UPDATED at 1:16 P.M. EST on 2018-03-20
An ethnic Karen civil society group and local residents urged the Myanmar army on Monday to withdraw troops from Hpapun township in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, where about 2,000 civilians from 15 villages have fled their homes after soldiers confiscated their land for an infrastructure project.
Government troops began entering the area on March 4 to build a new road, and more soldiers are arriving by the day, residents said.
Since then, the soldiers have been appropriating their farmland for the project, they said.
“The government army has encroached upon more than the territory it was permitted to take to build a road,” said Saw Oae Muu, a villager from Kaepu Village in Hpapun township. “The villagers don’t want it. They said they just want to live peacefully.”
The Karen Peace Network issued a statement urging international NGOs to help internally displaced persons though local civil society organizations instead of through the government.
“People who have to flee from their homes want the government army to withdraw its troops from the places where they must work for their survival,” said Saw Wai Lay from the Karen Peace Network.
“They want leaders from both sides to meet and talk to solve this problem as soon as possible,” he said. “Because people are now living in the forest, they are in need of food, and we’re concerned about their health.”
Prayers for peace
Displaced residents from the 15 villages held a peace prayer event on Monday in Lo Kway village and demanded that the Myanmar government withdraw troops because they are afraid to live in the area while soldiers are there. They also demanded that the soldiers stop building the road.
The Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic political organization with an armed wing called the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), issued a statement on March 16 calling on the government to withdraw its soldiers from the area.
The KNU/KNLA fought the Myanmar army for more than 60 years until it signed a bilateral cease-fire accord with the military-backed civilian government in 2012. Over the year, the hostilities forced tens of thousands of Karen civilians to flee to safety across the border to Thailand.
The KNU/KNLA was one of eight ethnic armed groups that signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with the Myanmar government in October 2015.
KNU vice president Padoh Kwe Htoo Win told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the political organization has arranged for a union-level and state-level group from the cease-fire Joint Monitoring Committee to meet with government army’s Division No. 5 to try to settle the matter.
“At present, the KNU has given the government army permission to provide food for its troops by horses in this area, but not by cars or trucks, because people feel as though they can’t trust them,” he said, adding that both locals and soldiers are using the old road to access the area.
“The current problem has occurred because the government army is trying to build a new road,” Padoh Kwe Htoo Win said.
Those who reside in the area used to live in the forest, but they moved back only a while ago, so they are not accustomed to dealing with soldiers, he said.
“When government troops entered their area, they became worried,” he said. “That’s why the KNU said it is not the right time to permit the government army to stay in this area. But we might let them when we build more trust between both sides.”
Formed in late 2015 after the signing of the NCA, the JMC monitors the cease-fire implementation for NCA signatories and verifies complaints lodged by parties involved in the accord.
The JMC has established state- and regional-level joint cease-fire monitoring subcommittees in five locations in Karen, Mon state, Shan states, Bago region and Tanintharyi region.
Reported by Kyaw Thu, Kyaw Lwin Oo, and Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.