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In Myanmar's Karen State, people dare to dream again

HPA-AN, Myanmar -- For almost 70 years, life in Myanmar's southeastern Karen State has been dominated by conflict and instability. Decades of harsh military rule and counterinsurgency campaigns led to mass displacement of the civilian population, with many fleeing to neighboring countries to escape the violence.

     But Karen State could be on the brink of momentous change following the sweeping victory by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in last November's general election and the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement by most Karen ethnic armed groups.

Quiet relief

Now that newly elected representatives have taken their seats in parliament, the country is focused on what shape the new NLD-led government will assume once it takes office on April 1. Teashops in Hpa-an, capital of Karen State, are brimming with gossip about national issues, but there is also plenty of talk about matters closer to home, such as the composition of a new state government and regional parliament.

Many young people in Karen State volunteered to help the electoral commission update voter lists ahead of the November 2015 election. (Photo by Justine Chambers)

     Unlike other parts of Myanmar, where thousands gathered outside NLD offices to celebrate the election results, supporters in Hpa-an were comparatively subdued. Heeding the advice of Suu Kyi, people said it was important to appear humble. "We have to dance with the doors and windows closed," said one local NLD member.

     The excitement of the campaign died down quickly after the election, but discussions with locals in the months since underscore the immense optimism and relief about the results.

     The last five years under the administration of President Thein Sein and his Union Solidarity and Development Party have brought some tangible changes to people's lives, but there was a lingering sense among locals that the USDP was, in essence, a continuation of the military regime. "It was like we were holding our breath," one elderly woman said. "And now we can finally breathe again."

     Prior to the election, most political analysts expected big wins for the incumbent ethnic parties in places like Hpa-an. After so many years of armed ethnic conflict, identity politics loomed large in the state, with many Karen parties positioning themselves as the only organizations able to represent the interests of local people.

     "You cannot trust the big parties," one member of the Phalon Sawow Democratic Party proclaimed at a campaign rally. "You are Karen, we are Karen; you can only trust us." But only one Karen party picked up a seat in the State Hluttaw, or parliament, with the NLD winning 26 of the 33 state seats up for grabs in the state and national parliaments.

Grandmother's wisdom

The consensus among those I have spoken with since the election is that the defeat of Karen parties derived from several factors: a resounding rejection of military rule; the relationships between the Karen parties and the government; and the Karen parties' inability to acknowledge that many here see themselves as citizens of Myanmar.


The PSDP, one of the local Karen parties, campaigns in a monastery outside of Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State. (Photo by Justine Chambers)

    This last factor was evident in the comments of an elderly woman in a village outside Hpa-an who leads traditional Karen marriage rites. She sat surrounded by PSDP memorabilia in her sitting room, and I assumed she would be disappointed by the election results. "No, I voted for Aung San Suu Kyi!" she said. "She is the only one who can bring unity to our country. Of course I have many friends in the PSDP, but they only care about making changes to Karen State. Our priorities have been divided from the rest of the country for too long."

     A Karen schoolteacher put it in simpler terms: "We have waited long enough. Daw Su chi deh [We love Suu Kyi]! She is our only hope!"

     It is a sentiment shared by a village administrator, elected in Myanmar's largely ignored local elections in January. He said he is optimistic about the new government and hopes he will be in a leadership position if Myanmar moves toward a more decentralized, federal structure.

     He smiled as he discussed the liberalizing political environment in Myanmar and local people's growing thirst for political information. He said that most people in his village had spent time working in Thailand, and that the NLD's victory had given people greater hope for the next generation. "Education will be improved, there will be more jobs, more opportunities and -- importantly -- no war," he said.

     Interest in politics is springing to life among young people in Karen State, as nongovernment educational opportunities and exposure to modern means of communication increase. One first-year university student said that after volunteering to help the NLD with its voter education campaign, she went to every household in her village to check that all potential voters were on the electoral list. "I don't have the chance to vote yet, so I have to make sure they do," the 17-year-old said.

Local youths help support the NLD's voter education efforts in Myanmar's Karen State. (Photo by Justine Chambers)

     Other young people in Hpa-an were also involved in voter education for the NLD, as well as in updating voter lists for the election commission and helping with election monitoring. They were eager to play their part in the election process, which took place during the country's university holidays. "Just like Daw Su, we must always be active to change our country," another university student said.

     The word "change" is on the lips of most people. Even though life has improved somewhat in the last five years, decades of conflict have left Karen State facing extensive socioeconomic challenges, including limited infrastructure, poor education, health and social services, and a highly fractured economy. As a result, the biggest concerns for most families remain finding enough money for food and other daily necessities, and providing their children with health care and an education. Many young people still face the tough decision of whether to seek work in Thailand to help support their families.

Rule of law

For those in Karen State, the peace process in northern Myanmar is vital to their own state's development. Clashes in Shan and Kachin states continue to color perceptions of the military and its overall commitment to building peace. Repeated skirmishes between Karen splinter groups over the last year along the route of the Asian Highway between Myanmar and Thailand are a constant reminder of the fragility of the ceasefire agreement and of the absence of the rule of law in much of the country. The next government's approach to the peace process will be critical to its success.

     The liaison officer at the Hpa-an headquarters of the Karen National Union, a political organization with an armed wing, said he hopes that working with the new government will help bring sceptics to the negotiating table. "We ethnics have been fighting for too long. Our people have suffered for too long," he said. "Our states are broken. Now is the time to build trust and to heal."

     While Suu Kyi has recently expressed her support for the NCA and the processes already in motion, it is unclear how her government will tackle the difficult issues of federalism, resource management and the role of the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, in political life. And for the Karen people -- and Myanmar as a whole -- to benefit from the democratic transition and increases in foreign trade and investment, sustained efforts will also be needed to put a halt to land expropriation, corruption and tax evasion.

     It helps that Nan Khin Twe Myit, a prominent NLD member born in Hpa-an, is all but guaranteed the job of state chief minister. As someone who spent many years as a political prisoner, she said she feels a deep sense of injustice for her people and a heavy burden of responsibility. "Addressing the issues of land grabs and how we manage natural resources is one of our biggest priorities," she told me as we spoke about the challenges facing Karen state.

     She acknowledged that the concerns of big business and armed group leaders sometimes compete with the peace process, education reform and sustainable economic development. "Actually we have so many urgent needs to address for the people, it is hard to know where to begin. But we will try to do everything," she said. "The most important thing is now the people of Karen state have hope for the future."

     The November election will go down in history as a major turning point for the Karen people and for Myanmar as a country. But after so many years of conflict and instability, healing the wounds will take time, and no one in Karen State is expecting a fairytale transformation from the NLD.

     They are, however, hopeful. As one recent graduate of Hpa-an University put it: "Just like Martin Luther King, I have a dream. We cannot keep concentrating on the past, and everything that we have missed out on. It is time to look towards the future."

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