Interview | Saw U---, (male, 48), A--- village, Nabu Township, Hpa-an District (December 2013)
The following Interview was conducted by a community member trained by KHRG to monitor local human rights conditions. It was conducted in Hpa-an District on December 15th 2013 and is presented below translated exactly as it was received, save for minor edits for clarity and security. This interview was received along with other information from Hpa-an District, including 38 photographs.
Marital Status: Married
Position: [KNU] official
What is your name?
How old are you?
What is your village name?
A--- village, Waw Lay village tract, T’Nay Hsah [Nabu] Township, Hpa-an District.
Are you married?
I got married in 2004.
How many children do you have?
I have two children.
How old is your eldest?
The eldest is eight years old.
How old is the youngest?
The youngest is six years old.
Could you please tell us about your experience and the difficulties that you face as a [KNU official]?
Because of the emergence of the DKBA [Democratic Karen Buddhist Army] in 1994, we could not live in our area anymore and we had to leave T’Nay Hsah [Nabu] Township, and [when we] arrived at the [Thai] border we had to live under the control of the district [level KNU authorities] because the DKBA had come into our area. But we re-entered our area again slowly. We had to suffer a lot because of the fighting against each other [between the DKBA and KNLA] and our civilians were affected as well, but later, we were able to re-enter the whole township. However, another incident happened to us again in November 2007, [when] we had to leave our township again because Hpuh Htain Maung went back and joined with the Burmese government. This is when we left our township for the second time. So we [the KNU] lost the connection with our civilians. According to the order of our superiors we entered into our area again in September 2011. At that time the BGF [Border Guard Force] who split from the DKBA attacked us and they got injured and our soldiers were injured as well. No soldiers of Burman [ethnicity] were injured. Furthermore, it affected the livelihood of our civilians. For example, some of the civilians were hit by landmines and some were hit by bullets because of the fighting.
Before the ceasefire, we realized that the civilians really wanted peace. They [the civilians] have seen, known and feel that our armed groups [that split from the KNU] cannot understand each other and dare not see each other, so on behalf of us [the armed groups], our civilians, monks and leaders from [among] Christian [communities] from C---, Noh Kay village tract, Yown Ku village tract and Htee Po Kyaw village tract made a plan because they knew that it was not good for our Karen people to attack each other. They had a very specific plan and they organized a meeting in the grounds of P--- monastery and invited the leaders of the BGF, who had attacked us [in the past], the KNU, the leaders of the DKBA and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council [KNU/KNLA PC] to attend the ceremony. Commander Bo Du, the deputy commander of our [KNLA] Battalion #101 discussed this case with me and decided that we should attend this meeting because our civilians invited us and also we needed to know the result, so we went. Then we understood that our civilians wanted to find a solution. A senior monk opened the ceremony, and after that the leaders from the DKBA, BGF, KNU/KNLA PC and KNU stood and gave speeches. In their speeches, everyone mentioned that they were working for their people. Then it came to the turn [of the civilians] to speak, and the civilians said that they were very happy to hear that all of our leaders were working for their people in their speeches, but as you [the leaders] said, the civilians are the [source of the] strength of the armed groups and the parents of the armed groups. You said that you are the representatives of the civilians and you are working for the civilians; the civilians do not want to see the armed groups splitting and fighting one another, but we dare not complain to you. Even though you call us [civilians] parents, we dare not call you our children.
The speeches of the civilians were important [and made] us think. After that our armed groups did demining together. We also have photos. Not very long after that the ceasefire emerged in 2012 and [since then] we have had a better relationship. Then we met with the people who we had shot at with guns and it became humorous. I cannot express what the people who died in battle would say if there were alive. It is our responsibility not to fight each other again and we have to find the answer as to how to avoid it. I have no doubt that our civilians have an expectation that our armed groups will become one group. The only thing is they cannot tell us as they dare not tell us.
Could you please tell me about the situation in T’Nay Hsah [Nabu] Township since the ceasefire?
Since the ceasefire, we have been able to meet with the armed groups who split from us, we can travel and meet together and discuss things together. Our leaders also have a plan to reunite the armed groups and they founded a committee. Another thing is that since the ceasefire our leaders have met with the government many times and we have got permission for [managing] education [affairs]; we have the chance to study our language at school and the civilians are very happy. The reason why they are happy is because if we look back to the past, during the era of the Burma Socialist Program Party, some of the schools in our area became government schools because our civilians had to rely on themselves to open schools because our KNU could not support them. But some parents tried their best and found ways to send their children to school. At that time the KNU could not [support] the schools because of the offensive attacks of the Burmese soldiers.
The villagers did not dare to live in the villages and fled from their villages. They had to work as porters for the Burmese soldiers if they were arrested, so some parents sent their children to the city to study, but the government did not accept the [validity of] education provided by the KNU. However, the parents tried to find ways and bribed the teachers to get [official government school] transcripts. It was very difficult for us to contact civilians because the government practiced the four cuts policy. The villagers requested the government to recognize their schools and to give them teachers, but the government gave only one teacher for each school and they did not even give any teachers to some schools; they just recognized them. The villagers had to take care of the security, food and accommodation for the teachers. It was the era of the Burma Socialist Program Party and all of these problems got worse during the era of the dictatorship government. Then the DKBA split from the KNU and it was a big problem for us to do our jobs because they knew how we operated. Some of them understood us [politically] but some of them did not understand us. Therefore, the KNU told villagers to study the Karen language because it was not connected with the armed conflict, and if we did not study our language our new generation would not understand their language. Later the DKBA started to study literature. There are two [Karen] languages [that were adopted by the DKBA]; one is Le Ta La Nyah and the other one is Le Kweh Kaw and it is compulsory to learn them [in all areas of Kayin state that are now controlled by the BGF, which formed out of the DKBA in 2010]. People in those areas have to go to language training in the summer holiday. Some people even had to attend training to become teachers of the language. The villagers had to support the people who attended the training. Sometimes the training took place in Myaing Gyi Ngu and sometime the training took place in La Nit. After the training they came to the village and organized training for the villagers in the summer holidays because the government did not give them permission to study their language during school time. Sometimes they combined two villages and sometime they combined [several villages] from the village tract and gave training and the villagers had to spend their own money.
Are they still doing it?
As far as I know they are still doing it in Wa Kyah and also in Myaing Gyi Ngu. One thing is the villagers are wondering where will they use these languages after they have learned them. Some people do not want to study them anymore. They said that other people are not interested in it and they weren’t interested in it either. Some people learned a lot about those languages but they forgot all about them after they had not studied it for one or two years.
Could you please tell me about the current education situation in T’Nay Hsah [Nabu] Township?
Now there are 43 schools supported by the KNU in T’Nay Hsah [Nabu] Township. We have seen that the government sent teachers to the 43 schools. They sent two teachers to each school. It is compulsory for the civilians to accept it, so the civilians have to accept it, but some villages strongly rejected it and some villages are afraid to reject it. Some villages cannot reject it because the teachers are already there. They are thinking about what consequences there will be if they reject it, what backing they have and what guarantees they have. Some villagers knew that it would be a big burden for them to take care of the teachers, but some of the villagers did not think about it. They were happy that the government sent teachers for them because they had to rely on themselves for a long time, but they did not think about the consequences; when the teachers arrived, they came with their [Burmese] curriculum, and their signboards and their flags, and they were only teaching their own curriculum, so they [the villagers] felt guilty when they saw it. They want the right to study their own language at school, and they want our mother organization, the KNU, to arrange something for them and to speak on their behalf. The schools that became government schools do not have the chance to teach their language and they [the students] do not even have the chance to speak their own language at school. The reason why they do not have the chance to speak their own language is because the teachers are worried that the students will not able to speak their language [Burmese] fluently. They fine the students if they do not speak in Burmese. We can say that they are threatening the students and on the other hand they want the students’ [education] to be improved. The parents had the chance to study their own language but their children do not have the chance to study their own language, so they realized that it is a big problem for the new generation that they do not have the chance to study their own language.
Did they [villagers in Nabu Township] have the chance to study their own language before that?
Yes. They had the chance to study their own language. Like I said before, there are 43 schools and these schools used the curriculum of the KED [Karen Education Department] [before the ceasefire], and the KNU could support them before the ceasefire. From August 2013, the Burmese government sent teachers and we can say that in the middle of the year, we knew that they had not contacted the KNU headquarters [to tell them] that they had sent new teachers, so we informed the district education department [KED] that the Burmese government had sent the teachers, and we were able to stop it in some places but there were problems; the civilians could not stop [the government from entering into] some places. The KNU made a statement during the ceasefire that all activities of NGOs or the Burmese government in KNU controlled areas must have permission from KNU headquarters, and then the township level [authorities] could accept it. It gave us courage and strength and the villagers as well.
Did the Burmese government inform you that they would send teachers?
No. They did not inform us.
Who supports the teachers?
They called the teachers Sweh Khant.
What is the meaning of Sweh Khant?
Sweh Khant means they [appoint] people [to jobs in various locations] around Burma. Before this activity is implemented the government requests a list of people who have graduated but do not have jobs, then they will give them jobs. There are many people who have already graduated but have no job and they are happy to hear it, so they submit their names, and people who are willing to be teachers are assigned to be teachers and those who are willing to be nurses are assigned to be nurses.
So they are not forced to be teachers?
No, they are not. The government already has enough teachers in their schools, so they send them to other places. For example in our KNU schools we assign one teacher to teach 25 students. We are okay with the number of students and the number of teachers, but the government sent more teachers. In my opinion I think that the government should not have done that because the government already gave permission to our leaders [to manage education affairs] when our leaders met with them. Therefore, I think the Burmese government should meet with our leaders and negotiate with them and implement this activity jointly. It makes us think like civilians during the ceasefire process when the government is doing this.
Why didn’t the government send teachers before the ceasefire? And why did they send teachers after the ceasefire?
Personally I think that it would be difficult for the government to enter into our area. Also it would be difficult for them to manage the villagers and tension would rise [between them and the KNU]. I think they have been testing their influence in our areas since the ceasefire. We do not know whether their activities will be successful or not. The government relies on NGOs in order to implement its activities. The NGOs come and explain to the civilians. Most of the people from NGOs are our Karen people, so it will be easy for them to build trust and even if there is conflict it will be conflict between Karen people and it will not be connected with the Burmese government. This is one of their plots. The civilians believe that NGOs are not affiliated with the government so they can accept them, and they like it because the NGOs help them and they deserve it. The civilians might have another perspective if the activities came through the Burmese government. The people who came were Karen and they said that they were going to develop their people, so the villagers accepted it, but they found out that it was connected with the government after they had accepted it.
What about the students? Do they receive enough books?
Everything is going well with the schools supported by the KED. We can say that our school is better than the government school. We heard that the students have to buy books in government schools. For example, the school committees of R--- village mentioned that they have books at the school but the villagers do not know whether those books are free or not. The students have to buy books from the teachers if they do not have enough books.
It means there is no transparency between the parents of the students and the teachers?
Yes. There is no transparency among the teachers, students and parents. They have books in their office. But you have to give money if you want books.
Do the students need to pay school fees?
The students do not need to give school fees. But the villagers have to arrange everything for the new teachers.
What do you mean by everything?
It means rice, cooking oil, chilli, monosodium glutamate, firewood and everything. The school committee has to send the teacher to attend meetings or to attend refresher training by motorbike and then they collect the cost of the fuel from the villagers.
Who gives the salary for the teachers?
The government gives it. They get 2,700 kyat (US $2.72) per day. They are not paid for the days they are sick, for the days they do not teach or for the important days [official holidays].
Do the students like the teachers?
As you know, our Karen people are not good at speaking Burmese and the children do not want to go to school where there are Burmese teachers. They do not go to school, but not because we discourage them. They say that they do not want to go to school because the teachers are Burmese.
Did the students enjoy going to school in the past?
Yes. They enjoyed going to school in the past with their old teachers. It is a little bit better if the teacher can speak Karen. The Burmese [government] teachers underestimated the Karen teachers at S--- School. One of them is from Thin Gan Nyi Naung and the other is from Whay Shan. They said that the Karen teachers were not legal teachers but that they were the legal teachers because the government had assigned them, so the Karen teachers should not teach. The children do not understand Burmese, so they do not understand what their teachers explain to them, and the teachers stick pens in the children’s ears. Now the school committee and teachers of S--- School mentioned that they do not want to be concerned with that school anymore and they want us to find a resolution for them. They want to build a new school. They will leave the old school and people can go to that school if they want. Let the teachers teach if they have students. They asked if we could arrange it for them. They do not like the teacher.
Did the students get injured seriously?
Not that much. They scold the children [saying] that they are not clean and they are rude. In the past, the teachers taught the children about hygiene but they were afraid that the children would not come to school if they scolded them, so they just let the children come to school like that. The Burmese teachers are not like that. They want the children to come to school with clean clothes, but some parent cannot afford it.
Where do the teachers stay?
Actually they have to find their [own] houses, but it is the rainy season so they are staying in the villager’s houses. Some people do not want to accept them but they accept them according to an arrangement made by the chiefs of the village [the village head and others]. They said that they would not accept them in the coming year. They want the village chiefs to build a house for the teachers if they come next year.
What about the activity of the Burmese army since the ceasefire in your area?
There is no change in the activity of the Burmese army; they send food when it is time to send food and they rotate the soldiers when it is time to rotate the soldiers and they strengthen their camps. They made fences with barbed wire and covered the roofs with zinc in some places. They made the fences with bamboo in the past. For example, Light Infantry Battalions #547 and #549 did not have cement walls [in their camps] before the ceasefire. But they built cement walls and also built strong foxholes after the ceasefire. The foxholes are very strong and have stairs going under the ground and above the ground [to the top of the fox hole wall].
Have you seen the Burmese army withdraw their soldiers?
No, we have not seen it. If we look at our township, we did not see army camps in the past up until 2012, [when the Tatmadaw established a camp] at a junction on the road between Thin Gan Nyi Naung and Koe Ko. In April 2013 they based the Light Infantry Division #22 there.
What were the names of the Light Infantry Battalions you mentioned before?
They are #547, #548 and #549.
Are they [under the command of a] Light Infantry Division?
No, they are [under the command of] Military Operations Command #12. They confiscated a lot of villager’s land to live there. The villagers hope that they will get the chance to work on their fields. The villagers got the chance to work on their fields last year. In the past they leased the fields to the villagers and the villagers had to pay them to work on their own fields because they said that the fields belonged to the camp. The land is not the villagers’ land if we look at their laws because the law says that the air, land and water belongs to the government. In the past the highest ranking commander of these three battalions told the villagers that the land did not belong to the villagers because the land was located within range of submachine guns belonging to the camp. Notably, one of the villages there called Y--- village had to relocate to a monastery because the Burmese army confiscated their land. They hope that the Burmese army will withdraw from their village and they will get the chance to go back and live in their village.
What about the health situation in your Township?
In September, the Burmese government sent medicines for elephantiasis disease and asked the doctor to give it to the villagers, but the villagers were not given an explanation about the medicine. The villagers asked us about the medicine; they had to take the medicine before they went to bed and sick people or people with diabetes, heart disease, pregnant women and people suffering from hypertension were not supposed to take it. They also said they had never seen people who suffered from elephantiasis disease in their whole life, and it made them think. They asked us whether they should take the medicine or not, and who would take care of them if something happened to them after they took the medicine, so we asked the headquarters about it and the headquarters told us to stop the villagers from taking the medicine for a while. Then we wrote a letter and informed the villagers. We also held a meeting with villagers and the Burmese doctors. We agreed with the government that civilians [ought] to take the medicine, but they should test the civilians and explain to the civilians about the medicine before letting them take the medicine. We asked the Burmese doctors why didn’t they test the civilians before letting them take the medicine? Then some of the doctors replied that it was very difficult to get this medicine and it had taken many years to organise, and it would take time and cost more money to test the civilians. I asked them didn’t the government have money to spend to test the villagers? Or did they not want to spend it? And why couldn’t the government spend [more] time? They are our civilians even if they are not Burmese civilians, so are the villagers animals for testing or doing research on? This was our opinion. Then our leaders from headquarters informed us that the doctors from the Burmese government met with them and apologized to them for not informing them about doing this.
What about development projects in your Township?
We have not seen any real development projects in T’Nay Hsah [Nabu] Township. In 2007 we heard that the government would build an industrial zone in Myawaddy Township. They also finished [surveying for potential] oil [extraction] in Htee Chah Rah near Kok Ko. The other thing is that there is a river called the Pa Ta River, which is located between Ta Kreh [Paingkyon] Township and T’Nay Hsah [Nabu] Township. They planned to build a dam on that river but people did not allow them.
Who did not give them permission?
The KNU/KNLA PC and the KNU did not allow them. They came to meet with the KNU/KNLA PC, the monks and civilians to do research. The company that came to do the research is called the Mitsui Company. They went there many times. They went there on the 26th and 29th of September and on the 4th of October to do research but the civilians did not give them permission. And the civilians said that you should not do research yet because there are still many armed actors, [so you should] make sure with them first and you can come and do research later. On the 4th of October 2013, they came with U Than Shwe, the chairman of Kawkareik Township and met with the villagers at the W--- monastery in Waw Lay village tract and explained to the villagers about the construction of the dam. They had already received the grant to construct the dam. They told the villagers that they [would] get electricity, the area would be developed and the villagers would get the chance to grow rice in the summer. He also said that he wanted to build the dam as the fruit and flowers of the ceasefire and as a memorial for the ceasefire. And the other thing was that he wanted to build the dam to benefit civilians while he was in his position as the township chairman. He introduced himself and said that his mother was Karen from the delta side and his father was Burmese from Pakkoku. So he said that he wanted to make something of benefit to the people on his mother’s side, but the villagers answered that there were still many armed actors such as the KNU, DKBA, BGF, KNU/KNLA PC and the Burmese army. The villagers said that he should try to negotiate with the armed actors first and then they could give him permission. It would be a problem for the villagers if one of the armed actors didn’t like the project. Then they said that they would not do it if the civilians did not like it, but we do not know what they will do.
What is your opinion on the ceasefire between the KNU and the Burmese government?
I think that the ceasefire between the KNU and the Burmese government is a good one and they should do it. Our leaders and our people have a simple attitude on the ceasefire; we really want peace and our civilians want peace too and they want the KNU to implement it for them. The only thing is the Burmese government side. We do not know if they are honestly [engaging with] the ceasefire process or not. We have to wait and see the result when our leaders have been and met with them. We cannot give our opinion now, but for our side like I said before we had been fighting each other for a long time and our civilians want peace and I also want peace personally, but we do not know the plan of the Burmese government. It would not be the fault of our Karen leaders if they broke their promise, and it would show that they do not want peace. If we look back, the Burmese civilians also want peace and the other ethnicities want peace too. We must stop fighting each other first to build an everlasting peace. It should not be a nationwide ceasefire signed only by the ethnic groups. I believe that there will be no more sounds of gunfire if the government proclaims a nationwide ceasefire. The second thing is the constitution. I think there will be no problem if the government asks the ethnic groups to participate in the drafting of the constitution so that both sides benefit. We must have the same rights and there should be no discrimination. It will be difficult for this country to build an everlasting peace if the Burmese government just wants to play with the ceasefire.