Fighting between Myanmar’s oldest non-state armed group and the state military is threatening the stability of a fragile ceasefire at a time when State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, facing international condemnation for her silence on the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, celebrates her second year in office.

Clashes between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 5 and the military have caused the second largest displacement of civilians since a historic ceasefire—ending over six decades of fighting—was inked between its political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the army in 2012.

Income and food security issues have emerged as the villagers have been displaced for almost two months

About 2,417 people from 12 villages in Mutraw (Hpapun) District in northern Karen State have been uprooted by ongoing fighting, just at the beginning of the planting season. Four additional villages, with a population of 479, are ready to flee if the situation doesn’t improve. Some of the displaced have constructed make-shift camps on mountain slopes, braving frigid temperatures during the night. Income and food security issues have emerged as the villagers have been displaced for almost two months—if the planting cannot take place soon, the impact will be felt all year, and perhaps into the next planting season.

A letter had been sent last year by the Myanmar armed forces to the KNU, informing them of plans to upgrade a military road abandoned since the 2012 ceasefire, which the KNU refused to give permission for. The army then entered the contested area in early March. Karen sources report that violent clashes or attacks have taken place on and off between the period of 4 March to 17 April, and the fighting is still ongoing.

Karen community leader Saw O Moo was gunned down by state military soldiers at dusk on 5 April while on his way to a community meeting to discuss providing support for the internally displaced in Mutraw District. Colleagues at the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, where he was employed, describe the 42-year-old Karen activist as “one of their most committed land protectors, peace advocates, and indigenous rights defenders.”

The army has been increasing its military presence in Karen State in recent years, building many new bases and transportation routes near KNLA strongholds

The KNLA allege the army is using the road construction project to further its expansion into the Karen area and that it was the government soldiers who fired the first shots. The army has been increasing its military presence in Karen State in recent years, building many new bases and transportation routes near KNLA strongholds.

Politics and agreements

The army signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the KNU and seven other ethnic armed organisations in 2015 (two other groups have since joined). Political negotiations were promised, but the state has since been stalling. The Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA), a signatory to the NCA, was also prevented from holding public consultations prior to a national level dialogue. At the same time, the army has been pushing for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration among ethnic armed organisations.

Growing frustrated, KNLA commanders have threatened to boycott upcoming peace talks with the government and military until calls for the commencement of political negotiations are respected. The KNU has also issued a statement declaring that the military activities have breached the NCA, and demanding that the army withdraw personnel sent for road-building purposes and guarantee the safety of the internally displaced.

The third session of the 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference, an official meeting between the Burmese government and various ethnic groups, has already been postponed multiple times. Originally slated to happen every six months, it has been deferred until early May, a year since the last one took place.

Naw Ha Mya From Yay Ko Loder Village In Myanmar - New Naratif
Naw Ha Mya, 65, from Yay Ko Loder village has lost count of how many times she’s had to run from the Myanmar army. She once returned home to a find her relative tied upright to a tree. Because her clothes had been torn off her body, Ha Mya suspected Tatmadaw soldiers raped her relative before murdering her. Credit: Brennan O'Connor
Uprooted Citizens From Myanmar's Thaw Ku Mu Dae Village - New Naratif
Uprooted civilians from Thaw Ku Mu Dae village wonder when they can return to their farms to begin preparing the fields for upcoming planting season. Credit: Brennan O'Connor
Abandoned Lu Koh Village In Myanmar - New Naratif
Lu Koh village was abandoned after the Myanmar army sent troops nearby. Credit: Brennan O'Connor
Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 5 Leaders - New Naratif
Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 5 leaders said the Myanmar army shot first after it sent several battalions into KNLA-controlled areas to secure a road construction project. Credit: Brennan O'Connor
Displaced Residents Of The Animist Lu Koh Village - New Naratif
Displaced residents of the animist Lu Koh village take part in a prayer ceremony and a protest in Lu Thaw Township, northern Karen State. Credit: Brennan O'Connor
Karen Animist Prayer In Myanmar - New Naratif
The Karen participate in an animist prayer ceremony involving alcohol made from rice in Lu Koh village. Credit: Brennan O'Connor
Controlled Zone In Myanmar's Karen State - New Naratif
Fighting with the KNLA broke out after the Myanmar army entered its controlled area to secure an area pictured here for the construction of a military road to connect two of its mountain bases in northern Karen State. Credit: Brennan O'Connor

CORRECTION: Our story previously stated that the state military had signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the KNU and six other ethnic armed organisations, with four joining later. It should have been the KNU with seven other ethnic armed organisations, with two joining later. The text has been amended accordingly; we apologise for the error.

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Brennan O’Connor worked for Canada’s leading media publications before dedicating himself full time to cover self-generated under-reported stories in the mainstream press. In 2010, he left his native country to move to Southeast Asia to follow a long-term photo project on Myanmar’s ethnic groups. O’Connor’s project was projected at the prestigious Visa Pour l'image in Perpignan, France, and honoured with the Lucas Dolega Award. His work has been published in the Guardian, Foreign Policy, Paris Match, L’Obs, Al Jazeera, Burn Magazine and The Walrus.