the Tatmadaw’s regular (until recently) abduction of villagers, to be taken as front-line porters, often for months at a time. 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 have much knowledge of – or it seems much interest in – KNU politics, the ceasefire since 2012, or the emerging peace process with the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw. Several people expressed concerns about logging and gold mining activities in areas under KNU control or authority, and the effects this can have on natural resources and the social fabric.

More than one person reminded me of the English kola wah’s responsibility for abandoning Burma and the Karen, 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.

In terms of the present government, I was told that little had changed since the 2015 election. 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. According to locals, many of these men are outsiders – often retired Myanmar Army soldiers, organised into well-connected gangs. 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 and put up for sale in the local market. If they are caught in the act in the 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”. Another problem which has grown in recent years is drug abuse. In the past, a few (mostly old) people used opium, and a few smoked ganja; these days, ya-ba (methamphetamine) abuse is reportedly widespread among the youth, as well as growing incidence of heroin use.

These few reflections can hardly capture the complexities and rich textures of life in the Christian Karen communities of the Sittaung valley. I feel so privileged to have spent a few days in the company of these wonderful people. They feel themselves to be poor, and getting poorer, generally neglected (or worse) by the state. Even so, people in these rural and peri-urban Karen communities care for and support each other (demonstrating what academics might call ‘social capital’) in ways which have largely ceased to characterise many more ‘developed’ societies.

Dr Ashley South is a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University, Centre for Ethnic Studies and Development. For a full list of his publications, see www.AshleySouth.co.uk