During 60 years of armed conflict, people in south east Myanmar feared and avoided authorities to keep themselves safe from forced labour, killing, torture, and forced recruitment among other human rights abuses. Despite ongoing challenges across the country and the south east, with the ceasefire in place and with a new civilian-elected government, communities in south east Myanmar feel that they can finally breathe.
In this collection of stories, we hear from people who have taken crucial steps to improving security in their communities.
“When there are job opportunities, education and health, we can say we have community security”, said Naw Eh Paw, who lives in a village in south east Myanmar under the Karen National Union’s (KNU’s) administration.
She and Naw Htee Moo are two women who are part of a group leading activities in their communities to address security concerns. As today, they lived in the same village during the height of the conflict between the Karen National Union (KNU), one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed organisations, and the ‘Tatmadaw’, the Myanmar military.
“When there are job opportunities, education and health, we can say we have community security”
“Before 2012, before the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), we could only go to our plantations between 6am and 6pm, the time set for us by the Tatmadaw. We couldn’t work freely. We needed to get permission letters from the village leader if we wanted to go to the forest to find wood or fruits. Even with our permission letters, they interrogated us. I don’t want to speak about that. I feel very sad thinking about that time.”
With the ceasefire in place, Naw Eh Paw, Naw Htee Moo and others in the village have more freedom to work and to come together as a community. They are members of community groups supported by Saferworld and Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) that encourage people in their village to work together and with authorities to address the community’s concerns. “We were interested even before the project started and now we can overcome many difficulties,” said Naw Htee Moo.
Last year, the group renovated a bridge the community relied on. Over time it had become weak and could not withstand the approaching monsoons. Naw Htee Moo shared the group’s reasoning behind their initiative: “We prioritised renovating the bridge because it created many risks for children who used it to get to school. Parents felt concerned about their children’s safety. When the children go to school they have to pass the river on a bamboo boat. Each year, more children go to school and it is more difficult to send them to school by boat. If they go by foot where there is no water, it is very far and the path is through a rubber plantation where there are many strangers working from outside our community and we worry about the children’s safety.”
Each year the community replaces the wood of the bridge after the monsoons. But this year they tried to make their renovations last longer. “The group raised funds within the village and asked everyone, especially wealthy individuals, for donations. They raised 70 lakhs (approximately $4,500 USD) for materials, and finished the bridge construction four months ahead of schedule and before monsoon season arrived,” said Saw Lin Chel, Saferworld’s programme manager.
Eh Paw highlighted the importance of women’s participation in this accomplishment. “We encourage everyone that women can do the same as men. Look at our bridge! We had fewer men participating than women,” she said. “Although some men participated, it was mainly women who took leadership roles. Through this, we saw how important the roles and involvement of women are”. Tin Tun Aung, Saferworld’s project officer, emphasised that Naw Eh Paw was one of these women: “She and other women in the community group were very active, going door to door encouraging people to get involved and help. They had regular meetings with the rest of the village explaining their plans and why it was important.”
“Although some men participated, it was mainly women who took leadership roles."
“[After renovating the bridge] the community is stronger and feels safer now that they have a group representing them,” said Naw Htee Moo. However, the women and the rest of the community group recognise much more is needed to improve their security and their relationship with authorities. Although the group sought advice from the KNU and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) the authorities only gave them permission and showed little interest in their work. Even after they had finished the bridge, the group invited the KNU to attend the opening ceremony, but they did not make an appearance.
Eh Paw is hopeful that this will change over time: “It is like the saying ‘if you meet again and again, you will become more familiar.’ The community doesn’t dare to meet with authorities at first, so the authorities need to come to the community and show their interest. We need to establish communication between us and authorities to improve our relationship.”
“Community security means people should be safe and secure, that old people are safe and that families are secure,” said Naw Myint Win, health department volunteer and mother of four. “All of these things come to my mind when I think of community security.”.
U Saw Hla Than, a priest in the community, has a similar perspective: “Security means all types of people are safe and have security.”
“Community security means people should be safe and secure, that old people are safe and that families are secure.”
Both U Saw Hla Than and Naw Myint Myint Win are part of a community group in a village in south east Myanmar predominantly under the Myanmar government’s administration. Community members have identified many issues affecting them, including limited access to water, proliferation of drugs and alcohol, poor road infrastructure, perceived risks from incoming traders from other communities, lack of household registration, poor waste management and other public health issues.
“First, we wanted to focus on addressing traffic insecurities because we worried about children, elderly and disabled people who might be more at risk when they travel,” said Naw Myint Myint Win. “It also affected me personally,” added U Saw Hla Than. “The main road has many corners you cannot see around when you’re driving. I was driving and another car came around the corner and crashed into me.”
The two members and their group developed a plan to raise awareness about road safety in their community and with those entering their village from outside. “We filled the ditch that was causing accidents with concrete” said Naw Myint Myint Win. “We made signs to warn drivers about upcoming turns and to tell people to honk when passing corners. We created signs in front of schools telling vehicles to slow down, to warn drivers of approaching cliffs, and to advise motorcyclists to wear helmets. We also contacted the police and asked them to come and speak to the village about traffic laws and road safety. We feel safer now. Before, we worried about the children and elderly walking near the roads. Now we worry less for them.”
Although traffic safety was not one of the more controversial issues for the village, the group still faced difficulties trying to organise and address road insecurity. “Our group members have to take time to do these activities. It was difficult to find time and collect all the materials”, said U Saw Hla Than. “We also didn’t have the budget for everything, so we needed to get the community involved. The community was interested so it was easier to get their support, but it was difficult for us to collaborate with Myanmar government authorities. We had never done any activities with the police and didn’t know how to contact them or work with them.”
"We created signs in front of schools telling vehicles to slow down, to warn drivers of approaching cliffs, and to advise motorcyclists to wear helmets."
Typically, people across Myanmar, including in this village, only interact with the authorities when there is a very serious issue. After seeking advice from the Karen Women’s Empowerment Group (KWEG) and Saferworld, the group found that reaching out and taking those initial steps goes a long way to improving collaboration.
“I spoke with the village administrator, who is a member of our group, and then we went to the next level and spoke to the village tract administrator (who oversees the villages within the village tract). He gave us an invitation letter and then I went to the police station to ask for their support. When I gave the police our letter they were happy to help.”
Naw Lily Win, KWEG project staff member, shared her experience of witnessing these improved relationships in the village: “Before the police came to the village, they never spoke to the community and seemed afraid to speak with them. When people in the community hosted the police in their village, the police seemed uncomfortable and afraid. Now that the community has asked for help from the police to raise awareness of traffic laws and road safety, the police and community joke around and ask about each other’s lives. Compared to another village nearby, we can see the difference between how the police now interact with the community. They are much friendlier with the people in this village.”
After reaching out and engaging with the police and government township administrators, Naw Myint Myint Win and Saw La Thein are confident in their abilities to address other insecurities and improve the safety of their village. Next, the group plans to get household registration for everyone in their village giving their families access to education and employment opportunities.
“It is important to contact the authorities”, said Naw Myint Win. “You need to go through the official path like getting an invitation letter from the village tract administrator. When the police give their time in the village, villagers also need to be involved in the activities. We need to approach the police and keep inviting them to our village, so they give us time”.
“Community security means overcoming difficulties we are facing,” said Saw Eh Htoo, a beetle nut and spice farmer, and rubber plantation owner in San Pya village. “I understand it is as working within our village to help and support each other starting with our personal relationships, then neighbours, then working to bring the rest of the villagers together to support each other to make the village safer and face fewer difficulties.”
Saw Eh Htoo and Saw Htee Wah are older farmers who are very active in their community group. Like other parts of south east Myanmar, San Pya was heavily affected by armed conflict.
“The past was very different,” Saw Eh Htoo continued. “San Pya didn’t exist where it does now because we had to move a lot to escape fighting between the army and the KNLA. Surviving and working for our daily food was very difficult. When there was conflict, we faced many difficulties and we didn’t have anyone to help us. Sometimes when we moved around we were beaten by authorities. Now the situation is much better — we are happy to stay in one place and can survive. We have lived through the conflict and know what that was like. Now that the government is becoming more transparent and allows us to work and move more freely, we feel like we can breathe.”
"When there was conflict, we faced many difficulties and we didn’t have anyone to help us. Sometimes when we moved around we were beaten by authorities. Now the situation is much better — we are happy to stay in one place and can survive."
Of the many insecurities left in the wake of violent conflict, the community group in San Pya village chose to focus their efforts on resolving and preventing domestic conflicts.
“Most of the conflicts happening in the village are between husbands and wives who fight with each other. We believe we can do something about it.”
From their perspectives, domestic conflicts have many contributing factors. The most visible to them is alcohol consumption, which is endemic in rural communities in Myanmar and is often made worse by financial hardships. Families in rural areas in the southeast mainly depend on agriculture to earn their living as there are few other business opportunities. Many lack government-recognised land, putting them at risk of having their land seized by the government or incoming businesses and worsening their financial security. To deal with the emotional and financial stress, people and particularly men often turn to drinking alcohol.
“Conflicts between couples occur from difficulties trying to earn for our daily survival and it starts with drinking alcohol excessively,” said Saw Eh Htoo. “It is usually after the men drink when husbands and wives begin to fight. Sometimes when the men become really angry they take out a knife or a pellet gun.”
Conflicts and domestic violence between couples, and between parents and children, are considered private matters in Myanmar. Deeply held cultural attitudes place a higher value on women’s and men’s respectability than on promoting gender equality, which makes speaking about or reporting domestic violence more likely to bring shame to survivors and communities than to bring perpetrators to justice.
“In the past, men thought that women had no right to talk back to them and that women needed to be quiet,” said Saw Eh Htoo. “They treated their wives like their value was equal to their animals. Before women were often quiet and no one felt comfortable to talk about these issues.”
With the help of the KWEG, Saw Eh Htoo, Saw Saw Htee Wah and the San Pya community group are starting to understand and change these attitudes and practices to promote gender equality and encourage couples to have respectful relationships and resolve disputes without resorting to violence.
“We try to figure out which households are having problems and then we try to connect them to different authorities and religious leaders that could help them solve the problem,” said Saw Eh Htoo. “We are working to motivate people to help each other.”
“We try to figure out which households are having problems and then we try to connect them to different authorities and religious leaders that could help them solve the problem.”
In addition to having respected leaders speak about conflict resolution, the group reached out to police and lawyers to speak to the village about laws protecting women from violence and laws relating to alcohol sales and consumption, and to civil society groups to arrange home budgeting training to help families manage their finances.
Saw Eh Htoo explained: “The training and awareness sessions have helped men realise they need to re-evaluate themselves and that everyone should have equal rights. It helped them realise not to love only themselves but also love your wife and children and come together equally”.
He reelected on his involvement in the community group and how it has not only started to change the mind-sets of people within San Pya village, but also within himself: “I have gained more patience and am less aggressive.”
The group has also gained negotiation skills that they hope they can teach to others. “There might be disagreements between couples, but I want them to be able to negotiate with each other,” said Saw Htee Wah. “I hope negotiation skills can help households, communities and the country to talk to each other and work together.”
Communities in south east Myanmar have first-hand experience of the long-standing conflict between Myanmar’s government and the country’s ethnic armed groups. For all the communities supported by Saferworld, KWEG, and KHRG, these planning activities to address insecurities were the first time they had sought support proactively from authorities prior to any serious incident. Through Saferworld’s community security project the community groups have begun the essential first step to improve security sector governance by establishing contact and collaboration with the Myanmar government and KNU authorities. In many villages, the groups’ activities and engagement are making authorities think differently about their role and interaction with communities, after which they often becoming friendlier and more responsive to their requests. The people involved in the community groups gained the confidence and drive to cultivate these relationships going forward and at each interaction aiming higher to resolve more critical security issues with authorities to make their communities safer and more secure.
Photo: Aung Naing Soe/Saferworld