Fighting between the Karen people and the Burmese (Myanmar) government dates back to World War II. I went for a trip into the jungles of Burma to meet with the Karen people back in 2015, and it was quite the profound experience.
The conflict between the Burmese and its surrounding ethnic minorities has been described as the longest standing civil war in modern history, and it continues on today. The most recent developments are on the western side of Burma with the Rohingya, but most of my experiences were with the Karen to the east. The Burmese government, often accused of war crimes and even genocide, signed a cease fire with the Karen in 2012–a huge step in the direction of peace.
During my time in Burma I met Saw Rai, a prominent, local Karen man who works in the interests of providing medical care to the Karen people. I asked him to clarify some things and to give us a perspective on what it looks like for the average Karen man or woman on the ground out there–in my experience, it’s easy to focus on the happenings of politicians and generals, and you often lose sight of how these things affect the everyday civilian.
Saw Rai says that many people are not convinced that the Burmese government initiated this ceasefire out of the goodness of their own hearts. The people seem wary over accepting peace if it might come with ulterior motives–it may be that other countries pressured them into pursuing peace, or it may be some other reason. They just don’t know, and that uncertainty makes Saw Rai nervous.
There is also a general feeling of skepticism regarding the cease fire. “Some of the Karen people and leaders feel like Burma Army treat them in tricky ways,” Saw Rai said, “they have done the ceasefire with them before, and every time it didn’t work.”
Saw Rai admitted that there are certainly benefits to the cease fire, as the Karen have more freedom to travel conduct business at their leisure, but he is worried that the Burma Army is taking advantage of this freedom on their end. For example, they can expand and build military camps deeper into the front lines where they couldn’t before. It makes it “easier for them to resupply their troops” and the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) can’t do anything about it without breaking the cease fire. This is a massive concern if the Burmese military decides to once again become an aggressor, now having key positions they wouldn’t have otherwise possessed. This is a large concern among the Karen people, and Saw Rai says it’s a source of stress for many of them. They are at the mercy of the government staying true to the already shaky peace agreement.
I asked Saw Rai if he thought the cease fire would hold or not–he wasn’t sure. He said that the Karen leadership who are in direct communication with the Burmese officials aren’t even sure. Regardless, they will continue to try and negotiate for peace, Saw Rai says.
All pictures taken/provided by the author.