Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State


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Village Agency: Rural rights and resistance in a militarized Karen State

Published date:
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

With a disproportionate emphasis on isolated incidents of particularly emotive violent abuses in rural areas and a concurrent neglect of the many ways villagers have sought to resist such abuse, international journalism and advocacy around Burma has often contributed to portrayals of rural villagers as helpless victims passively terrorised by the Burma Army. By marginalising the agency of rural villagers in this way, such portrayals have perpetuated the exclusion of these individuals from the ongoing political processes which affect them. Citing the personal testimonies of over 110 villagers living in Karen State, this report seeks to challenge such portrayals and provide a forum for these individuals to speak for themselves about the context of abuse in which they live and their own efforts to resist this abuse. By highlighting the resistance strategies and political agency of villagers in rural Karen State, this report argues that the voices of these individuals can, and indeed should, be heard and incorporated into the many ongoing political processes that affect them.


In regards to repression, the misunderstanding is one of scale rather than substance. There has been a disproportionate emphasis in the international media on isolated incidents of particularly emotive violent abuses, in the case of rural non-ethnic Burman-dominated areas like Karen State, and abuses of civil and political rights - such as freedom of expression and association - perpetrated against those engaged in overtly political acts in the country's urban settings. The former supports a conventional understanding of non-Burman villagers being passively terrorised into submission by the Burma Army. The latter focus fits comfortably within Western - most vocally US - fixations on the pre-eminence of electoral politics. While both types of abuses obviously do occur and their redress is important, they are not representative of the forms of repression most commonly confronted by the majority of the country's population; a population which remains overwhelmingly rural and agrarian. Rather, as examined below, communities in Karen State (and presumably elsewhere in rural Burma) predominantly confront, and express concerns about, the far more prevalent problems of structural violence, caused by the oppressive social, economic and political systems commensurate with militarisation, and the harmful combined effects of a variety of abuses which, over time, undermine livelihoods, exacerbate poverty and worsen the region's humanitarian crisis.Discussions and debates regarding international approaches to Burma's political and humanitarian challenges have been caught in a false dichotomy since the early 1990s. This has hindered efforts to effectively address the concerns of the country's overwhelmingly rural and agrarian population. On the one hand, a number of UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), some foreign governments, as well as Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) have called for a clear separation of politics from humanitarian and developmental concerns and yet have simultaneously required that all such concerns be addressed solely through SPDC-sanctioned measures. On the other hand, democracy activists within Burma and abroad have often narrowly focused on a formal transfer of State power away from the military, arguing this to be a necessary precondition for any substantial long-term progress in the country's humanitarian situation or overall economic development. Both of these approaches, however, remain overly focused on elite politics and perpetuate a top-down model of intervention which marginalises local voices. These approaches also assume (and perpetuate) misconceived and ill-informed notions of repression and resistance in contemporary Burma.

In regards to resistance, the misunderstanding is one which narrowly depicts urban-based pro-democracy parties and armed ethnic insurgent groups as the primary, if not sole, forms of opposition in contemporary Burma. Although the popular protests of September 2007 succeeded in demonstrating a much broader civilian involvement in the country's resistance to military rule, international reporting, while sympathetic, has nevertheless tended to perpetuate four misconceptions regarding popular resistance. These are: 1) popular civilian resistance in Burma is primarily, or even solely, an urban phenomenon; 2) civilian resistance was largely dormant from 1988 until 2007; 3) civilian resistance was effectively quelled through the violent crackdown that followed the September protests; and 4) popular resistance in Burma has primarily been conducted in order to overthrow the military leadership and transfer control of formal State authority to an alternate political organisation. These misconceptions have supported a broad misunderstanding of a rural agrarian population largely outside of, and not critically engaged with, the political realm. On this basis, their voices have been marginalised, indeed excluded, from the ongoing political processes which affect them.

Village agency

In contrast to the misleading portrayals of repression and resistance described above, rural villagers in Karen State, in the course of thousands of interviews with the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) over the past 16 years, have provided dissenting narratives. While individual testimonies vary, personal accounts of repression and resistance have largely been shaped by the extent of military control over a given community.

In areas of Karen State controlled by the SPDC, villagers' accounts have overwhelmingly focused on the local-level implementation of exploitative State policies employed to finance and otherwise support local military units, the wider structures of militarisation and individual military officers. Villagers' testimonies have cited various forms of forced labour, arbitrary taxation, looting and other ad hoc demands; restrictions on movement, trade and agriculture which have been used to facilitate such demands; threats and violence employed to enforce compliance with such demands and restrictions; and the deleterious consequences of these demands and restrictions on poverty, malnutrition, ill health, and access to education, healthcare and other social services. This distinctly rural perspective suggests that, while the country's predominantly rural and agrarian population does have strong political concerns, their views tend to be more focused on the local-level implementation of State policy than, as others have likewise noted, on the "high profile issues singled out by the international press" (Maung Thawnghmung 2003: 8).

In areas not under consolidated SPDC control, individual villagers' testimonies differ. In these areas, villagers have generally reported to KHRG concern over the military's forced relocation efforts and interrelated search-and-destroy missions conducted against civilians unwilling to relocate into SPDC-controlled areas. As part of these search-and-destroy missions, Burma Army patrols have applied a shoot-on-sight policy, killing anyone spotted in the area; burning food stores, agricultural fields, plantations, homes, schools, churches and other village structures; and blocking all travel and trade (including of food and medical supplies) into, out of, and within non-SPDC-controlled areas. These efforts have largely aimed to further a dual strategy of: 1) expanding State control over previously non-State-controlled areas and 2) making life unbearable in non-State-controlled areas in order to force civilians to move into military-controlled villages and relocation sites.

Confronting this widespread and systematic repression, villagers in both SPDC-controlled and non-SPDC-controlled areas have actively and persistently sought to resist abuse and claim their rights to physical security, an adequate level of subsistence, a productive means of livelihood and a life of dignity for themselves and their families. Villagers' resistance strategies have been diverse and contextually conceived. In SPDC-controlled areas, these strategies have largely functioned to reduce or wholly evade compliance with exploitative demands and the restrictions which facilitate them. To these ends, villagers have employed techniques including negotiation, bribery, lying, outright refusal, confrontation, various forms of discreet false compliance, jokes and counter-narratives, and temporary evasion. However, given the constant threat of violent retribution by the military, villagers have had to be deft in determining how much space exists to resist exploitative demands and restrictions.

When the burden of demands becomes too great, villagers in SPDC-controlled areas often choose displacement to urban centres inside Burma, hiding sites in non-SPDC-controlled areas, refugee camps in Thailand or migrant worker communities abroad. As villagers in Karen State traditionally have a strong connection to their land, many of these people initially seek to remain close to their homes following displacement. In such situations, displacement into hiding comprises a form of resistance to military rule aimed at retaining control over land, livelihoods and personal dignity. As such, it is important to understand that subsistence measures and other efforts which displaced communities at hiding sites employ to support themselves are more than just coping strategies. These measures are overtly political resistance strategies which reflect underlying values about power relations, social organisation and the legitimacy of contending political authorities. Examples of such resistance strategies include:

  • Establishing hiding sites in preparation for expected displacement

  • Hiding food stores in the forest

  • Monitoring troop movements and employing advanced warning systems to alert villagers to approaching army patrols

  • Retrieving food and other supplies left behind at villages during flight

  • Cultivating covert agricultural fields

  • Establishing temporary 'jungle markets' to covertly trade with villagers from SPDC-controlled areas

  • Sharing food with friends and family

  • Utilising locally-available foods and medicine

  • Accessing indigenous organisations providing aid cross border from Thailand

  • Providing community education and social services

  • Assisting family and community members in the daily challenges of life in hiding

KHRG calls these village-level initiatives and villagers' capacity to resist abuse village agency. This terminology has been employed to counter prevailing notions of villagers in Karen State and other parts of rural Burma as helpless victims lacking the capacity and analytical ability to assess and concretely respond to their situation and resist the abuses committed against them.

Village agency also challenges narrow conceptions of politics that prioritise the power struggles of the elite. Such conceptions marginalise the concerns of, and daily acts of resistance by, the country's predominantly rural population. These misconceptions have been perpetuated through a disproportionate fixation on formal authority and electoral politics. They have also led to an assumption that political issues are not, cannot, and in some cases should not, be addressed prior to, or outside of, a free and fair national election (or at least 'tripartite dialogue' or some other form of elite political negotiation).

By contrast, a broader understanding of politics is needed - one which includes the everyday struggles and concerns of the rural population and recognises that political processes are not limited to conflicts over the control of institutional authority by formally-organised political parties, ethnic insurgent leaders or members of the current military junta.[1] Rather, political processes in contemporary Burma are pervasive and ongoing, and participation in them is all-inclusive.

Given the daily political engagement of villagers in Karen State and other rural areas, a rights-based approach to contemporary Burma must recognise that local communities can, and indeed should, lead all forms of intervention which affect them. External actors can thus begin by listening to the voices of the villagers and supporting the strategies that these individuals are already employing to resist abuse and claim their rights, rather than imposing foreign, and quite likely inappropriate, strategies upon them.

It is important to stress here that the concept of village agency is not simply a theoretical exercise. There are immediate and concrete applications of village agency which can provide tangible benefit to rural communities across Burma. These include:

  • Conducting human rights impact assessments as an integral part of all humanitarian and socio-economic development programmes implemented by international NGOs and UN agencies operating in Burma

  • Supporting, through funding and capacity building, independent civil society groups in rural areas under the control of the SPDC and ethnic ceasefire groups

  • Increasing assistance by international governments, funding bodies and NGOs to indigenous organisations delivering 'cross-border' aid to local communities in Burma

  • Incorporating locally-driven civilian protection measures into ongoing humanitarian relief and development programmes currently being implemented by international NGOs and UN agencies via Rangoon

  • Introducing the concerns and suggestions of rural villagers, via explicit testimonies, into foreign policy discussions, round tables and think tanks conducted by international academic and policy making communities

  • Including the voices of rural villagers into ongoing international journalism and advocacy efforts

As the situation in Burma evolves, future applications of a village agency perspective include allowing refugees a seat at the table for any potential repatriation negotiations and including internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees and other affected communities in peace negotiations between armed groups and the SPDC. While the above opportunities for engagement will be examined in more detail in chapter eleven below, the overall argument of this report is that the far-too-often-excluded voices of rural villagers must be included in the political processes that affect them and their concerns must shape any related intervention. By recognising that politically-engaged forms of intervention, supportive of villagers' ongoing resistance strategies, need not focus on regime change (nor wait until one has occurred), discussions and debates regarding international approaches to Burma's current political and humanitarian challenges can hopefully progress beyond the false dichotomy in which they have been caught.

Format of this report

This report is not primarily an incident-based collection of human rights abuses in Karen State.[2] Rather, it attempts, through the extensive use of direct testimonies by villagers themselves, to provide a forum where villagers can speak for themselves regarding the situation of abuse in which they live and their own efforts to resist this abuse and claim their rights. While this report focuses on Karen State, the situation described here has many similarities to other, especially rural, areas across the country.

The report begins with three chapters outlining the historical, political and economic context of the Karen. Chapter one provides a historical background to the current conflict in Karen State. Chapter two looks at the ways in which Karen villagers have been represented in international media and elsewhere. Chapter three then examines the place of land and rural - primarily agrarian - livelihoods in Karen State.

The following section addresses the situation of civilians living in areas under SPDC control; areas which can be understood as 'State spaces'. Chapter four addresses the role of exploitation and the forms in which this abuse is committed. Chapter five looks at the harmful consequences of exploitation. Chapter six then examines how the military has used violence in order to enforce compliance with exploitative demands. Chapter seven concludes this section by presenting some of the diverse ways in which villagers have resisted regular exploitative abuse.

The subsequent section addresses the situation of villagers living at displaced hiding sites or other non-SPDC-controlled villages in the forests of (primarily) northern Karen State; areas which can be understood as 'non-State spaces'. Chapter eight examines how the Burma Army has targeted civilians in military attacks in order to forcibly relocate the entire population to areas under SPDC control. This chapter also looks at the deleterious consequences of these attacks and of the related restrictions on movement and trade. Chapter nine then looks at the ways villagers have sought to maintain their lives in hiding as a means of resisting military efforts to bring them under State control.

The final section concludes this report by first, in chapter ten, examining the implications of an agency-centred perspective on conventional understandings of unity and dissent within the Burma Army. Chapter eleven then sketches some practical applications of a village agency perspective for external approaches to contemporary Burma. Lastly, this report concludes in chapter twelve with some brief remarks regarding agency, village-level resistance and forms of engagement that are mindful of on-the-ground political implications.

Table of Contents

  Introduction 3
    Notes on the Text 12
    Terms and Abbreviations 13
    Map 1: Karen Districts 15
    Map 2: Burma 16
Background 18
External depictions of the Karen 23
Land and rural livelihoods 30
State spaces
Exploitation: redistributing wealth from the rural poor to the military elite 40
Creating poverty: The economic, social and humanitarian costs of exploitative governance 77
Repression under military control: the role of violence 83
Resistance strategies: practical measures for claiming rights under military control 92
Non-State spaces
'Peace villages' and 'hiding villages': targeting displaced communities in hiding 116
Displacement as resistance 132
Dissent in the ranks: Corruption and diversity within Burma's armed forces 150
Practical applications of a village agency perspective 157
Conclusion 169
  References 171



[1] Similarly, Benedict Kerkvliet (2002: 11) argues for an understanding of "everyday politics" that goes beyond a narrow conception of formal alliances and factions expressly challenging or supporting de jure State authority and legislative powers." Rather, it should include the "debates, conflicts, decisions, and cooperation among individuals, groups, and organizations regarding the control, allocation, and use of resources and the values and ideas underlying those activities" which are "a part of daily life."

[2] Extensive documentation of particular incidents of human rights abuse in Karen State is available in the many Karen Human Rights Group reports on this website.