After decades on the run from armed conflict in their ancestral lands, Myanmar nationals with Karen heritage are finally getting a taste of peace as they settle into newly built houses in the country's southeastern region. The peace is fragile, but the return of genuine smiles suggests there is hope that it will hold this time.
Along the unpaved dirt road in Lay Kay Kaw village, a newly built concrete house is now home to Naw Su Kay, a Karen who spent years in Thailand and in refugee camps, and her family. Their village is situated in Myawaddy district, close to the Thai border town of Mae Sot, and is part of the Nippon Foundation's humanitarian mission to help build shelters and infrastructure for internally displaced people.
Having lived for more than a decade as a nomad impelled by sporadic ethnic skirmishes, Mrs Su Kay no longer has to drift from place to place as humanitarian assistance from Japan has helped to restore hope in one of the most bitterly contested areas of Myanmar. The struggle between Karen militants and the army dates back nearly seven decades and is one of the longest-running continuous ethnic conflicts in the world.
"I have been living here for three months with my eight children. There are a total of 13 people living in this residence. I am grateful for what has been given to our family," Mrs Su Kay told Bangkok Post’s Asia Focus.
The interior of the modest house consists of a living room, two smaller rooms, and a bathroom with running water. Electricity, however, is not available yet.
"We have to light candles when it gets dark, but we are living here free of charge and no contract is required or signed," she said.
"Having access to electricity would be good, but both the Nippon Foundation and the [Myanmar] government have yet to inform us when we will be able to get electricity."
According to her testimony, Mrs Su Kay had asked a local village chief to assist with relocating into a resettlement house. Since she is a Myanmar national with refugee status, the Nippon Foundation did not ask for verification documents upon providing shelter to her family.
Longing for peace
Around 60 other Karen families have also moved into the resettlement houses totalling 100 units in Lay Kay Kaw village. The tenants newly settled in include Karen National Union (KNU) soldiers' families and refugees who had previously fled the armed conflict decades ago, together with their children who were born in refugee camps inside Thailand.
Founded in 1947, the KNU is the oldest adversary of Myanmar's military, also known as the Tatmadaw. It originally called for an independent Karen state but dropped the demand in 1976 and now supports a federal system instead.
The KNU was one of the leading ethnic armed groups to sign a nominally nationwide ceasefire agreement in 2015 with the government. Eight of the 15 ethnic armed groups agreed to become signatories and formally conclude the deal, with a stipulation that the door remained open for political dialogue and inclusion of other ethnic groups at a later stage.
As a private non-profit organisation, the Nippon Foundation has been supporting and carrying out projects in Myanmar since 1976. The initial projects were associated with developing human resources and treating leprosy patients through the distribution of medicine. Besides support in health, education and human resource development, the organisation's current humanitarian activities include providing support for people with disabilities, together with helping conflict-affected communities.
As of March this year, the Foundation had 20 in-progress projects across Myanmar, with a value worth US$68.3 million. Its sister organisations, meanwhile, had implemented a total of 28 projects, valued at $6.7 million, between 1976 and 2015.
"Our track record and the confidence-building impact from the support to conflict-affected communities has led to requests for additional confidence-building assistance from the governments of Myanmar and Kayin State, the ethnic armed organisations the Karen National Union and Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council," the Nippon Foundation said in a statement.
"In response, the Nippon Foundation has been using funds provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan for a rehabilitation programme that commenced [on] March 1, 2016 to build houses, schools, and other facilities for conflict-affected people in Kayin State, Mon State and Tanintharyi Region."
Building 1,250 houses, along with wells, health clinics and schools in southeastern Myanmar, required forging an amicable working relationship between the KNU and the Tatmadaw, as well as with the state and central governments.
YoheiSasakawa, the chairman of the Nippon Foundation and a special envoy of the Japanese government for national reconciliation in Myanmar, said the organisation would use funds provided by the Tokyo government to carry out more aid projects in Myanmar with the approval of President Htin Kyaw's government.
The Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation and its sister organisations have granted Myanmar nearly $90 million to meet basic needs since 1976, and plan an additional $30 million in support during the term of the current National League for Democracy government, according to Mr Sasakawa.
"We have implemented a total of 70 projects, worth $89.5 million in Myanmar. Among them, 20 projects are now in progress while the others were successfully completed. We have noticed widely spread rumours that our support to Myanmar would come to an end, once we complete the ongoing projects, [but] such rumours are groundless," he said.
Project cooperation between the Foundation, the Myanmar central and state governments, and the Karen National Union is an encouraging sign of peace, and there are hopes that Lay Kay Kaw can be an ideal model for other projects, said Mr Sasakawa.
Nan Khin Htwe Myint, chief minister of the Kayin state government, said the completion ceremony symbolised a peaceful transition for Myanmar. "This area initially had nothing, but once the Nippon Foundation arrived, development followed suit," she said.
General Saw Mutu Say Poe, the KNU chairman and one of the leading negotiators in the peace talks with the Myanmar government, said he welcomed the Nippon Foundation's humanitarian projects as they were in line with his vision to see his native state develop at a faster pace.
"At first, we did not really expect bloody fighting with the Tatmadaw. But unfortunately, it became unavoidable. We were eager to end these conflicts but we did not have a chance to discuss [peace] for more than six decades," he said.
"The former Thein Sein administration paved the way for us to discuss peace-building. Then we actively participated in the discussions, and friendship and trust between each other became stronger after [State Counsellor] Aung San Suu Kyi formed the government."
The Nippon Foundation's ambitious initiative aims to encourage the sustainability of the ceasefire by eliminating mistrust among all parties and spearheading social and economic programmes to support local livelihoods. Ultimately, this could be an ideal example to encourage other ethnic armed groups to engage in the peace process constructively.
Despite finding peace and having shelters to inhabit, some of the former Karen refugees remain vague about their future as they currently have no stable source of income.
After three months in her house, Mrs Su Kay remains unemployed and is unclear on how to earn sufficient income to support her eight children. Her husband and some of her adolescent children engage in manual labour to provide for the family.
But she conceded that the sums they bring home are insufficient to support household spending as each earns around 6,000 kyat ($4.40) as a daily minimum wage, about half the amount they could earn across the border in Thailand.
"Our lives have become better as people have provided help, but I would like to ask for help with finding jobs for me, my husband and our children," said Mrs Su Kay, 45.
The hot, barren area holds bleak prospects for agricultural cultivation as, in Mrs Su Kay's own words, "the lands are populated with rocks, making the soil unsuitable for farming".
While the Nippon Foundation's rehabilitation programme established the infrastructure for resettlement, further details such as housing allocation and refugee support fall to a joint committee made up of former government foes.
Equally important is how the programme is essentially operating in a fragile environment where ceasefires have broken down before, while deployment of soldiers with a number of allegiances raises the possibility of resumed armed conflict.
"I would not deny that there is some possibility of fighting or conflict [that could occur] in this area, but it is beyond our control. To my understanding, this issue should be controlled by the [Myanmar] government and ethnic armed groups," said Yuji Mori, the Nippon Foundation's executive director.
"What we could do is to respond to their requests and also implement this kind of construction project. We are not in a position to be involved in that matter."
The life story of Mrs Su Kay, a native of Myawaddy, vividly illustrates how internal armed conflicts have displaced Karen families. As a child growing up in a rural part of the district, the forests were her primary shelter when sporadic combat broke out between the KNU and the government.
But as the conflict intensified, she had to flee to safety in Thailand, seeking refuge inside a border refugee camp for three years. Subsequently she moved between Bangkok, Pattaya and Samut Sakhon, earning a living working as a housemaid for wealthy family for three years.
Now that she has returned to her home community, Mrs Su Kay has reaffirmed to her commitment to stay and raise her children here. "I don't want to return to Thailand anymore because I am old and I already have a house to settle in," she said.
"We hope that conflicts between the KNU and the government don't flare up again since the government has been cooperating with the KNU," she added in a noticeably softer tone with a cautious gaze. Her expression suggested there is still a long road ahead to ensure a lasting peace and forge closer trust between two former adversaries.
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post HERE