More than 1,000 Karen villagers take to the streets of Hpapun district on Jan. 6 to call for an end to hostilities and the withdrawal of the military. (Photo: Salween Peace Park)
On the morning of Jan. 6, thousands of villagers marched through the streets of Hpapun (Mutraw) district in Karen state of southeastern Myanmar to demand the withdrawal of the military and an end to recent hostilities.
More than 1,000 people from 30 villages gathered at two locations to protest against the occupation of the army and violation of human rights, according to the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO).
People voiced their demands, including an immediate halt to military occupation of Karen territory and for political problems to be solved peacefully rather than through an increased armed presence.
A large protest by more than 10,000 ethnic Karen was also held in the region on Dec. 30. It had a similar theme as protesters urged the military to withdraw soldiers, close an army base and suspend military construction work.
The protests came nearly a month after renewed clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Karen National Union (KNU) that have displaced more than 3,000 villagers since early December.
The protesters have also called on KNU leaders to take action and resolve the concerns of the people.
They urged the United Nations and the international community to put more pressure on Myanmar's government and the Tatmadaw to halt military activities in the region.
The KWO said the military presence has continually increased, leading to more use of artillery shelling, skirmishes, indiscriminate firing and spy drones in civilian areas.
“Peace agreements and negotiations have failed to bring stability to Karen communities. We need help to make these villagers safe,” the KWO said in a statement.
The latest tension has prompted villagers to carry out demonstrations in the region where more than 60 years of conflict between the Tatmadaw and Karen rebels have left over 100,000 refugees including Karen Christians in camps along the Thai border.
The mountainous state has been relatively peaceful besides minor clashes since three of the local militias including the KNU joined five other armed groups in signing a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government and the military in October 2015.
However, tensions flared again in 2018 following the deployment of six battalions to oversee road construction that prompted clashes and caused hundreds of people to flee into the jungle.
Local people and civil society groups said the road would pass through communities and be used to connect military bases despite the military insisting the development would help communities.
The Tatmadaw, which has been engaged in an escalating conflict with various rebel groups, is long accused of atrocities against ethnic minorities.
It has faced pressure from the international community over its atrocities against Rohingya in Rakhine where more than 700,000 fled into Bangladesh following a military crackdown in August 2017.
In August 2018, a United Nations fact-finding mission called for senior military officials to be prosecuted for genocide and war crimes against Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.
Despite sporadic clashes in Shan and Karen states recently, fighting has eased in conflict-torn Kachin, Rakhine and Chin states where the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army have been engaged in a two-year-old conflict that has killed hundreds of civilians and displaced thousands.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to bring peace to Myanmar but ongoing fighting in ethnic areas has undermined her promises.
In a New Year message to the nation on Jan. 1, Suu Kyi vowed to take a new approach to the stalled peace process aimed at ending the decades-long ethnic strife.
The one-time democracy campaigner, whose second five-year term starts in March, announced “new peace architecture,” which would allow participation by political groups, civil society organizations and the public.
The new approach aims to balance representation and effectiveness and allow thorough negotiations among the main stakeholders while inducing more armed groups to join the NCA as the 75th anniversary of the Panglong Agreement will be held in 2022.
Observers see it is an uphill battle for the government to solve the complex civil wars in the Southeast Asian nation where armed groups have fought for self-determination and ethnic rights towards a federal union.
Another challenge is that the military is viewed as being beyond the control of Suu Kyi’s government. A key reason is that the military remains a dominant force in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, with 25 percent of unelected military representatives being allocated by a 2008 constitution to the national and regional parliaments. It also controls the key ministries of defense, border and interior.