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Mutraw district, Myanmar – Paw Wah*, 36, was a child when she first experienced the brutality of Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw. When she was just 10 years old, soldiers came to her village and kidnapped her.
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Paw Wah, who is a farmer, has lived all her life in Karen, a state in Myanmar’s southeastern reaches bordering Thailand, where walking distance through mountainous terrain and unrelenting jungle valleys is measured in days, not hours.
At her neighbour’s house in the tiny jungle hamlet of Nyah Beh Ki, a two-day hike inland from the Salween River which separates Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from western Thailand, Paw Wah recalled the incident from when she was a girl.
“When I was 10, they arrested me and forced me and some other villagers to stay at their camp for 13 days,” she said. “At the time, my grandfather owned an elephant, and they demanded the elephant from him in return for our release.”
Elephants are valuable in Karen because they are commonly used for farming, as well as to transport heavy loads through the narrow jungle passes where cars cannot pass. On this occasion, the Tatmadaw soldiers claimed the elephant was being used to transport ammunition for armed groups, but the villagers thought they were lying.
“They tied us up and threatened us … They threatened to kill everybody if they didn’t get the elephant. We have been in tears since we were young.”
Tatmadaw air raids
Paw Wah belongs to the Karen ethnic minority. More than one and a half million ethnic Karen call this state, also known as Kayin, home. The Karen have cultivated a distinct cultural and political identity, which, alongside their unique weaving, construction and cuisine, manifests most starkly in their fervent desire for self-determination – something that draws the ire and aggression of the Tatmadaw, which overthrew the democratically elected government of Myanmar in a coup on February 1.
As Myanmar’s major cities saw a bloody military crackdown against peaceful protesters, Tatmadaw aggression also turned towards the country’s peripheral states and the 20 or so ethnic armed groups within, including the Karen, with political as well as military wings.
All of these groups, as well as the hundreds if not thousands of smaller armed militias peppered throughout the country, have had their own fraught histories of oppression, insurgencies and clashes with the military regime, and amongst themselves, since Myanmar’s independence in 1948.
This year, Karen was one of the states that suffered from the onslaught. As clashes between the two sides escalated, some 40,000 Karen were displaced by a campaign of Tatmadaw air raids in March and April which saw not only Karen military infrastructure and other assets destroyed, but also homes and public buildings. The attacks left 18 dead, according to figures from the grassroots Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), and up to 49 injured, according to Karen National Union (KNU), the Karen state government.
While the air raids have since stopped over the course of Karen’s rainy season between June and October, skirmishes on the ground are still frequent. Small Tatmadaw bases scattered throughout the state terrorise the local population by firing into agricultural land to prevent farmers from producing food and raiding villages of their livestock and what little else there may be to take. Many Karen see this activity as just the latest chapter in the long history of the Tatmadaw’s efforts to consolidate control over their people.
“Tatmadaw do not want ethnic minorities like us to have sovereignty and self-determination. They want to take control of everything. They want to control any area where there is a resistance group. They haven’t just been coming to our region now, but for decades,” said Colonel Saw Kler Doh, a commander in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which is the larger of the two allied armed forces under the KNU.
In October alone, according to Soh Kler Doh, armed wings under the KNU clashed with Myanmar junta forces on 275 occasions, despite the junta’s announcement of a ceasefire on October 1.
Mutraw, one of seven districts within Karen state, is widely known among the Karen and by the Tatmadaw to shelter the most active and defiant of the ethnic minority’s military brigades.
Because of this, the district has seen some of the worst violence. In June and July of this year, Al Jazeera gained rare access to the district to understand how the effect of the coup spread beyond Myanmar’s cities.
In every town and village throughout the state, burrowed in the red soil banks by the side of the road or crammed into vegetable patches, shoulder-high foxholes have been dug into the earth for Karen villagers to scramble inside to protect themselves from an aerial attack. Until June, planes had oftentimes flown overhead without dropping bombs, but the villagers would always run for cover just in case.
In Mutraw’s Nyah Beh Ki, which is sandwiched between two Tatmadaw outposts, Paw Wah and her neighbours gathered on the floor inside one of their homes. The mood was jovial despite the recent attacks.
A bunch of bananas was laid out for the guests and the aroma of a fish stew wafted from a cooking pot. A couple of men lit thin, leaf-wrapped cigarettes, while the rest chewed beetle nut, a mild stimulant which stains the teeth black over time. It is a favourite among the Karen whose cheeks often bulge with beetle nut while conversing with one another.
Both Nyah Beh Ki and the neighbouring village of Hee Poh Der were attacked in June by the Tatmadaw soldiers based nearby.
The soldiers’ behaviour is often unpredictable. Sometimes they pass through the village violently, scaring the villagers away and plundering what they can. On other occasions, they run when they are caught trespassing. At other times, forces have slept inside the village and purchased goods from the villagers after their extortion demands were not met.
Paw Wah’s neighbour in Nyah Beh Ki, Saw Eh Kaw La*, 44, is a farmer whose pregnant sow was killed by the Tatmadaw during a raid in June. For subsistence farmers who have little else to live on beyond their crops and animals, the loss of livestock can have an overwhelming effect on their ability to make an income.
“The Tatmadaw were going to Hee Poh Der but then they were ambushed by KNLA,” said Saw Eh Kaw La. “In retaliation, they started shelling our villages so we had to hide in a bunker.”
The villagers in Hee Poh Der tried to wait out the shelling in their village but it eventually became so intense that they were forced to flee from their burning homes. While the Tatmadaw also fired shells into Nyah Beh Ki, the damage was less severe.
When the shelling subsided, Saw Eh Kaw La returned to his home in Nyah Beh Ki to inspect the damage and gather some of his belongings.
“I dared not stay long. The soldiers were coming, and they started firing shots before they entered the village to scare us away. They fired about five rounds before they reached my house. Then they proceeded to ransack and destroy any home which had been abandoned. It was at that time that they killed four pigs around the village.”
Tatmadaw soldiers passing through Nyah Beh Ki on a different occasion killed a cow and an ox belonging to Paw Wah. “They injured another cow badly. I cannot treat it anymore – I think it’s going to die,” she said, speaking with a mixture of anger and weariness in her voice.
“It would have been better if they had just shot and killed me,” she said. “I wouldn’t have to suffer like this anymore. I only had eight cattle and I yearn for the things which I have lost.”
Commenting on the Tatmadaw’s treatment of the villagers, Saw Kaw K’Lu Htoo*, 33, a carpenter, quipped: “The Burmese soldiers have a saying about us: ‘Humans are for the grave, carts are for firewood, and cattle is for curry.’”
In good weather, the village of Dae Pu Noh can be reached in an hour and a half by motorcycle, heading west of the Salween River. A larger village than most in Mutraw, it has a hospital, a school, several churches and is home to the KNU district headquarters.
As the governing centre for the district, the village suffered heavily from a three-day Tatmadaw bombing campaign in late March.
In the days during and following the bombing, villagers took refuge in the surrounding jungle with little more than caves and tarpaulin to shelter them. While many have since returned to their homes, others remain displaced and have made more permanent shelters for themselves under the cover of the jungle canopy.
The bombing stopped in April, but the hiss of walkie-talkies, which provide warnings of incoming aircraft from allies located near Tatmadaw airfields, is ever-present in an area which has no access to a mobile phone network aside from a patch of signal a half-hour climb up the side of a slippery mountain path.
“I fled when the airstrikes happened. To begin with, we went to hide in a cave. I slept there for two nights. After that, we were worried that the enemy would find out about our location, so we decided to go somewhere else,” said Nah Heh Cho, 25, a shopkeeper.
She recounted her ordeal from a newly built shelter inside the jungle on the outskirts of the village. The sturdy shelter on stilts was built from wood and bamboo collected from the mountainside. Inside was a mishmash of mosquito nets, hammocks, and pots and pans hastily gathered from her home. Behind her house, a foxhole had been dug.
“We moved to a bigger cave where there were a lot of other people – somewhere around 40 to 50. It was too overcrowded, so we went to yet another place,” said Nah Heh Cho.
She sat on the floor of her home beside a low plastic table and wore a purple plaid shirt and a Chelsea football club beanie. She spoke almost in a whisper.
“We stayed at that location for more than a month at which point we could hear that there were no longer planes flying overhead so we moved closer to our village again.”
Nah Heh Cho, who has two children, was in the final stages of pregnancy when they went into hiding.
“When I first fled, I didn’t want to go too far from the village. However, because I needed to give birth at the time I had to find a place further away where I could do it safely,” she said.
Her newborn baby, New Lady Cute, just eight days old, slept peacefully under several layers of mosquito netting. Nah Heh Cho was quietly unphased by her situation despite the ever-present threat of another air raid. “My mother and husband have been working and taking care of me. …. I’m not scared.”
A school in the jungle
One of the biggest losses sustained in Dae Pu Noh was its high school, which has provided education to some 800 students ranging between the ages of five and 18. It was destroyed on March 29 when a Tatmadaw aircraft dropped a bomb on it during the air raids.
“The strike hit the school offices as well as the school building itself so there was a lot that was destroyed – computers, printers, batteries and solar panels were all gone. It has really caused some serious problems for us,” said Saw Sah Muh Htoo, who has been the headteacher at the school for seven years.
By June, teachers and local volunteers were nearing the completion of a replacement school.
Consisting of several rudimentary classrooms, the school sits on a slope within the protection of the jungle. Access is found along a precariously muddy hillside track, which only becomes more worn by the day with the hundreds of children’s feet that trudge along it as they climb up to, and back down from class.
“Before the airstrike, we could learn in a comfortable classroom with enough space for everyone but that’s not possible anymore. … Even before the airstrike there wasn’t enough equipment and textbooks – now we have even less,” said Kree Sel Lah, 17.
She loves to study English and aspires to become a doctor. “The school that they’ve built in the jungle isn’t very securely constructed. When it rains the walls and the floors become damp and flooded … The new location has a lot of mosquitos which makes it difficult to concentrate during our lessons.”
The way towards peace
Along the Salween riverbank, nestled behind towering wild grass, are the last remaining soldiers inside a borderline stronghold for the KNDO (Karen National Defence Organisation), the other armed group under the KNU. Formed in 1947, the KNDO is mandated to protect the citizens, land and resources of Karen state.
In late March, the KNDO 1st Battalion, commanded by Colonel Lah Doh Htoo, sustained heavy damage during the Tatmadaw bombing campaign, which killed one soldier and injured four others.
A large barracks and meeting hall were destroyed and the majority of the 350 soldiers stationed at the base were temporarily forced to leave, although they started to make a gradual return by July.
“The one who died had a family with a young child so it caused the family a lot of grief,” said Colonel Lah Doh Htoo, a man with soft, round features and a gentle demeanour.
The colonel, who lives in a spartan cabin tucked away behind the base, spends his evenings quietly writing in his logbook under the light of his headtorch.
“The intellectuals from the past and in the present have understood that the Karen and the Burmese [Myanmar’s government and the Tatmadaw] cannot form a country together because there are always disagreements between us,” he explained in the dimness of his private lodging.
“There are so many ethnic groups in Myanmar with so many different views on how to run a country that it’s too difficult to have a single state. We only have one thing in common – and that is that we all suffer under the military regime,” he said.
For him, there is only one way forward for peace in Karen state – secession from Myanmar.
While Karen state’s secession from Myanmar is a popular aim among Karen citizens, there are many others who believe that a federal system within Myanmar where the Karen could officially govern its own affairs would be enough to allow the ethnic minority to live peacefully.
‘Everybody is speaking out’
Colonel Saw Kler Doh, the commander of the KNLA in Mutraw, points to growing civilian resistance against the violent military regime since the coup as well as allegiances between new civilian movements and the older ethnic resistance groups as evidence that the Karen – and Myanmar’s citizens – will succeed in their struggles against the Tatmadaw.
He takes solace in the fact that across Myanmar, groups like the PDF (People’s Defence Force) – the militarised movement of civilians – and the CDM (Civil Disobedience Movement), which consists of workers such as doctors, lawyers and teachers who aim to put pressure on the military government through strikes, protests, boycotts and withholding taxes have taken action despite the very grim dangers that the Tatmadaw poses for them.
In his eyes, both the formation of these country-wide movements and the fact that regional governments like the KNU are collaborating with them – for example, by offering training grounds for them within their territories – are signs that the numerous ethnic groups throughout the country are uniting in the common aim of pushing back against military authoritarianism. This growing sense of unity is a feeling shared by many Karen.
“That is why they will never achieve total victory against us,” said Saw Kler Doh.
In September, Duwa Lashi La, the acting president of the National Unity Government (NUG), the shadow government which formed in response to the military takeover addressed the country calling for a “people’s defensive war” to be waged against the Tatmadaw by “all the citizens” across Myanmar.
Skirmishes by PDF and soldiers under the direct command of the NUG against the military are now starting to take place within Myanmar’s cities on a more regular basis.
Colonel Lah Doh Htoo believes that unity among the people will be critical in their fight, referring to how a similarly pivotal uprising by civilians against the Tatmadaw in 1988 ultimately collapsed because of disunity. Even so, he, like Colonel Saw Kler Doh, is optimistic.
“Every resistance group has the one aim of toppling the military government. In the years past, the civilians dared not speak up – they just suffered in silence. Now everybody is speaking out and trying to resist,” said Colonel Lah Doh Htoo. “This is the best opportunity that we ever will have.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees