The Revolutionary Forest

Amid the world’s longest-running ethnic insurgency, Indigenous Karen people in Myanmar have initiated a conservation project that advances a vision for peace and self-determination.

IT IS BEFORE DAWN WHEN WE PASS the last checkpoint perched above the Salween River, along the border between Thailand and Myanmar. As we wind north through a sparse woodland up an unpaved track, the first signs of daylight begin to appear. It is the end of the dry season, and most of the trees in the forest around us are leafless, allowing us to catch glimpses of the giant river below, a rushing torrent even now at its lowest ebb.

As the sun rises, we scramble down a steep embankment and board a longboat piloted by a teenager in army fatigues. After plying rough currents upriver for hours — threading powerful eddies that threaten to throw us off course — we reach a different type of checkpoint. It is manned not by Myanmar government border patrol, but rather by soldiers of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). We are cleared and enter the area that local communities have declared as the Salween Peace Park, a refuge for the last holdouts of the Karen revolution, the longest-running ethnic insurgency on earth.

“Welcome to pure Indigenous Karen territory,” says Saw Mabu Htoo, 40, a Karen who works with an environmental rights group here called KESAN. “We are not in Thailand, but we are not in Myanmar,” he notes. “We are in Kawthoolei.” He is using the Karen name for their ancestral land, which once covered a large swathe of southeast Myanmar and western Thailand, running down the Salween River basin south to the Andaman Sea.

For more than 70 years, since shortly after the country formerly known as Burma gained independence, a low-boil insurgency has fought for Karen self-determination, promised first by the British and then the Burmese. Over the intervening decades, far from granting the Karen meaningful rights, the Myanmar military has waged a grinding war of attrition against them.

It has been devastatingly successful. Thousands of Karen communities have been displaced, and more than 200,000 Karen have fled the country. Multiple efforts to negotiate peace have failed. Meanwhile, the area under Karen control has dwindled to a small fraction of what it was when the revolution began in 1949. As a result, many Karen have accepted that autonomy will never be realized.

But others continue the struggle, some utilizing new, non-violent strategies of resistance. The Salween Peace Park is central to this agenda. Covering more than 550,000 hectares — nearly twice the size of Yosemite National Park in California — the park is located in a remote corner of Myanmar’s Kayin State, which is internationally important for biodiversity conservation.

Photo by KESAN.
The Salween Peace Park covers more than 550,000 hectares in Myanmar’s Kayin State, an internationally important region for biodiversity conservation. Photo courtesy of KESAN.

Although it is called a park, it is not your typical protected area. Rather than focusing strictly on nature preservation, the reserve’s backers promote Indigenous land management systems like traditional swidden agriculture and forest management. To that end, the park — which Karen have proclaimed as a self-governed, independently administered territory within Myanmar — puts development into Karen hands while conserving the forest that generations have called home.

It is a vision that is in line with international trends towards increased recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights to conserve forests, safeguard biodiversity, fight climate change, and enable locally driven development. This approach rejects strict preservation as a Western model that has not only failed to halt deforestation in most of the tropics, but that has been used by governments to dispossess Indigenous groups, not least in Myanmar, through “green land grabs.” Indeed, KESAN, which helped conceive the park, is keenly aware of many examples from Latin America — in places like Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru — where local communities have taken control of their forests and are achieving better outcomes than preserves that are off-limits to communities.

A rapidly changing political environment in Myanmar has opened the door to land grabbing.

But it remains far from clear that the Salween Peace Park will become another such example. The Myanmar government does not recognize the park. The military continues to operate scores of camps in the area, in violation of a ceasefire agreement. Incidents of violence have increased over the last few years, including the 2018 murder of the Karen environmental rights defender Saw O Moo, who was a leading advocate for the park.

Meanwhile, a rapidly changing political environment in Myanmar has opened the door to land grabbing for investments in mining, large-scale agriculture, and hydropower development, much of it with Chinese and Thai capital. As a result, deforestation rates have skyrocketed in many parts of Karen territory. Pressure is starting to push into even the most remote forest areas around the park, aided by military road building.

As we travel upriver, I ask Mabu what chance the park really stands to succeed. “It is not a question of whether the peace park will be officially recognized by the government, or by anybody else,” he says, gesturing to the unbroken forest all around us. “In the most important sense, our vision has already been realized. Karen communities here have spoken. We have established the Salween Peace Park. So we are already succeeding.”

WITH A POPULATION OF around 7 million, the Karen are the second largest ethnic minority in Myanmar, and one of the biggest Indigenous groups in mainland Southeast Asia. But they are by no means homogenous. The term “Karen” actually refers to a diverse range of ethnicities including S’gaw, Pwo, and Pa’O, whose languages are often mutually unintelligible. Some are Buddhist, some are Christian, and many still follow animist traditions. Over time, many Karen, especially in the lowlands and in the larger towns, have assimilated to Burmese ways; some no longer identify as Karen. Tens of thousands of others who have fled conflict to Thailand and beyond have adopted new identities, names, languages, and ways of living.

To the extent that there is a pan-Karen ethnic identity, it has been forged in response to external forces. As the British moved to annex Burma as a province of India in the nineteenth century, they capitalized on old enmities between the Burmese and other ethnic groups — many of whom the Burmese had long enslaved — arming the Karen to support British colonization. Colonial policy, while not kind to any group, gave some priority to the Karen.

World War II and Burma’s independence only deepened divisions. Aung San, known as the father of Burmese independence, saw the Japanese occupation as an opportunity to rid the country of the British and initially sided with Japan. The Karen, meanwhile, stayed loyal to the British.

The park recognizes Indigenous land rights and traditional resource management systems. Photo courtesy of KESAN.
The park recognizes Indigenous land rights and traditional resource management systems. Photo courtesy of KESAN.

For their loyalty, British military leaders had promised the Karen their own autonomous state once independence was granted. But when the war was over and negotiations began around a Burmese state, Karen delegations to London were met with a cold shoulder. In 1948, a campaign of ethnically motivated attacks on Karen villages and the removal of Karen from posts in the new government led to the founding of the Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing (the KNLA), and to the armed conflict that continues to this day.

That conflict grew increasingly violent with the ascent of General Ne Win and the military junta that would come to rule Myanmar for the better part of 50 years. Under Ne Win, the Karen and other ethnic armed groups were the target of near-ceaseless offensives by the Myanmar military (known as the Tatmadaw), including regular attacks on civilians and the destruction of whole villages.

After multiparty elections in 1990 — won by Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, but nullified by the junta — the KNLA gave shelter to dissident Burmese student leaders. Tatmadaw campaigns against them increased further. By the 2000s, more than 200,000 Karen had fled to Thailand and were living in refugee camps; many more were internally displaced.

Things seemed to begin looking up during the 2010s with the introduction of a series of ostensibly democratizing reforms introduced by the junta. Optimistic that they might finally be able to broker a real peace, the KNU signed a ceasefire agreement with the military in 2012. Nationwide negotiations with the country’s armed groups a few years later raised the prospect of increased autonomy for the Karen within an eventual federal union.

Yet many in the KNU remained skeptical. They were right to be. The good faith efforts that rebel groups put into Suu Kyi’s new civilian government have not been repaid. The peace process has not advanced. The military still holds de facto control over the country. It also has a controlling interest in nearly all of the development investment that has transformed the country over the last decade, including those in mining, oil and gas exploration, hydropower, plantation development, and real estate.

Many Karen don’t believe that the military is interested in allowing true democracy to take hold. A 2018 report published by the Karen Peace Support Network, an activist group, asserted that the Tatmadaw is interested in reforms only to “further entrench military rule and expand their control into ethnic areas.” Observers point to the military regime next door in Thailand — recently legitimized by elections — as the guiding inspiration for what the Tatmadaw wants in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, faith in Suu Kyi and her civilian government to negotiate a fair deal for the nation’s ethnic groups has waned given the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s defense of the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar. Suu Kyi’s support of the military rattled international observers, but it did not surprise many Karen who see the Myanmar government’s project of state-making as one concerned above all with making peripheral areas “legible” and quashing their struggles for self-determination.

As we plied upriver into the heartland of what Mabu calls “pure Karen Kawthoolei,” we were entering a place the holdouts are trying to keep “illegible.” Yet the project of taming the periphery advances unabated. Contrary to the ceasefire agreement, scores of military camps are tactically spread out within the peace park. Skirmishes have increased over the last few years, with KNLA regulars resisting military road building and associated development. The conflict continues to claim civilian lives.

“Karen people have experienced enough hardship to know that peace, even if it can be achieved, may not be in our favor,” says Saw Paul Sein Twa, 47, who founded KESAN with Mabu and other Karen nearly 20 years ago. “At the same time, we cannot ignore the reality: We will not win this fight with bullets. We need a different strategy.”

THAT STRATEGY BEGAN TO coalesce in the late 1990s in a Karen refugee camp called Mae Lama Luang in Thailand. Paul and Mabu, who fled their villages in 1995 during the waves of attacks by the Tatmadaw, began working together on environmental issues inside the camps. They founded KESAN in 2001. Initially, their work focused on illegal logging and deforestation in Karen territory, recording whatever evidence they could “back in the days of film cameras,” recalls Mabu. The exposés they produced brought some much-needed attention to the environmental dimensions of the conflict, but nothing changed.

So they began working directly with communities. They mapped ancestral boundaries, undertook wildlife surveys, and established local committees to monitor forest incursions. In a remote forest area, next to a village of displaced Karen, they built a training center. They set up demonstration plots for agroforestry development, created a seed bank to conserve traditional Karen rice varieties, and trained locals in GPS use and GIS mapping.

aerial photo of a community in a forest
There are more than 350 communities within the peace park that adhere to the Indigenous Karen land governance system known as kaw. Photo courtesy of KESAN.

Still, they dreamed of something bigger. A place where Karen land rights would be recognized and traditional livelihoods could be practiced without the threat of encroachment. “Given that the Tatmadaw continued to violate the fragile ceasefire, we wanted to build something proactively showing our true vision for peace,” says Paul. But it needed to be big, so that it would be “hard for the decision makers to ignore.” The idea for the Salween Peace Park was born.

The vision had its detractors. Parks have not been kind to ethnic groups in Myanmar. A range of efforts meant to strengthen nature conservation in the country — many led by big international NGOs like the Wildlife Conservation Society and Flora & Fauna International — have been accused of aiding and abetting central government agendas of violence and forced displacement. As a result, “park” and “reserve” are dirty words to many Indigenous rights activists.

To build consensus for a different kind of protected area, KESAN undertook consultations with communities within the proposed park boundary, which initially covered around 300,000 hectares. Over a period of four years, they discussed the idea of a Karen-operated reserve, one that would respect local land rights and recognize age-old natural resource management. Support was so overwhelming that the proposed park size nearly doubled as word traveled about the initiative.

Key to gaining community support was the message that the park’s main aim was to recognize the Indigenous Karen land governance system known as kaw. Maintained for generations in the face of conflict, kaw is a physical space as well as a social system, integrating ecological knowledge, wildlife management, forestry, swidden agriculture, and conflict resolution mechanisms. More than 170 kaw occur within the park — typically forested common properties shared by up to 20 communities.

“Part of what we are doing here is demonstrating to the national government and others how greater autonomy in Indigenous territories can function,” says Paul. “We know that if we wait for a political settlement, there might not be anything left.”

“The Myanmar government has promised to lead the country toward a devolved, federal democracy,” adds Mabu. “We Karen are not waiting idly for this. The Salween Peace Park shows what we believe a federal democracy should look like. It is Indigenous self-determination and community protection of natural and cultural heritage in action.”

In December 2018, the Salween Peace Park was formally launched at a ceremony in Mutraw District, a border region that is the heartland of Indigenous Karen territory. Over three days, communities came together to launch the park charter, a formal document painstakingly developed through grassroots engagement with communities throughout the park area. The charter lays out the goals, objectives, and governance system agreed for the park’s management, from the bottom-up.

As the staccato notes of a traditional Karen harp rang out in the background, multiple speeches reiterated the vision of the park: “Instead of massive dams on the Salween River, we see small hydropower and decentralized solar power. Instead of large-scale mining and rubber plantations, we call for ecotourism, sustainable forest management, agroforestry, and organic farming. Instead of megaprojects that bring conflict, we seek a lasting peace and a thriving ecosystem where people live in harmony with nature.”

THAT VISION COMES TO LIFE once Mabu and I finally clamber out of the longboat, the heat sweeping over us in waves. We hike up to a ramshackle trading post stocked with a bizarre array of items: purplish mottled eggs, canned energy drinks, fishing nets, car batteries, a Chinese-English dictionary.

A stripped-down pickup arrives and we climb in. We drive up an impossible slope, throwing off plumes of dust in our wake. As we ascend, the Salween River reappears, in our rearview; the trees of sloping dry forest surround us.

Photo of Salween Peace Park
Rather than focusing strictly on nature preservation, the reserve’s backers promote Indigenous land management systems like traditional swidden agriculture and forest management. Photo courtesy of KESAN.

The shift to evergreen is sudden. The temperature drops and the air becomes humid. The soil profile changes from sandy browns to blood red and orange. Reaching the top of the ridge, a cool mist blows from the north. The view west plunges down into folds of lush forest, cut by river valleys and a patchwork of Karen agricultural plots, fallows, and forests in various stages of managed succession across the landscape. After clearing another KNLA checkpoint, we switchback down into one of those valleys. The winged fruits of dipterocarp trees litter the forest floor around us.

The Salween Peace Park is over 85 percent forested and home to some of the richest biodiversity remaining in Asia. It lies at the heart of the Indo-Burma hotspot, one of 36 areas in the world that Conservation International has prioritized for conservation. It remains little studied. A 2008 KESAN wildlife survey likened it to “the dark side of the moon.” Biodiversity assessments undertaken by KESAN and partners have found significant populations of endangered species like tiger, Asian elephant, gaur, banteng, Phayre’s leaf monkey, and Hoolock gibbon, as well as multiple endemic bird species. There is also an abundance of flora — by some estimates, the hotspot is home to as many as 25,000 different plant species, half of them endemic. This flora — including some of the last remaining stands of natural teak on Earth, endangered orchids, a variety of edible and medicinal plants, and more — is critical for the 70,000 Karen who live within the park, spread out over some 350 communities.

The Salween Peace Park is home to some of the richest biodiversity remaining in Asia.

Deh Bu Nor is the largest of those communities, and the seat of Mutraw District, which is largely administered by the KNU. It lies along one of the Salween River’s biggest tributaries, the Yunzalin. In midafternoon, a dry heat is blown through town by lashing winds coming up the river valley.

We are welcomed by the district leadership into a wooden house on stilts. Like most structures in this part of Southeast Asia, it is mostly open-air, the roof hewn from dried tree leaves. The incongruous signs of both insurgency and bureaucracy are visible: military grade walkie-talkies on top of an old file cabinet, a typewriter under the Karen independence flag.

A group of men sit cross-legged on Thai-style plastic mats, clad in camouflage cargo pants and traditional Karen shirts. They chew betel nut as I ask about the peace park, what it will take to protect the area, and how they think Karen territory will look in 100 years. Saw Ten Der, the district chief, does not hesitate: “For hundreds of years, since long before the days of the British, we have managed these lands. Through decades of attacks by the Tatmadaw, [and] rich outsiders stealing our timber, mining our soils, we have stood up. We will not give up now. In the Salween Peace Park we are defending Kawthoolei, for the Karen people.”

SAW TEN DER’S RESOLVE is striking given the many pressures on the Karen and the park. Perhaps most threatening at the moment is the wave of investment that has come in since the military began opening the country, investments that are quickly transforming Karen territory, and Myanmar’s forest frontier at large. Although the country’s forest area — totaling more than 29 million hectares — is still the biggest in mainland Southeast Asia, its deforestation rates are among the highest in the world. Since 2011, Global Forest Watch data indicates that Myanmar has lost more than 2.2 million hectares of forest. Around 15 percent of that loss has occurred in Karen territory.

“There is a perfect storm driving deforestation on Karen lands right now,” says Dr. Kevin Woods, a senior analyst for the Washington, DC think tank Forest Trends who has worked in Myanmar for 20 years. Woods was co-author of a 2017 article in Conservation Biology that identified four types of political and economic transitions that have historically led to “profound environmental consequences” in countries around the world: war to peace, democratization, decentralization, and market liberalization. All four are being faced simultaneously in Myanmar presently, the article notes. This has resulted in significant new pressures in resource-rich borderlands like Karen territory, where Woods has documented “waves of counterinsurgency development” backed by the central government, a phenomenon he has dubbed “ceasefire capitalism.”

Photo by KESAN.
The park offers an alternative vision for the Salween River basin that includes small hydropower and decentralized solar power instead of mega-dams and mining. Photo courtesy of KESAN.

Such development is on stark display in the southern part of Karen ancestral lands, in the region known as Tanintharyi. There, more than 725,000 hectares of oil palm concessions have been awarded, “often to companies with close ties to the former military regime,” notes a 2017 report published by a group of local NGOs and the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Although such widespread conversion has not yet reached the Salween Peace Park, it is fast approaching. On the southern fringe of the park, over the last ten years, nearly all of the Thee Tha Blu community’s forest has been lost to land grabs by groups tied to the military, but for a small area that KESAN helped demarcate as a community reserve.

In the face of this, the Salween Peace Park stands as a kind of last hope for the Karen revolution. “The park is significant because it inverts the power relationship between Karen and the state, and it embodies the Karen vision of self-determination and political federalism that are championed as the hallmarks of peacebuilding for and by the Karen people,” notes Woods. Still, to date, the Myanmar government has yet to even acknowledge the existence of the park, although it has reportedly been mentioned in parliamentary proceedings.

The KNU, for its part, currently has no agreed strategy for negotiating official recognition of the park. Riven internally by its own factionalism, which has dogged the organization since its founding, some powerful KNU leaders remain ostensibly committed to the derailed peace process and do not want to be seen as going rogue. Others, like Mutraw’s district leader Saw Ten Der, appear not to trust the military or the civilian government to negotiate in good faith. For them, there is no need for official recognition. Karen communities declaring the park as theirs is all the recognition that is needed.

KESAN’s head Paul Sein Twa strikes a more balanced tone. For him, while the question of negotiation with the government “will come at the right time,” a key near-term strategy is attracting more international support for the park. “We know that groups around the world are working towards the same vision in their own Indigenous territories,” he says, noting that he has spent the past few years crisscrossing the planet to learn about allied initiatives, while pitching the peace park to donors. “The Salween Peace Park is linked to a powerful global movement that cannot be ignored.”

AT NIGHT, BACK ALONG THE Yunzalin River, it is finally cool. After a meal of river fish, bamboo shoots, and upland rice, Mabu and I walk down to the riverbank. On the far side a silhouetted stand of hundred-year-old teak throws shadows in the moonlight.

We are joined by a village elder, Saw Tha Say, from Lay Bu Der, a small community not far from KESAN’s training camp. He opens our meeting by chanting rites to Karen forest spirits, passing around a bamboo cup with shots of rice wine (called thee). A companion from his village adds a Christian prayer and the sign of the cross. More thee goes around.

Saw Tha Say is exactly as old as the Karen revolution. He first took up a gun when he was still a child, and has lived through almost constant conflict and uncertainty all his life. He has been shot at. He has fled his village multiple times, living in hiding with other displaced Karen, eating only wild foods in the forest. He has returned home. Through all this, he notes with a wry chuckle, he has never worn shoes.

I ask him what he hopes his village might look like in another 70 years. “During my life we have had to live always avoiding violence,” he says. “I believe that in the future, thanks to the peace park we are building, the children of my village will be able to live differently. They will be able to stay home, and live in peace.”

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