The Karen in 2017: Resilience, Aspirations and Politics (Part 2)

Greg Cathcart and Gerard McCarthy review the second of four panels from a recent Oxford workshop on the Karen. The first post in this series can be found here.

The 2012 ceasefire between the Karen National Union (KNU) and Myanmar’s Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) has seen the integration of large parts of southeast Myanmar into broader circuits of trade, capital accumulation and central government administration. Yet these developments have brought at best mixed benefits to local communities in these areas so far. To understand these dynamics, the second panel of ‘The Karen in 2017’ workshop, ‘Livelihoods and Social Protection,’ explored issues of ceasefire enterprise and how it intersects with livelihoods, social protection and the peace process in Karen areas of Myanmar (Burma).

Conflict and development consultant Tim Schroeder highlighted the fact that insecure land tenure remains an especially urgent issue in ceasefire areas, as across much of the country. He presented research conducted in Karen State and Tanintharyi Region which found that whilst 88 percent of respondents claimed ‘ownership’ over their land, more than 73 percent reported having no land title. Fears of vulnerability to land grabs are further exacerbated by a lack of consultation on ceasefire development activities, such as the expansion of commercial mining and other enterprises. Fears of commercial dispossession were exposed in the survey conducted in a ceasefire area, which found that 76 percent of respondents said private business had a negative impact on the community, whilst 46 percent were sceptical about the current peace process.

Focusing on political cleavages in Myanmar’s peace process, Gerard McCarthy from Australian National University argued that expectations of sub-national autonomy and distributive justice are much more robust amongst Karen communities in northern Karen State when compared with lowland, Bamar-Buddhist majority communities in adjacent areas of central Myanmar. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork as well as a household survey conducted in both areas, he argued that these divergent expectations derive from different experiences of conflict and capitalism in the 1990s and 2000s. Whereas many Buddhist welfare groups see the provision of assistance to those in need as morally virtuous and the obligations of “compassionate minded” citizens and business people, he argued that Karen networks of self-help – often linked to churches – frame their generosity as necessary only in a context of state abandonment and oppression, epitomised by the Burmese military’s conflict with the KNU.

These divergent political perspectives of non-state welfare – state abandonment vs moral individualism – subsequently shape expectations of federal reform in Myanmar. For instance, when survey respondents were asked if it would be fair for funds raised through local taxation to be used elsewhere in the country rather than solely in the local community, Karen State residents were much more likely (39%) to say it was unfair compared with respondents in central Myanmar (25%). Karen civil society and political party representatives interviewed shared this sentiment, with one Parliamentarian commenting: “only once Karen State is developed could we consider sharing taxes elsewhere”. Deeply-felt grievances, framed by informal institutions such as networks of non-state reciprocity, are thus essential to understanding why many Karen people in ceasefire areas see real political reform and substantive federalism to be a prerequisite for increased commercial activity in these areas.

In this context, mine action specialist Gregory Cathcart highlighted that many communities in ceasefire areas continue to use landmines as a form of protection against intensive land acquisition and predatory commercial activities. Surveys conducted in ceasefire areas including southeast of Myanmar found that 22 percent of respondents said community-laid landmines and improvised explosive devices “keep their villages safe”, with many fearing that if landmines were removed, community assets would disappear. Framed in this way, landmines are seen not only to protect assets against outsiders, but are an example of the continued use of militarised strategies after ceasefire to contain non-military encroachment. Yet these strategies of landmine use tragically expose communities to catastrophic risks, with 65 percent of mine accidents reportedly occurring when collecting forest products for household or commercial use.

Yet the benefits of the ceasefire have been clear for civilians in some areas of life. Tim Schroeder’s research found that villagers are less likely to be used as forced labour, and that greater freedom of movement has allowed farmers to be more productive than prior to the ceasefire. Gerard McCarthy also noted the essential role of government hospitals and clinics in northern Karen State due to the absence of private clinics in these remote areas. Panellists noted that greater Karen inclusion in governance, including the employment of ethnic Karen in local government, also has the potential to tangibly shift perceptions of the state in ceasefire areas as has already begun to occur in areas such as education and agriculture.

Overall, the panel acknowledged that the expansion of central government departments into ceasefire areas has brought Myanmar civil servants into increasing conflict with KNU administrative systems, the leadership of which often remain sceptical about the future of substantive federalism. The lack of trust at a local level highlights the importance of clarifying rights and duty-bearing responsibilities within interim arrangements as these provide a basis for local governance until such a time that a more formal political settlement is reached.

In the meantime, the continued pursuit of ‘economic opportunities’ without governance structures which redress the politics of abandonment and distributive injustice on which armed movements have been mobilised may only sow the seeds of more intractable conflict. Drawing on comparative research amongst Kachin and Karen armed groups, University of Surrey scholar David Brenner questioned whether a similar disconnect is emerging in some areas of Karen politics between leaders, grassroots and youth movements, as gradually pervaded the Kachin Independence Organisation after militarised, extractive economies expanded rapidly following the group’s ceasefire in 1994. He warned that the expansion of commercial activities with limited local benefit, and the perceived co-optation of leadership with the building of Naypyitaw-funded roads, hydropower plants and other hard infrastructure, has the potential to create a disconnect between ethnic armed group elites and the grassroots levels, especially amongst aspirational youth. Alliances between aggrieved junior officers and social institutions such as churches could thus result in a similar contestation for leadership as occurred in the final years of the Kachin Independence Army-Tatmadaw ceasefire in Kachin State. These tensions surfaced at the recent KNU 16th Congress where brigades more sceptical of the 2012 ceasefire and especially the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement were largely sidelined within the central executive.

The ongoing insecurity of livelihoods in Karen areas, the high level of scepticism towards the current peace process and the overall distrust of large scale development flowing from it in many quarters remain major challenges for the future of Karen communities within Myanmar (Burma). Noting the comparative experience of the Kachin Independence Army, the panel saw a potential risk for the current peace process to isolate leaders involved in political negotiation from grassroots members and communities if national and sub-national political reforms are not forthcoming. In this context, interim arrangements were seen to offer short-term opportunities to support existing reciprocity and self-reliance mechanisms that have evolved over decades and ensure that political inclusion and consultation are substantively embedded within local governance. Panellists agreed that addressing broader political grievances and notions of injustice in the medium term, and ensuring ceasefire areas are not allowed to become sites of dispossession through land grabs and commercial exploitation in the short-term, is essential to improving social protection and livelihoods in these areas but also to reaching a more sustainable political settlement to one of the world’s longest running civil conflicts.

Continue to Part 3.

Gregory Cathcart is a mine-action specialist focusing on community perspectives regarding landmines and unexploded ordnances, especially in Southeast Asia. Gerard McCarthy researches distributive politics and non-state welfare in central-east Myanmar, and is Associate Director of Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre. He can be reached at

Featured photo credit: David Brenner