MOST deforestation takes place in poor countries. In richer places, trees tend to multiply. Australia is an unhappy exception. Land clearance is rampant along its eastern coast, as farmers take advantage of lax laws to make room for cattle to feed Asia. WWF, a charity, now ranks Australia alongside Borneo and the Congo Basin as one of the world’s 11 worst “fronts” for deforestation.
The worst damage occurs in the north-eastern state of Queensland, which has more trees left to fell than places to the south, where agriculture is more established. It has been responsible for over half of Australia’s land clearance since the 1970s. Its bulldozers are at present busier than they have been for a decade. They erased 395,000 hectares of forest, including huge tracts of ancient vegetation, between 2015 and 2016—the equivalent of 1,000 rugby pitches a day. As a share of its forested area, Queensland is mowing down trees twice as fast as Brazil.
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Australia has lost almost half its native forest since British colonialists arrived, and much of what remains is degraded. For a time, it seemed that the clear-cutting might come to an end: in the early 2000s several state governments passed bills to reduce deforestation. But in the past decade these have been wound back in every state. Queensland’s land clearance has more than doubled since conservatives loosened its forestry law in 2013, allowing farmers to “thin” trees by up to 75% without a permit. Neighbouring New South Wales recently enacted a similar rule.
Conservationists blame powerful agricultural lobbies. These retort that controls on land clearance push up food prices and cost jobs. Family farmers lament that trees obstruct the big machinery needed to keep their land productive. They know that empty fields are worth perhaps five times more than those peppered with vegetation. In 2014 a landowner in New South Wales murdered an environment officer who was investigating illegal bulldozing. (Authorities in the state are examining at least 300 cases of illegal tree-clearing.)
Yet clearing land eventually hurts farmers too because, without trees, soil erodes and grows saltier. Deforestation releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, spurring global warming, and reduces regional rainfall. Perhaps 45m animals were killed in Queensland’s bushland bulldozing between 2015 and 2016. Loss of habitat has brought many species, including the koala, to the brink of extinction. The Great Barrier Reef, which is already suffering from climate change, is also harmed by the extra sediment washed into the ocean, which can prevent coral from photosynthesising.
Permissive forestry laws seem especially odd given the billions of dollars the government spends planting trees, fighting climate change and conserving native species. In 2016 Queensland’s minority Labor government tried to pass a bill to strengthen controls on land clearance once again. It was defeated by a hair. But Labor, which won a state election late last year, has promised to reintroduce the legislation. This time, it holds a majority.
DESTINY is usually said to lurk in heavy drapes of purple velvet, in the wicked glint of a crystal ball, behind a veil of heady incense or in the tuck of a gold-chiffon turban. Your correspondent went in search of hers among a crush of Korean schoolgirls at the “Broken Heart Tarot Club” in booming Hongdae, a university district in Seoul. The café’s façade is an inviting jumble of pink neon signs and glowing graffiti. At the next table, a hip tarot reader spread a deck face-down for two girlfriends in oversized denim jackets, who took turns picking out cards and sipping on their lattes. He looked as cool as them, more rapper than rune-reader, in dark glasses with a chain around his neck.
Interrogating the decorated cards costs 3,000 won (about $2.75) a question. A tarot reader assesses the character of her clients first. Two flicks of her wrist, and a pair of Queens appears. “You chose the strongest set in the deck,” she says brightly. “Fame is within reach.” Will a move to a new country go smoothly? The Beggar. “The start will be hard, but you can succeed if you ask for help.” Will the Koreas go to war? Death and The Emperor show up, apparently the tarot incarnations of Kim Jong Un (here a scythe-wielding woman in blue veils) and Moon Jae-in, the leaders of North and South Korea. “Death plays tricks but the Emperor is wise,” the reader assures.
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“Broken Heart” is among dozens of fortune-telling businesses on the street, packed between cheap clothes and cosmetics shops. Business is brisk. Other stores offer the Korean arts of face-reading, palm-reading—one entices clients with a detailed mapping of Barack Obama’s raised hand at his presidential swearing-in—and saju. An ancient form of divination, saju analyses the cosmic energy at the hour, day, month and year of a person’s birth from Chinese astrological records and texts. A seer at “Broken Hearts” says she began to study saju two decades ago (she says she found it hard to trust other fortune-tellers), but took up tarot recently to keep up with the times. “The young like it. The cards are pretty, it’s cheap and it’s quick,” she says.
The otherworldly in South Korea will soon be a 4trn won ($3.7bn) business, predicts the Korea Economic Daily, a local newspaper. Paik Woon-san, head of the Association of Korean Prophets, estimates that there are over 300,000 fortune-tellers in the country, and 150,000 shamans, many of whom provide clairvoyance. Unusually in a country of evangelical Christians and devout Buddhists, it continues to thrive as anything from a bit of curious fun to a dependable guide for making everyday decisions.
Duo, an online marriage agency, found that 82% of unmarried women and 57% of bachelors surveyed in 2017 had visited saju masters to ask about their love life. The practice survived government campaigns in the 1970s that urged citizens to junk juju and make their own fate; they were, after all, conjuring their own potent magic by building South Korea’s economic “miracle on the Han river”. (The North has other reasons to dislike diviners, who are banned yet sought after; reports have trickled out of the authorities punishing those who make political predictions.)
Now fortune-telling apps for smartphones are beguiling city kids, taking the occult into the otherworldliness of cyberspace. Handasoft, a software developer, has launched 13 apps in the past five years. Its most popular, Jeomsin, introduced two years ago, has been downloaded over 3m times. Every morning it sends users their personalised fortune for the day (other mobile prophecy-providers sell their detailed user data on to marketers, but Jeomsin makes money only from ads). Proffer your palm to the camera or snap a selfie, and another app provides instant face- and palm-reading. Shin Hyun-ho of Jeomsin reckons two or three new apps are being launched every day.
More than two-thirds of those surveyed by Trend Monitor, a local market-research firm, said they see a fortune-teller at least once a year. Many visit between December and February, to see what awaits them in the new solar and lunar years. At Kyobo, South Korea’s biggest bookstore chain, as many shelves are devoted to deciphering destiny as to understanding Korea’s modern history, with primers including “Your Winning Lotto Number is in Your Dreams”. Diviners appear regularly in television dramas, sometimes as fraudsters but often to foreshadow a plot twist. In “The Face Reader”, a gifted seer employed by a 16th-century king correctly identifies traitors from their facial traits. It was among the highest-grossing films of 2013.
Andrew Eungi Kim, a professor at Korea University, says soothsayers hold an everyday relevance in South Korea that they do not have in the West. He likens dropping in on one to occasional Sunday churchgoing in the West. The practice is passed on within families—as “one possible way by which to make sense of the world”.
Judgment and The Lovers
Big junctures in life are a common time for a celestial steer. Careers fairs at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, in Seoul, reserve places for tarot readers. Students go to saju masters with lists of potential employers to determine those most likely to hire them. Businessmen might go to one to select a propitious date to launch a new venture. New parents routinely visit name-makers, another branch of fortune-telling, to help decide on the luckiest name for their baby. Couples check their compatibility before marriage, and one or both may be advised to change their first names to improve their matrimonial lot. In the past decade 1.5m Koreans have legally taken a new one.
The clairvoyance business has also been able to thrive because fate is not fixed in Korean cosmology. Bad news can be mitigated with charms, often given in the form of an action: take up a religion, take out health insurance, stop eating red meat, do not even think about getting a tattoo. Repeat clients are thus ensured. Some even drop in for a weekly check-up.
As palm lines and facial features evolve with age, so too, it is thought, does fortune. Rather than put a brave face on a luckless situation, a small number of Koreans simply change theirs. Some plastic surgeons have been educating themselves in physiognomy to advise their clients. (In “The Face Reader”, rivals to the throne modify the face of a contender to get the king to banish him.) Purists in the face-reading business lament that their jobs are getting tougher in plastic-happy Korea.
In the posh district of Apgujeong (part of stylish Gangnam) the entrance hall of a prominent saju café is plastered with autographs from glitterati. Sotdae Saju Cafe offers clairvoyance with cocktails. Its saju master says counselling is the biggest part of his job. “A lot of rich types around here are dissatisfied. Not long ago South Koreans were trying to survive. Now they’re trying to be happy,” he says. Tae-young, a 30-something Seoulite, says she goes for a reading whenever things get too much, or if something worrisome is on her mind. Some say readings help them to accept whatever unhappy situation they are in.
Few of those who see fortune-tellers take the readings as fact. Many say they offer an additional perspective. In a country where mental troubles are taboo, this is useful. Lim Chaewoo of the University of Brain Education in the city of Cheonan, south of Seoul, says that as modern societies have grown more complex, making decisions has become exacting. During the financial crisis in 2008, American stock traders and insurance brokers, themselves givers of advice, turned to psychics for a steer. Theirs seemed as good as any, in the circumstances.
That saju and face-reading are recognised as academic pursuits in Korea also lends them some modern-day credibility. Janet Shin, a saju master and newspaper columnist who also lectures at universities, says that her clients include doctors, professors and religious types. Status within the profession is achieved through study and experience, as in other disciplines, rather than bluster. Kwon Hee-gwan, who offers readings from soothsaying tents near Tapgol Park in Seoul, is a firm believer in this. On a recent weekday evening, wearing a navy-blue cardigan and tie, he delicately examined clients’ palms with a bone-handled magnifying glass. Mr Kwon sees as many as 20 faces a day, and has worked on a total of 10,000 in his career. But that is only half the number necessary, he says, to know a client’s troubles as soon as she enters his tent.
Some contend that this is not as mysterious as it sounds. Face-readers consider cues like posture, body language and tone of voice in assessing a customer, much as people naturally assess physical appearance to guess someone’s emotional state. In pre-industrial Korea, when few people left their place of birth, many thought people’s faces were a record of their lifestyles and so in some ways a guide to their fate. Researchers even suggest that palm lines may be a “fossilised record” of a person’s earliest moments, because they develop early in the womb. Maybe, then, they hint at a baby’s future health.
If computers could process and dissect what contributes to human intuition, might they become the fortune-tellers of the future? In 2016 a computer programme beat Lee Sedol, a South Korean who is among the world’s best (human) Go players, by four games to one. Even the clairvoyants had not seen that coming. Already, robots are being taught how to anticipate human actions—in effect, reading the future. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have trained a system to foresee when two actors will kiss, shake hands, hug or high-five by feeding it millions of hours of television dramas. Chinese researchers have trained a computer to distinguish between criminals and non-criminals nine times out of ten.
Enlightenment (batteries not included)
For many, all this portends a rather fearsome future. But a pair of South Korean artists at LOVOT LAB, a startup, offer a different vision. The pair tinker and exhibit above an old rubber-and-metals workshop in Mullae-dong, a run-down industrial neighbourhood of Seoul. In a corner of their studio, a small white robot sits cross-legged, surrounded by coils of sweet-smelling incense. “Buddha I” (pictured) has been programmed to read faces to detect a few basic emotions including happiness, anger and sadness, and dispenses lighthearted prophecies accordingly.
Hong Hyuns of LOVOT LAB has never been to a fortune-teller. But part of his inspiration came from cracking open a fortune cookie. The prophecy told him to “go east”. As he had already decided to move from Chicago to New York, this put him “in a good mood”, he says. Many perfectly rational folk have been found to adjust their behaviour, even in tiny ways, after taking advice from cookies. Mr Hong was struck by how many go to have their fortunes read even as they laugh it all off.
The robo-Buddha stirs from its slumber. “You look happy today,” it purrs. “Good things will come to you.”
A LITTLE over two years have passed since five booksellers from Hong Kong vanished into Chinese custody, accused of selling works critical of Communist Party leaders to readers on the mainland. Though four of them—staff and shareholders of Mighty Current Media—have since been allowed to leave the mainland, the firm’s Swedish co-founder, Gui Minhai, remains barred from travelling. His difficulties recently appear to have grown, and with them new tensions in China’s relations with Sweden.
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On January 20th two Swedish diplomats accompanied him on a train from Shanghai to Beijing. His daughter, Angela Gui, told reporters that Mr Gui may be suffering from a neurological condition developed during his recent detention in China (Ms Gui and her father are pictured, in happier days). She says the Swedes had arranged for him to have a consultation with a medical specialist in the capital. Before they arrived in Beijing, plain-clothes policemen boarded the train and bundled Mr Gui away.
On February 9th Mr Gui resurfaced at a detention centre in the eastern city of Ningbo, where pliant journalists had been assembled to hear him give a statement and answer a few questions. He said that Swedish authorities had pestered him into making an attempt to leave the country, even though he was not allowed to do so because of an ongoing investigation into his “illegal” bookselling. Mr Gui said that he had been happy in China but that his “wonderful life” had been ruined by this misadventure. He asked Sweden to stop “sensationalising” his case and said that he would give up his Swedish citizenship if the embassy continued to “create troubles” for him. He ended by saying that he hoped his family would “live a good life” and that he would solve his own problems.
This spectacle, very probably scripted by Mr Gui’s jailers, was the latest twist in a dramatic tale involving him and his fellow booksellers. Born in China, Mr Gui became a Swedish citizen while studying in Europe in the early 1990s. The publishing house he ran in Hong Kong pumped out loosely sourced tales of sex and corruption among China’s political elite—legal in the former British colony, but infuriating to officials in Beijing. In October 2015 Mr Gui disappeared from a holiday home in Thailand; three months later he re-emerged in China, where officials said he was under arrest. Put in front of cameras, he said he had freely returned to China to answer charges relating to a fatal hit-and-run incident a decade previously. “Although I have Swedish citizenship, I truly feel I’m Chinese,” he said.
Sweden’s foreign minister said the decision to prevent Mr Gui reaching Beijing in January was a “brutal intervention” contravening “basic international rules on consular support”. She said that she had understood Mr Gui to be a free man (he was supposedly released from custody in October, having served out a jail sentence handed down in relation to the hit-and-run case). On February 10th a Swedish spokesperson said that Mr Gui’s most recent video “changes nothing” and that they continued to seek access to their citizen. But China appears to be escalating the charges against him. State media allege that Mr Gui is suspected of endangering national security and that he was in possession of state secrets when detained.
Mr Gui’s ongoing troubles—and the months-long detention of his four colleagues—has succeeded in making publishers like them in Hong Kong somewhat more cautious. But it has also been drawing attention to Mr Gui’s output. On February 1st the Swiss-based International Publishers Association gave him an award for taking risks to promote free speech. The longer the party toys with Mr Gui, the more observers who once dismissed his books as just lurid tittle-tattle will start to wonder if he was preparing to publish information about the leadership that was in fact embarrassingly close to the truth.
KOJI TANAKA enjoys his work for a tech company in Tokyo. In his free time he goes for a workout or to receive a form of massage known as shiatsu that relieves his aching muscles with gentle finger pressure. He likes to eat out with his friends. “I guess I’d like to have a family at some point, but I am not ambitious about my career,” he says. “I am happy with my current life.”
Japan’s youth is perking up. Surveys suggest that the country’s young people are less happy than their peers in other developed countries. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 39. But compared with their elders in Japan when they were young, a higher proportion of 15- to 29-year-olds describe themselves as content. That is good news for a country where the word “youth” tends, with good reason, to conjure up images of gloomy misfits: hikikomori—people who shun society—and otaku—nerds.
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There are several reasons why satisfaction is rising. Partly because of the cost of housing, more young people live with their parents. Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist, calls them “parasite singles”. Not having to pay for accommodation means they have more disposable income. “It’s great not having to cook for myself,” says Kosuke Yamawaki, who works for Japan Agriculture, a farming co-operative, in the rural town of Shimanto-cho on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands.
Living with one’s parents well into adulthood may not be ideal. But relationships between family members appear to be improving. “Family is no longer about male figures scolding you,” says Masayuki Fujimura, a (greying) sociologist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Parents are becoming softer, especially this lot who were born during the liberal 1960s.”
On easy street
Life is pleasanter in other ways too. On every street corner is a 7-Eleven or similar convenience store where young people can buy everything from stationery to ready meals (and heat and eat them on the spot), flick through manga comics, and buy tickets to baseball matches. Although rapid economic growth is history, they appreciate that living standards remain high, and that life (apart from housing) is affordable. They shun designer wear, preferring clothes from UNIQLO, a Japanese low-cost brand. Their dream is not to own a BMW or to go skiing but to enjoy a dessert—as long as it is photogenic enough to post on Instagram. Young people often mention their smartphones when they talk about what makes them content. “I can look up anything, whenever, wherever,” says Yuri, an 18-year-old university student.
Japanese youth, like young people the world over, drink less and have less sex than previous cohorts of their age. They are far less likely to be sexually active than their American counterparts. Around 40% of Japanese are still virgins at the age of 34, whereas 90% of men and women in America have had sex before turning 22.
But few young people in Japan appear to be bothered. Japanese men often describe having girlfriends as too much trouble, since women expect them to pay for everything and engage emotionally. Women say men are unambitious. Mayu Kase, a 22-year-old single woman, says having a boyfriend “would be a good thing if it comes along”. But, she adds, “I’m not desperate.” Like preceding cohorts of their age, young Japanese still talk of being lonely. But Noritoshi Furuichi, a sociologist, says that friends appear to make young people more content than partners do.
Japanese society is still bound by elaborate rules and conventions. But these are becoming more relaxed. For some, this is disorientating. “There is no clear track for us, because there are so many options,” says Rie Ihara, a 25-year-old from Shikoku island, who says she aspires to a “stable, ordinary life”. But few envy the strictures of their parents’ generation. “Men had no choice but to be economic animals then,” says Saku Yanagawa, a 25-year-old comedian. Sho Yamazaki, a 28-year-old baker who recently set up his own catering company in Tokyo, sees creeping individualism in Japan as a good thing for the young. “We can realise our dreams,” he says.
Yet this silver lining comes with a dark cloud. Mr Furuichi believes that one reason why young people are becoming more satisfied with their current lives is precisely because they see little to look forward to. They focus on enjoying the here and now. According to a survey in 2013, only two-thirds of Japanese 13- to 29-year-olds thought they would be happy when they are 40, compared with over 80% in six other developed countries.
Japanese youth certainly face greater insecurity than preceding generations. Jobs are still fairly easy to come by, not least because the population is falling. But the once-common system of lifelong employment is becoming rarer. A much greater share of working-age Japanese can expect to toil in part-time or non-permanent jobs.
They are also likely to struggle to get married and have children, despite the vast majority wanting both. (Marriage remains the dominant family structure in Japan and very few children are born outside wedlock.) The proportion of people never married by the age of 50 has risen from 5% in 1970 to 19% in 2015.
Young people are all too conscious of the social and economic burdens they will have to shoulder. Over-65s already account for 28% of the population, almost double the proportion of 15- to 29-year-olds. By 2065 they are projected to rise to nearly 40%. The welfare system is struggling to keep up. A study in 2015 by Dentsu, an advertising company, found that people in their late 20s worried about life after retirement more than about employment.
Mr Yanagawa, the comedian, frets that his contemporaries are settling for less than they should. “People just want an average life here; they conform,” he says. “We need to be more willing to take risks and be messy, especially when we are young.”
Yohei Harada of the Youth Research Centre at Hakuhodo, an advertising firm, has a rosier view. He calls today’s young men and women the satori sedai, or enlightened generation, meaning that Buddha-like, they eschew big aspirations and seek happiness in simple things. That may indeed be the path to nirvana.
YOU have to pinch yourself when thinking about the change. Barely three months ago the Korean peninsula appeared to teeter on the brink. As Kim Jong Un hurled ballistic missiles into the seas around him, having recently tested a nuclear bomb (the sixth), hawks serving President Donald Trump seemed to be pushing to give North Korea a bloody nose. They argued that strikes would destroy Mr Kim’s nuclear ambitions. More likely, they would plunge the peninsula into appalling conflict.
And now? A member of the Kim dynasty has visited South Korea for the first time since the end of the Korean war in 1953. South Korean and other Western coverage in the past few days has breathlessly reported how, at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Mr Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, stole the show—along with an escort of North Korean cheerleaders described by the South’s press as an “army of beauties”. Ms Kim’s modest if fetching outfit, her demure smiles, the touching deference to her (unrelated) nonagenarian travelling companion, Kim Yong Nam, the North’s titular head of state: all were seized upon as evidence of a delightful charm offensive. The “princess of Pyongyang” had done much to put a human face on an impenetrable regime. She was North Korea’s very own Ivanka Trump.
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The blood line
What to conclude from the reaction? North and South Korea remain, after all, separated by the world’s most heavily armed border. Ms Kim herself appears the most trusted accomplice to a young dictator who a UN inquiry recommends be indicted for crimes against humanity. He runs gulags and orders public executions. Just a year ago he arranged for the assassination in a Malaysian airport of his own half-brother. Ms Kim is complicit in all this. She has a key job in the propaganda apparatus of a highly repressive state that, in service to a family mafia, sits atop an edifice of lies and grinds most of its people into misery. Yet in South Korea she not only charmed, she pulled off a coup. Invited to the Blue House in Seoul, on which her beloved grandfather had ordered a bloody commando raid 40 years ago, she delivered to the South’s president, Moon Jae-in, an invitation to a summit in Pyongyang with her big brother. Mr Moon will not lightly refuse.
The most obvious conclusion is that the regime, for all the crudity of its politics, remains a master of the diplomatic stroke. The detente that North Korea’s leader appeared to seek in his new-year address, when he suggested sending athletes to the Winter Olympics, has, from his perspective, accomplished much. Stealing the Olympic show has been an added bonus.
Perhaps the talk in Washington about a willingness to risk war is merely part of a psychological ploy to curb Mr Kim’s nuclear ambitions. You would like to hope so. But it may be that Mr Kim really did believe that Mr Trump would launch a first strike. If so, the detente buys time—America can hardly strike while its South Korean ally tries to revive long-frozen dialogue. It may also be that UN sanctions are badly hurting the regime (it suspended recent military exercises, apparently because of a lack of fuel). In which case, warming to the South is Mr Kim’s best chance. The two previous occasions when a South Korean president travelled north, in 2000 and 2007, proved to be extraordinarily lucrative shakings of the money tree for North Korea. And it pursued its nuclear ambitions regardless.
All the while, Mr Kim is even exerting influence over the two allies’ military relations. America agreed to Mr Moon’s request to postpone planned joint military exercises until after the games—the Winter Paralympics end in mid-March. Now, with a summer summit in prospect, he will argue for further deferment, to generate goodwill. Mr Kim will look like the puppet master.
That speaks to a broader aim to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, guarantor of its security, as well as Japan. Is it working? Mike Pence, Mr Trump’s vice-president, came in for criticism at the opening of the games. He refused to acknowledge the presence of Ms Kim right behind him. He wouldn’t stand when the joint Korean team came into the stadium—some South Koreans saw that as boorish. Remarkably, when he visited a South Korean military base on the same trip, no one from the Blue House accompanied him.
That came across as a snub. As for Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, when he urged Mr Moon in Pyeongchang to keep up the pressure on North Korea, he was told to keep Japan’s nose out of internal matters. Hawks in Washington and Tokyo are alarmed. The fear is that the left-leaning Mr Moon, who has long called for dialogue, will fall under the North’s sway, undermining the strategy of deterrence and international sanctions that America and Japan badly want to keep in place.
These concerns are overdone. Assuming he goes to Pyongyang, Mr Moon will not fall for the same old tricks again, argues Cheon Seong Whun of the Asan Institute in Seoul. Nor would public opinion allow him. Young South Koreans, especially, are far more cynical about the North’s intentions than their elders were even a decade ago. Besides, Mr Moon is an assiduous supporter of UN sanctions. He appears to have reassured Mr Pence that South Korea will not let up until the North is ready to dismantle its nuclear programmes. And Mr Pence, according to the Washington Post, agreed with him that, as long as “maximum pressure” was sustained, there would be no harm in a summit.
Detente is far from pointless. With the stakes so high, talking lessens risks of misunderstanding in an alarming game of chicken. The whole region needs a breather after recent tensions. But if a summit happens, it will produce little. Nothing suggests that Mr Kim will give up trying to build a capability to flatten an American city. The problem is obvious. With no fundamental change in the nuclear stand-off between America and North Korea, once the jaw-jaw subsides then war-war looms again.
“AS FAR as I remember, we’ve always been at war with the Burmans,” says Nya Ter, the leader of Ei Tu Hta, a camp for displaced people on the border between Myanmar and Thailand. He and the other 2,600 or so residents are Karens, one of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities. Burmans are the country’s dominant ethnic group. Over a decade ago the camp’s residents fled the atrocities of the Burmese army, seeking refuge in territory under the Karen National Union (KNU), a militia.
Stuck between the Salween river and jungle roamed by Karen rebels and Burmese soldiers, the camp mostly relies on handouts. But in September rice from foreign donors stopped arriving. Mr Nya Ter blames the peace process between the central government and more than a dozen ethnic militias like the KNU. “The outside world believes we have peace,” he says with a resigned expression. “We don’t.”
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What the Karens have is more of an armistice. Soon after independence in 1948, the country then known as Burma descended into ethnic conflict. Some observers believe that about 1m Karens have been displaced over the past 70 years. Around 100,000 still live in camps in Thailand. But in 2012 the KNU signed a truce with the army. It later joined the peace process, progress on which has been touted by Aung San Suu Kyi as her priority since she became Myanmar’s de facto leader in 2015.
The end of the shooting was a relief for many. People in Ei Tu Hta may still be too scared to return to their villages, but since 2012 some 18,000 of their fellow Karens have left various camps to do so. Hayso Thako of the Karen Refugee Committee, an NGO in Thailand, says that when he first went home, he was startled: “People smiled, laughed and watched TV.”
Money also followed. The number of tourists in Karen state soared from 10,000 to 150,000 a year. Trade with Thailand increased too. For Tin Tin Htwe, a 20-year-old Karen woman working in a bustling shopping mall in Hpa-an, the state capital, war is now unthinkable. She says she gets along fine with her Burman colleagues—in fact, it is the memory of Karen rebels who used to storm into her house asking for food, money and recruits that spooks her the most. Areas affected by conflict are only marginally less well-off than peaceful ones. Some even have higher living standards.
But ceasefire dividends do not necessarily trickle down. A new stretch of highway cut down travel time within Karen state, but it came with its share of land grabs. Locals complain that big infrastructure projects lack transparency and accountability. In the hamlet of Thone Eain, an hour’s drive from Hpa-an, every bamboo hut or tin-roofed house displays protest signs (one is pictured).
Villagers are worried about a Thai-Japanese power plant that threatens to flatten their homes. A small delegation of locals who went on a company-sponsored trip to Japan says the technology is to be trusted, but the regional minister championing the project, not so much—she was after all appointed by the Burmese government and remains elusive about the terms of the deal. “Life only started to be normal and now there is this,” sighs Than Than Nwe, a 46-year-old rice farmer. She says the money she was offered to move will not compensate for the loss of her crop.
The KNU is backing the project and also has schemes of its own, such as a planned industrial zone. Chinese investors were found and contracts inked, but things have stalled since the election of a civilian government. That peeves a mid-ranking KNU officer. He wants to become a businessman, and quick. If the government does not allow the project to go ahead, he warns, the KNU may take up arms again.
It is difficult for villagers to obtain clear title to their land, because the KNU and the government do not recognise each other’s authority on the matter. The ceasefire accord says the KNU and the army should work together to remove landmines, but nothing has happened. “There is no trust,” says Nan Moe Thidar Shwe, a local worker of Handicap International, an NGO.
How could there be any? Ahead of the next round of peace talks (forever around the corner), the Burmese army has stepped up attacks on a Kachin armed group, which once also had a ceasefire. Shan rebels, who also joined the truce signed by the Karens, still report clashes with the army. A Mon militia was recently bullied into accepting the pact, too. For now Myanmar’s ethnic minorities may have a peace process, but they have no peace of mind.