A road back to war in Myanmar
Military's violation of ceasefire agreement with ethnic Karen kills hope for peace in a region wracked by over six decades of conflict
Escalating militarization, violence against civilians and forced displacement are among the alleged crimes that one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic civil society networks has accused the nation’s military of perpetrating—a pattern of abuse in violation of its own agreed ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels.
Last month, the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) published evidence outlining how the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, has “repeatedly breached” the terms of the country’s 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in Karen state’s Mutraw district, a region wracked by over six decades of conflict-related displacement.
Since March, “the [Myanmar] Army has shot at villagers [and] launched mortar attacks endangering villagers’ lives, personal security and food security,” the report said. It said such actions threaten to further displace the Karen from their ancestral lands and undermine their customs and traditional livelihoods.
“It seems like the Tatmadaw has destroyed the NCA,” Naw Zipporah Sein, a senior Karen political leader, said of the Tatmadaw’s current operations in Karen state. “If the troops do not go back, it will create more refugees,” she continued, referring to the 2,400 internally displaced people scattered throughout the forests of Mutraw in recent months.
Over 100,000 refugees have for decades been forced to live in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.
Here in Mutraw, one of Myanmar’s oldest ethnic resistance organizations—the Karen National Union (KNU), one of 10 signatories to the government’s misnamed NCA—holds claim to significant territory in line with the terms of the accord.
Karen communities say that the area is now being encroached upon by Tatmadaw advances to facilitate the construction of a road linking two of the army’s existing bases in the region.
“It’s clear that the [Myanmar] army is using the ceasefire as an opportunity to expand their territory in our area. They don’t show us respect,” KPSN representative Saw Soe Doe said. “I want the international community to monitor what is happening […] We need to make the military really commit to peace talks. The goal of achieving peace is very far off.”
The ongoing construction of the military road is presumably a move to facilitate army operations in the area, according to Karen activists. The roadway would connect the Tatmadaw bases of Kay Pu and Ler Mu Pla—the same outposts that Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) leaders say they had initially asked the Myanmar army to abandon during peace negotiations.
The proposed route cuts through Karen farmlands and divides the networks established by the KNLA, the armed wing of the KNU. Since February, KPSN has reported that at least eight Myanmar army battalions have entered and occupied the site of the proposed road in Mutraw. They have yet to show any signs of pulling back.
“They claimed that this road is only to transport food between their military camps,” said KNLA vice chief of staff Lieutenant General Saw Baw Kyaw Heh in an interview featured in a documentary released by KPSN in coordination with their report. In the interview he said it is “definitely a tactical military road.”
The lack of communication between the Tatmadaw and the KNU/KNLA has contributed to the ceasefire’s breakdown. Karen leaders cite the Myanmar army’s pull-out of proposed meetings in March with the KNU through the NCA’s Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC), the accord’s accountability mechanism.
They say that has left them with no forum through which to address the current accusations of rights abuses or resolve the escalating crisis.
Another major concern of the KNLA, KPSN representatives, and Naw Zipporah Sein is the fact that the military reportedly “informed” the KNLA about its intentions to construct the road, rather than pursuing approval from local authorities and communities for the project, which almost certainly would have been contested.
According to Articles 7 and 8 of the NCA, both the Myanmar army and the KNLA must be limited to their current bases; further movement must be accompanied by the securing of a “prior agreement” from the other party. Additional KNLA protocol restricts the Tatmadaw from venturing 45 meters from specified vehicle roads in Mutraw.
Karen representatives insist that permission for these movements was not obtained by the Tatmadaw. They also say they have documented Myanmar troop movements of up to 1,500 meters from their bases in Mutraw—a move seen as a pre-emptive fortification of their defense of the planned roadway and potentially permanent displacement of locals living along the envisaged transport route.
“If they continue sending these troops and trucks for road construction and if they do not retreat, there will be more tension,” said Naw Zipporah Sein. “We are concerned about how to move forward. We are concerned about the people who are forced to hide in the forest.”
The plight of those now internally displaced by troop movements in Karen is becoming a humanitarian crisis. KPSN representative Saw Soe Doe recently interviewed members of the 12 communities currently displaced in the forest.
“They don’t want to live like this. They have been running for their whole life,” he explained. “There was a time when [the people of Mutraw] would be able to stay in one place for one or two years, but sometimes they’ve had to run four or five times within a year. It always depends on the operations of the military.”
Saw Moo Rer, a local head within the Karen Agriculture Department, is quoted in KPSN’s documentary as saying he initially felt a sense of security following the signing of the NCA between leaders of the Myanmar military and the KNU/KNLA, and hoped that it would provide greater stability for his community.
“We thought villagers could travel without restrictions,” he said of the perceived benefits of the ceasefire. “But then [Myanmar] soldiers shot at villagers […] when they were crossing the [Myanmar] Army road.” He goes on to describe another incident when soldiers allegedly shot at civilians—including children—as they left their rice paddies in February. At the time of his interview, he too was in hiding.
The displacement crisis is being accentuated by the timing of the military’s movements, which are unfolding during the season in which fields are traditionally cleared to start the planting of rice with the beginning of annual rains.
Multiple villagers who spoke to Karen civil society representatives from their makeshift shelters in the forest expressed concern that they had been unable to plant rice in order to secure their food source for the coming year, suggesting the possibility of protracted food insecurity in the months ahead.
“Most villagers have abandoned their fields and fled,” Saw Moo Rer said. KPSN’s Saw Soe Doe said that after more than one month in hiding, the 2,400 displaced must still sustain themselves on whatever rice they were initially able to carry from home, and now supplement their diet with edible plants harvested from the jungle.
In addition to insufficient nutrition, locals say they are suffering from “fevers, headaches, asthma, diarrhea, and boils.”
There remains no international aid available to the Karen IDPs within their forest refuge, and there is an additional danger in attempting to return to the villages that they fled. These sites are now located in the conflict zone, explained KPSN’s Naw Hsa Moo.
“If they go back to gather food [from their homes], then the Myanmar Army could shoot them,” she said.
The return to active conflict in Mutraw has caused devastating casualties. Saw O Moo, a 42-year-old leading environmental activist and father of seven, was shot dead in an Myanmar army ambush on April 5 while he was driving a motorbike to a community meeting.
Only the backpack he was carrying at the time has been returned to his widow; his body remains in military custody because he stands accused by the army of being a plain clothes KNLA soldier. A close colleague of Saw O Moo’s, Saw Soe Doe, strongly denied the allegation.
“He is not the person that the Myanmar Army accused him of being. He worked for his people. I want people to know that,” he said.
Two weeks before his murder, Saw O Moo spoke at a prayer vigil for villagers who like him had been displaced by troop reinforcements and intensified violence surrounding the construction of the Myanmar military’s road at Mutraw.
Karen activists, community members and political leaders are anxious to see a meaningful shift toward a peace that empowers their own political and cultural institutions, allows for greater ethnic autonomy and protects their ancestral lands.
“The peace process is deadlocked,” Naw Zipporah Sein said. Her main hope now is that international pressure will reduce the current violence by sanctioning military leaders, including possible international legal actions for the military’s crimes against humanity in Karen state.
“All things depend on the Tatmadaw, which controls the process. If the Tatmadaw would open their minds and be serious about the peace process, we would be able to move forward. But [now], we are seeing more restrictions—even the [ceasefire] signatories do not have the right to do what is written down in the NCA.”
In his haunting last public speech filmed by KPSN members, Saw O Moo asked those gathered around him in a modest clearing in the Mutraw forest to pray that they might once again live in their homeland as a “unified community.”
“The Myanmar government and our leaders should review this situation and see whether they are really heading toward peace or not. If they truly work for the people, they must consider what peace really is,” the now murdered activist said while his wife was looking on. “Peace,” he said, “means no more running.”
Editor’s Note: A scheduled event to launch Karen civil society research findings on the conflict in Mutraw at a Thai university was blocked by Thai authorities in late April.
Sally Kantar is a journalist and researcher based in Southeast Asia