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Conflict Resumes in Karen State After Myanmar Army Returns

Karen Return to War in Myanmar
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WATCH: Karen Return to War in Myanmar

Naw Moo Day Wah remembers the day 16 years ago, she was picking corn in a mountainside field near her family’s bamboo hut when the gunfire and explosions erupted.

“At first I thought it was hunters in the jungle, but then suddenly I saw a Karen soldier run past us quickly,” the now 23-year-old mother recalls.

Moments later, Day Wah saw Burmese soldiers suddenly emerge and bullets flew past the 8-year-old girl, killing her uncle and injuring her cousin and brother.

Then Naw Moo Day Wah was shot in the stomach.

Luckily, the wounded girl was dragged out of harm’s way by family members and later treated by a local Karen medic.

Returning home

Sixteen years later, the Karen woman had hopes of resettling in her home village of Ler Mu Plaw, so Day Wah returned to the eastern Myanmar district with others who had been living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.

But hopes of a new start in life were dashed two months ago, when Myanmar troops moved into the area, breaching a 2015 cease-fire agreement that had been signed with the Karen National Union, an ethnic armed group that controlled the area.

“After the ceasefire, I thought the situation was getting better so we decided to come back to our own home and our own land,” Day Wah said as she filled a plastic jug at a water station in the remote village of Kaw Row Ban Tha.

Because the attacks came at the height of the harvest season, the villagers could not safely gather their crops.

“I feel that if we go back to plant rice in our village again, it won’t be long — days or months — before we have to run from the Burmese army again. It is very difficult for our life to make a living in the future.”

Thousands uprooted again

More than 2,000 former displaced persons have been uprooted again, after more than 400 government troops entered territory controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army in order to upgrade a dirt road that connects two government military bases in the district.

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) forbids military offensives, expansion of military infrastructure, and troop reinforcements in ceasefire areas, according to a statement from the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), an independent organization working to improve human rights in Karen state.

Displacement from the recent military actions has left thousands of civilians at risk of diseases including malaria, as the rainy season sets in.

Saw Shwe Maung has been a front-line Karen National Liberation Army medic for 10 years. He fears the spread of disease among the displaced during the rainy season.
Saw Shwe Maung has been a front-line Karen National Liberation Army medic for 10 years. He fears the spread of disease among the displaced during the rainy season.

Health during the rainy season

Among IDPs are children, elderly people and pregnant women who are particularly vulnerable, according to KHRG researchers who added that among villagers who were displaced to Kaw K’Paw Hta area during the fighting, there were pregnant women who have to give birth in the forest.

Saw Shwe Maung has been a front-line Karen National Liberation Army medic for 10 years.

“It’s very easy for the diseases to spread in the rainy season, especially the diarrhea,” the 54 year-old said as he dispensed a handful of pills from a plastic bag for the IDPs gathered at the edge of Kaw Row Ban Tha village.

“It’s very difficult to get the medicine to come on time because we are facing a problem to travel to IDP location as we have to cross the Burmese army-controlled road, so we need to have security escort for travel,” Shwe Maung adds.

In addition to the health risks, there is also the added danger of getting caught in the crossfire in battles between government and ethnic armed groups.

Road, new dams

Saw Htoo Say Wah also fled Ler Mu Plaw village.

“In my thought, they signed the ceasefire because they want to build the road cutting through our land, but we can’t do anything because we’re just small villagers and can’t resist them,” Say Wah said.

Village chief Saw Thay Doh Wah lost one of his legs after stepping on a landmine 10 years ago. He helps organize the local village security forces, monitoring Burmese army troop build-up in the area.

“Some IDPs face great difficulty to hide in the jungle because it’s very bad conditions for people and they need shelter,” the 55-year-old Doh Wah said.

Among the key factors for the ongoing conflict are the proposed hydropower projects in Eastern Myanmar.

Fourteen dams are planned along the Salaween River basin in Karen state, but despite the drastic need for electricity in the war-torn state, most of the power is slated to be sold outside the country.

About 90 percent of the electricity will be sold to China and Thailand, with the remainder sold in Myanmar.

The biggest project, the Hatgyi Dam, is in same district as the current conflict. Militarization has increased around the dam site since the project plans were announced in 1999.

It’s a plan that doesn’t sit well with Karen aid groups, who see the developments as the root of the problems, with little or no local benefits.

“The reasons for the displacement is because the Burmese army wants to build mega development projects in our area,” explained Saw Paul Sein Twa, chairman of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), an organization working alongside communities in Karen State to ensure sustainable livelihoods by preserving indigenous knowledge and building capacity.

“And in order to build development projects in our area, they need to increase the security and build the road,” Sein Twa added.

Holding Burmese accountable

Meanwhile, the KHRG is asking international donors to the peace process to hold the Burmese military accountable for their violations of the NCA and the human rights of Karen villagers, adding that companies and development actors must carry out meaningful human rights, environmental and other relevant impact assessments prior to project implementation.

Karen National Union (KNU) official Padoh Kwe Too Win told VOA last week the Myanmar army has agreed to temporarily stop road construction and allow villagers back to the area.

VOA was unsuccessful in its attempts to get comment from Myanmar’s government.

Meanwhile, most of the locals remain disbelievers, unwilling or perhaps unable to trust an army with a long history of breaking promises.