A witness to Indigenous self-governance

In war-torn Burma/Myanmar, an Indigenous group seeks to establish their own protected area. A York graduate student has witnessed the process.

Andrew Paul (MA, Geography) recently defended his thesis about the proposed Salween Peace Park—an Indigenous Protected Area in the Karen State. The Indigenous people are seeking self-governance, guided by their traditional spiritual and environmental principles. Relations with the central government have been strained.

Paul’s project seeks to advance the establishment of the park. For his research, Paul spent seven months in Karen. It takes more than a day to travel by foot to the isolated Karen community, and Paul made the trip many times. Paul is one of this year’s recipients of FGS’ Thesis & Dissertation Prize.

What is the Salween Peace Park?
This is a very interesting initiative that I’ve been involved with for a number of years, before I started grad school at York. It’s an initiative of the Indigenous Karen people in the border region between Burma (also known as Myanmar) and Thailand. In this area, they’ve faced one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. The Karen revolution started in 1949, just after Burma’s independence from Great Britain. The struggle has mostly been for greater autonomy within a more devolved federal democratic sort of system, but Burma has been a very centralized government, and for 50 years was a full-on military dictatorship. Now, with the democratic transition… I mean, the military is still very, very powerful.

After the war started in 1949, there wasn’t really a stable ceasefire until 2012. But back about 20 years ago, 25 years ago, the war was very bad in this part of the country, and the local general there, General Baw Kyaw Heh, he had a dream for one day working to protect this place. He envisioned some kind of national park, managed and controlled by the local Karen communities. But this remained a dream, and the war and displacement prevented them from being able to realize their vision. But then when the ceasefire came, they thought here’s maybe a chance, a breather—so they started talking about what could this national park look like.

[The local Karen communities] in this particular area have been characterized as some of the holdouts. They’ve been characterized as that they don’t want peace because they’ve been very skeptical of the centralized, top-down government process—and they have every right to be suspicious of that process. So, they envisioned: ‘Okay, this will demonstrate that we actually want peace, and so we’re going to call it a Peace Park.’

It’s a very large area—about 5,400 square kilometres—and it’s still mostly under autonomous, de facto Karen governance by the resistance group. The centralized government administration actually never really in history has controlled this area.

So, it’s still under the Karen National Union governance system, and they want to develop that governance into something that will advance peace and reconciliation based on the right of self-determination of the local people, while also protecting the land and the forest. These forests are still some of the most biodiverse, rich forests in Southeast Asia. There are still tigers and gibbons and other species in these forests.

The first pillar is peace and self-determination; the second is biodiversity, conservation, protection of the land; and the third is promotion of the Indigenous Karen culture. This is one of the areas where that culture remains the strongest, mostly because it’s not under centralized government control. Those are the pillars of this vision, and it’s being developed very much from the ground up. So although it was the general’s idea to begin with, since then they’ve been doing a lot of grassroots consultations with the local people, working to develop a lot of the local traditional governance frameworks, and that’s a lot of what my research was involved with as well. The Salween Peace Park was officially declared under the KNU governance system on December 18, 2018. They’re also engaging internationally with the Indigenous conservation movement—gaining some international recognition.

So far, at this point, they’ve not formally engaged the central government. Of course, the central government knows about it, but they haven’t formally engaged them because the central government administration and governance system are not set up to recognize or protect a place like this in any meaningful sort of way. They’re still trying to gain centralized, top-down control over this place.

So relations are still frosty?
Oh, very much so. So this place, even though it’s not under any administrative control from the Burmese central government, it is very heavily militarized. In this 5,400 square kilometre area… there are no fewer than 60 military camps scattered through that territory. So even though there’s a ceasefire, it still remains heavily occupied. And last year, in 2018, things did take a turn for the worse in the northern part of the peace park, which is where I’ve done my research, because the military was trying to extend one of its roads through that area, and the local Karen resistance were like, “No, you can’t do that, that’s terrible for our security.” So there were clashes. In 2018, I remember reading there were over 60 clashes in total.

Violent clashes?
Violent clashes, armed clashes, in what’s supposed to be ceasefire. I mean, Burma is such a mess every which way. Most people have heard now about the Rohingya crisis, which also really exploded last year. There are the northern areas in Kachin and Shan states where there’s still ongoing fighting, and there's ferocious fighting in Rakhine State again now against the Arakan Army. So really, it’s anybody’s guess where things are going to go in Burma.

You spent seven months in Thailand and made frequent trips to Karen. I understand that Karen is quite an isolated area—how did you get there?
Before I started grad school, I actually interned there for a year in 2014/2015 with a local organization called the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network—they have connections throughout this area. Yeah, it’s a fairly remote area along the border between Thailand and Burma. In most of the areas, there aren’t many roads, which entails a lot of climbing over the mountains and the hills on foot. So many of these villages are accessible only on foot.

As a western researcher, how did you build trust?
I was actually very fortunate that even before I started grad school I had spent quite a bit of time in these communities through this organization. Because these areas are quite remote, they don’t really ever see any foreigners. Pretty much there are two or three organizations that a few foreigners might go with, the other one being the Free Burma Rangers, which provides a lot of medical assistance. But if you’re not affiliated with one of the community organizations, you basically can’t access this area.

It was through those connections while I was an intern with the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, we built those relationships and that trust. I’ve actually worked quite a bit with the Karen refugee communities in Canada as well, so over the last several years I’ve worked a lot on the language as well. I’m not 100 percent fluent, but I can certainly get by.

What has it been like working with the Karen people, on a personal level?
That is what keeps me going, it's the personal connections that I have with the Karen people. Both here in Canada and over there in Karen State, I’ve just found them to be a very welcoming, very hospitable community. This is something that they personally take great pride in—it’s a core part of their culture and value system. Even in the Karen national anthem it talks about welcoming the strangers and visitors.

It is quite an experience spending time in villages where you start to realize that these little collections of bamboo huts have actually been treated as military targets. That really gives pause for thought. Sometimes you can feel a deep anger there, because that is the way it’s been in these mountains for decades. There have been large areas that have been basically “shoot on sight” zones—a very deliberate targeting of civilian populations in an attempt to root out the guerilla resistance. Just to spend time with these folks and hear some of the stories… obviously no family has been untouched by the violence, and it’s just decade after decade. Sometimes there’s a feeling of helplessness on my part because I’m wondering, “Okay, what can I do? This place is still under military occupation.”

But it also really does inspire me that after all of these decades, so many of these folks still dare to hope. Something like the Salween Peace Park is such a huge, bold vision: “We’re not going to wait for the government to build peace, because we’ll be waiting ‘til the end of time. We’re going to get busy building our vision for peace, and we’re going to take the opportunities that we have." And so that bold, forward-thinking vision, and basically that refusal to give up, is a huge inspiration as well.

Conservation, as a discipline, has often been used as a force of colonialism. How conscious are you of that, and how difficult is it for you to navigate?
That’s definitely the case—conservation has a very long history of being a force for displacement, just another tool in the state’s arsenal to gain control over people’s land. But what’s different and interesting in this case is that rather than being a top-down, imposed conservation area, it’s something that’s being developed by the people who actually live there to keep from being displaced.

Actually, in other parts of Burma, that is happening already, especially in the far south in Tanintharyi Region. … That’s under much more government control, and there are also Karen people’s territories there. Because it’s under government control, there are several large international conservation organizations working together with the government to create large protected areas, and that is not working out very well. That is displacing a lot of people; taking the land and displacing refugees that have yet to return to their homes, and then they come back and find out there are barriers and they can’t go back to their own lands. So, that’s happening in the southern part of Burma already where people are getting squeezed between extractive industry and plantation agriculture on the one hand and parks on the other, and there’s nowhere left for people to live. (It is important to note that there is a very strong Karen civil society movement in southern Burma as well. Local communities there are not only resisting the enclosure of their lands in state-designated protected areas; they are also taking the initiative to declare their own community forests and other forms of protected areas.)

Something like the Salween Peace Park is being developed by the people who live there, and it’s being developed with a vision of people in and with nature. Not protecting nature from humans, but protecting this place as a home for people as part of the natural system.

How does spirituality inform their governance?
This area is still quite strongly animist, the traditional nature spirit religion. It’s hard to translate into English because many of these concepts don’t translate well and we have our own connotations around what is a spirit and things like that… but we could say there’s a whole social realm of non-human beings that people maintain relations with. That is a core organizing factor in how people both relate to and protect the land. There are various annual ceremonies that are conducted to the spirit owners of the land and water (in Karen cosmology, the owners of the land and water are the local spirit beings). Humans who move into this area have to maintain proper relations with those spirit beings in order to maintain balance, and proper water and rainfall. People emphasize to me all the time that these ceremonies they perform every year are the single most important acts they take to protect the land and the water.

Relations with the central government are in flux. What do you anticipate will happen over the next few years?
That’s pretty difficult to say at this point. There’s just so much uncertainty with where the whole country is going right now.

I guess the strategy is from two sides. From the one side, building and strengthening these grassroots institutions for people to govern and administer their land, in a very decentralized way so that if the military government tried to take control, it would be very difficult. They can’t just eliminate one overarching, top-down structure. I’m not sure how the peace park as an entity will fare over the next few years. I do very much believe that the movement that is being built will continue in various forms because it is built from the ground up by the community based on their institutions, governance, and culture that has survived already for hundreds of years despite all this conflict and displacement.

The second strategy is building these international connections. We already have some international organizations that are working with us, and we’re very careful to choose which organizations we work with because we want organizations that will support the grassroots movement. What might often happen with collaborations between Indigenous local communities and large international organizations is that it might eventually become the organization’s project and they start implementing their agenda. We’re very cognizant of that risk and are trying to manage that. But we are building links with certain organizations, and building awareness of the conservation value of this area. There is a lot of international conservation interest in this area, and we’re trying to tap into that as a force to protect this place, and a strategy for building political strength, to make it less and less palatable for the government to try to destroy this place.

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For the full interview, check out the Grad Life podcastsoundcloud.com/user-852236646-948205692/14-from-thailand-to-burma-by-foot

For more information on the Salween Peace Park initiative, please see the website of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN): kesan.asia/salween-peace-park-initiative/. KESAN's YouTube channel also hosts numerous videos about the initiative: www.youtube.com/user/KESANandYOU/videos. The MA thesis upon which this podcast was based can be accessed online here: bit.ly/Paul_MA