‘If Road Construction Continues, Clashes Will Continue,’ Karen Civil Society Says

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

While the world copes with the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) has reported that the Burma Army opened fire on ethnic Karen villagers in the Salween Peace Park, killing a village headman.

The March 31 shooting in Saw Mu Plaw village tract in Luthaw Township in Mutraw District left 56-year-old Saw Thet Mee dead. He is survived by his wife and five children.

Despite being a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government and military, the Karen National Union (KNU) has experienced frequent clashes with the Burma Army in the area under the control of the KNU’s Brigade 5. A major contributing factor to the fighting is the construction and expansion of a road through the area by the military.

The KNU reported that they had nearly 60 clashes with the Burma Army in the first three months of 2020, creating insecurity and instability for nearly 2,800 villagers from 30 communities.

NMG spoke with Naw Htoo Htoo, a KPSN spokesperson, about the current situation on the ground in this conflict area.

KPSN reported that a civilian was shot dead by the Burma Army in the KNU’s Brigade 5 area. Can you tell us more about this?

Saw Thet Mee lived in Kaw Thay Ghu village. He was a member of the Salween Peace Park hteekha committee. He and his fellow villagers went to buy food. They were shot when they were crossing the road. Nobody was able to pick up his dead body. Saw Thet Mee was just a civilian. He was a leader of community forest in the area. His family has yet to receive his body. This is the most recent update.

Is there still tension in the area?

Tension remains in the area. It’s concerned with road construction in the area. If the KNU’s troops cross the road, Burmese troops shoot at them. When Burmese troops cross the road, Karen soldiers attack them. The two forces are shooting at each other when they cross the road. I think they should not be attacking each other during the NCA period… The KNU does not agree with the road construction in the area. The KNU already released a statement of opposition to the road construction. Local people in the area also do not like the road construction in the area. But the army doesn’t listen to it and continues to build the road.

It’s time for the Burma Army to send their food rations and military equipment to their frontline forces during this period. Therefore, they are on high alert in area. So it’s very dangerous for local people if they try to cross the road. That’s why the shooting occurred in the area.

The Office of the Commander-in-Chief reported that there was a clash in the area and ‘a person in civilian clothing’ was killed. What does that mean?

I haven’t received information about a clash. As I told you, the villagers went to buy their food and they crossed the road. There was not a clash between Burma army and the KNU. The villagers were shot when they were crossing the road.

What’s the current ground situation in the area? What difficulties are villagers facing?

Currently, local villagers are fleeing their villages and hiding in jungle. It’s because clashes can occur at any time. Villagers are really worried about it. They can not freely travel in the area.

How do they survive day-to-day?

It’s a similar situation to what Saw Thet Mee was facing. Villagers have to hide in the jungle. They need food when they are hiding in the jungle. That’s why he led his fellow villagers to buy foods. As far as I know, the villagers don’t have enough food. They are really scared. They are afraid to go out of hiding. They are living in the area with fear. They can not freely go to buy their food.

Did the KNU negotiate with the Burma Army? What does the KNU say about this?

As far as I know, the KNU released a statement in recent months and demanded that the army stop road construction in the area. Respective officials from both sides needed to negotiate about it. I don’t exactly know what the results are that they got from the negotiation meeting.

Could this affect the peace process?

More or less, it will impact the peace process if they continue clashes. Villagers are currently hiding in the jungle. This should not have happened to them. They are fleeing their homes. They cannot travel freely to buy food. They cannot travel freely to work. They are living with fear. This should not have happened during a ceasefire period.

The Burma Army shot environmental activist Saw O Moo dead in this same area in 2018. Does KPSN have any update on this case?

Saw Oh Moo was killed on April 5 two years ago. His family has yet to be able to get justice for him. Nobody has been able to try to get justice for him as of today.

What can you add about the current political situation?

The Burma Army has built a military operation road in Luthaw Township without any agreement from the KNU. The Burma Army has deployed 15 battalions in the area. Karen people in Mutraw District want genuine peace. Regional development projects don’t need to be continued if local people do not agree to those projects. If the Burma Army continues road construction in the area, they will have clashes with the KNLA [the armed wing of the KNU]. They will have multiple clashes in the future, so they should stop road construction in the area.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.