Through the Eyes of Women

Feb 28, 2017

In November 2016, the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO) released their first ‘Situation Update’, an in-depth report on recent events and the effect on women, refugees and communities living on the Thai-Myanmar border, inside Karen State and also in greater Myanmar. The report communicates key information, from the perspective of KWO, which is left out of mainstream media. It recognises that since the election of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November 2015 election, there have been positive changes and there is a feeling of hope. However, KWO also wish to tell the other side of the story. They also make the case that big business poses just as much threat, if not more, than the ongoing conflict that has taken place in ethnic states for decades.

Here are the key points from KWO’s November 2016 Situation Report.

Increased militarisation and a peace process on the verge of collapse

  • KWO raise serious concerns over the increased militarisation of Karen State by the Burmese Army. This has occurred since the National Ceasefire Agreement was signed and is a violation of the Agreement. Karen leaders and villagers inside Karen State see this as a continuation of the Army’s ‘Divide and Rule’ approach. KWO are concerned that the peace process will collapse.
  • Increased militarisation led to an outbreak of fighting in the village of Mae Tha War in September 2016. The media has portrayed this as ‘inter-ethnic fighting’. 5,000 people have been displaced and the situation remains dangerous with an increase in land mines. KWO have been assisting displaced families. The Burmese Army is using guns and landmines to force the progress of government development projects. Mae Tha War village is strategically located near a proposed dam site on the Salween River (the Hatgyi Dam).

Dam, displacement and development (aka ‘big business)

  • Conflict flare-up in Mae Tha War village in September 2016 and increased militarisation in Karen State is linked to dam development projects by government and military.
  • The government states that the dams are needed to provide electricity to Myanmar. Yet the reality is that most of the energy produced will go to neighbouring China and Thailand.
  • Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced that the government would push through 7 dams on the Salween River just days before a recent visit to China. These dams will be located in Shan, Karenni and Karen State. Local people living along the Salween oppose the dams.
  • KWO strongly supports communities opposing the dams.
  • The environmental impact of these dams will be devastating. Those whose livelihoods depend on the Salween will be ruined and displacement will occur.
  • Big business is taking priority over peace building.
  • KWO are calling for a moratorium on all large-scale development projects in conflict areas.

Refugee camps, ration cuts and refugee return

  • There are 9 refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. The population as at December 2016 is 102,607 (refugee and IDP camp population data).
  • Pressure is building for refugees to return to Myanmar by the UNHCR and the Royal Thai Government.
  • There has been a slight decrease in the numbers of refugees in camps but there has been a large drop in funding for services.
  • Donors and NGOs are moving funding into Myanmar resulting in decreased education and health services in the camps.
  • Rations have been reduced. The Border Consortium which provides food supplies to the camps has reduced the monthly rice ration from 15kgs per adult to 9kgs per adult per month; this is not enough to live on.
  • In an effort to discourage new camp arrivals, The Border Consortium has also announced that new arrivals will face restrictions and time limitations.
  • To fill the gaps caused by ration cuts, many refugees send a family member out of the camp to find work. Without travel documents or work permits this can be very dangerous and these workers are open to severe exploitation.
  • Those in power would like the refugees to leave the camps, however for most refugees, returning safely to their homeland does not seem possible in the near future.
  • KWO believes that while there is no ‘forced repatriation’, there appears to be coordinated effort to put pressure on refugees by making life so difficult in the camps that many will be obliged to leave.

General Situation in Myanmar and Karen State

After the November 2015 elections, the NLD took office in March 2016. Many people are hopeful that this signals a new stage in Burma’s progress towards greater freedom and democracy. The new government has not been in power long and has a lot of work to do to transition Myanmar into a democratic country.

  • There has been an increase in economic activity, however companies that are benefitting from these new opportunities are, too often, owned by Burma Army cronies. Regulatory bodies should be set up to ensure corruption in the business sector is addressed.
  • There appears to be a disconnect between two parallel processes, one being the opening up and development of Myanmar, and the other being the ‘Peace Process’ with ethnic groups. The former is advancing quite rapidly; the latter is not.
  • The NLD Government does not have control over the Burma Army which operates completely independently. This creates a big problem while attempting to negotiate peace.
  • For those living in ceasefire zones there has been an improvement in freedom of movement, and this does make a big difference to people’s lives. However there are many basic freedoms that ethnic people still lack.
  • Major offensives in Kachin and Shan State have continued which has led to 120,000 people currently displaced in 67 camps. Food supplies are being blocked to these camps by the Burmese Army resulting in food shortages.
  • There are no signs of the Burmese Army ceasing its hostilities and instead this year, following the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, they have conducted air attacks resulting in increased displacement in ethnic areas.
  • The KWO does not believe the Myanmar Military is serious about peace.

This summary has been adapted from the November 2016 Situation Update by the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO). For a full version of the Update, please email

Other KWO Reports:

  • Walking Amongst Sharp Knives: The unsung courage of Karen women village chiefs in conflict areas of Eastern Burma (2010).
  • State of Terror: The ongoing rape, murder, torture and forced labour suffered by women living under the Burmese Military Regime in Karen State.

Read more about how Union Aid Abroad helps support women’s independence, rights and education.


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