“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.