On a misty January morning, several thousand ethnic Karen people gathered near a mountaintop at Law Khee Lar, a rural part of their home state in Myanmar near the Thailand border.
Law Khee Lar is located in territory controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), a political organization with an armed wing that has been fighting against state forces for seven decades, in one of the world’s longest running civil wars.
On this particular day, Karen people gathered to celebrate the 70th Karen Revolution Day, an annual commemoration of the beginning of the KNU’s Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) long armed struggle for self-determination and rights.
“I came here because I wanted to celebrate with my Karen brothers and sisters, and because I want to see us all united,” said Somchai, a Karen pastor who had travelled more than 100 miles from Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province to attend the ceremony in Kayin, also known as Karen, state.
“Things are good for the Karen people living in Thailand, but those in Myanmar still face many problems,” he said.
After seven decades of civil war, many parts of southeastern Myanmar are more peaceful than ever due to ceasefires signed between the KNU and the central government. But tensions have endured over several contentious issues that analysts warn could unravel what is already a fragile peace agreement.
The Karen’s struggle for self-determination officially began on January 31, 1949, after the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw, launched several attacks on Karen communities soon after independence was achieved from British colonial rule.
The initial attacks came largely in response to Karen forces taking control of several towns across lower Myanmar, then known as Burma, including at Insein north of the then capital of Rangoon, as Yangon was previously known.
Over the next several months, Karen forces, led by the charismatic Saw Ba U Gyi, came close to taking the then-capital from the government, but were eventually driven out. The Karens attempted to establish an independent Karen state in April 1949.
During direct military rule, the KNU emerged as one of the strongest rivals to the central Myanmar government.
However, decades of intense fighting appeared to come to an end in 2012, when the KNU and the government signed bilateral ceasefires, as part of renewed efforts in then President Thein Sein’s peace process.
In October 2015, the KNU was the largest and most influential ethnic armed group to sign the government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), a misnomer considering the many ethnic armed groups who have refused to sign and continue to fight.
“The NCA is a new page in history and a product of brave and energetic negotiations,” Saw Mutu Say Po, chairman of the KNU, said at the agreement’s signing ceremony.
Three years later, the NCA hasn’t panned out as promised. An April 2018 report by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), a Karen-led advocacy group, said that the Tatmadaw has “repeatedly breached” the terms of the 2012 and 2015 ceasefires in Hpapun township.
Hpapun has been the scene of renewed fighting between the Tatmadaw and KNLA in the past year, skirmishes that have displaced thousands of Karens. In October 2018, the KNU announced it was temporarily suspending its participation in the peace process, expressing dissatisfaction with the result of peace talks held with the government that month.
The Karen Revolution Day ceremony was an opportunity for Karen leaders to speak directly to their people, and urge them to have patience with the peace process.
“The Karen people have long suffered under the Burmese military; we have tried many times for ceasefires, but this has not worked,” General Saw Johnny, general officer commanding the KNLA, said at the ceremony. “But we must still be patient. The situation has had some positive moments, and negatives ones, but we should not give up on peace.”
The KNU’s strength throughout the 20th century and the early 21st century allowed it to establish control of large parts of Myanmar’s eastern Kayin state. As such, significant parts of the state are under direct KNU control, while others are held by the government or a mixture of both.
Operating as a parallel government to the central administration now in Naypyidaw, the KNU has established a range of services for people living in the areas it controls, including taxation, education, healthcare and justice.
Partly as a result of these services, the KNU still enjoy widespread support across the state, according to a recent research report published by the international nongovernmental organization Saferworld and the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN).
Although respondents’ interactions with the KNU and central government were roughly the same, the report found that the KNU enjoyed “notable legitimacy” among much of the surveyed population, especially ethnic Karens.
Asked who they wanted to govern their area, 45% of the more than 2,000 respondents said the KNU, compared to 20% for the Myanmar government. Over 23% responded “none” and 9% said they didn’t know.
Theo Hollander, justice and security adviser for Saferworld Myanmar, said that the KNU’s support is linked to ethnic and linguistic ties, as well as the fact that the organization is strongly embedded in the local community. Another factor is the historic human rights abuses by the Tatmadaw, he said.
“If your village has been burned down by government forces, it’s clearly not going to contribute to you liking them,” Hollander told Asia Times.
“That has a huge impact, and that impact is not going to just be forgotten if there’s a new government,” he said, referring to the National League for Democracy-led administration that rose to elected power in 2016, ending decades of direct military rule.
His group’s report also found that the patterns of human rights abuses had changed since the 2012 ceasefires. Previously the main forms of violence and abuse were forced labor and portering, but since the ceasefire land grabbing has become more prominent, with one in 47 surveyed households saying they had land seized over the period.
Hollander said the vast majority of land grabs since 2012 had taken place in areas under full or partial government control. The Tatmadaw’s True News Information Team, the military’s de facto spokesman office, could not be reached for comment on the claims.
Hollander said that the central government in Naypyidaw could improve trust with Karen communities, and other ethnic minorities who have suffered decades of abuses, by recognizing their grievances.
“We found that there needs to be an acknowledgement of these wounds,” said Hollander. “[Many] households suffered abuses – and these are not minor things – and are things that the government, at a minimum, should recognize” via a public apology, or events or ceremonies to acknowledge the suffering caused, he said.
Hollander added that the KNU and other armed actors had also committed abuses over the years, but that their actions were “not as systemic” as the Tatmadaw’s. Nor has the ceasefire resolved the legacies of the civil war.
There are currently an estimated 100,000 Karen refugees still living in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. While many have integrated into Thai society and its economy, several still want to return home.
“It was horrible [to leave home]. It’s very sad to lose your home. You and your family grew up there,” said one Karen woman at the celebration ceremony who fled the conflict and has lived in Thailand for 12 years. “Thailand is safer, but it is still not my home. I hope to go back one day, but not for now.”
Some repatriated efforts have started, including in 2018 when UNHCR helped to facilitate the return of 93 refugees from Thailand to Myanmar. But Hollander and others warn against rushing their repatriation into an unsafe environment.
“If the factors that drive conflict in the first place are not addressed, then what reason do people have to return?” he said, referring to ongoing instability in the state.
“There is a ceasefire, and it’s the longest ceasefire in the conflict, but there have been ceasefires before and they have been broken. What confidence do people have that that won’t happen again? … Unless there’s fundamental change in how the country is organized, there won’t be peace.”
As he stood watching the Karen’s 70th revolution anniversary ceremony, Lay Ka Paw, a KPSN coordinator, said he hoped the event would showcase how much the Karen people want peace. “Karen people want a federal country in the future,” he said. “This is the biggest dream of the Karen people, but it is still only a dream.”