Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’

 
 

Many ethnic minorities in Myanmar have experienced a tumultuous period at the hands of a military government since the country gained formal independence from Britain in 1948. The Karen are one of these groups who have continued to fight for sovereignty over their territory. A territory they call “Kaw Thoo Lei,” or “a peaceful land.”

While the history of this conflict between the Karen and the Burmese military government is complex, it is not helped by the group’s religious beliefs (many Karen are followers of Christianity) and cultural practices that differ from the Buddhist majority. For decades Karen villages have been attacked, torched, and littered with landmines to prevent residents from returning. These repeated attacks have taken their toll with many villages becoming effectively cut off, leading to economic hardship for villagers and a lack of basic services and support.

Despite this, the Karen have persevered; rebuilding their villages while using an ageing arsenal along with crude, homemade landmines to protect their territory and themselves in what is described by some as one of the longest running civil conflicts in history.

Although much of the international community praises the NLD’s recent landslide election victory, few in Karen state seem to hold much hope that a change in government will bring with it a change in circumstances.

Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
A narrow, but well-worn path weaves its way from a Karen rebel military camp to a village in Myanmar (Burma). The Burmese government calls this region Karen State, but the Karen people refer to it as “Kaw Thoo Lei,” meaning “a peaceful land.”
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
Younger, less experienced soldiers begin the day by sweeping the entire Karen rebel camp with brooms of bamboo and straw in Karen State, Myanmar. Mounds of bamboo leaves are then gathered into small pits for burning.
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
Karen rebel soldiers move through a village after delivering supplies including cooking pots, blankets and food donated by members of a church abroad. Many Karen are followers of Christianity, which puts them at odds with the Burmese Buddhist majority.
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
Rebels carve out a map to illustrate areas where they suspected the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) has placed land mines near a village in Karen State. “Before the village was attacked (in 2006), we used to have a garden in the shape of a Karen flag with the letters ‘K.N.D.O.’ spelled out. We think they put mines under each of the letters after they destroyed the garden in case we tried to fix it.”
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
A homemade landmine. It consists of bamboo, AA batteries, copper wire, PVC pipe, pellets and explosive. The result is a crude, yet fairly effective weapon that forms a significant part of the arsenals of ethnic minorities defending their land against Tatmadaw attacks and land grabs.
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
A white flag marks the corner of a field used by children to play soccer in Karen State, Burma (Myanmar). It also marks the boundary of an area that is safe to walk on. In the tangled jungle behind it the land has not been properly checked for landmines, and to the far right of the image is an area known to contain landmines that have not yet been cleared.
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
An unconscious child receives treatment for what is thought to be an allergic reaction or poisoning in a Karen village near the border with Thailand. In more remote areas of the country – without the proper medical treatment – others may not have been as fortunate as the child pictured here who regained consciousness shortly after this photograph was taken.
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
Karen children review the day’s lessons by candlelight at a boarding school in Karen State, Burma (Myanmar). Students come from surrounding villages to live for months at a time in order to study math, English, religion and Karen.
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
Karen children play festival games as part of the 66th Revolution day celebrations, which mark the beginning of the Karen struggle for independence and autonomy from the Burmese government.
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
Karen girls take part in traditional song and dance during the Karen Revolution Day celebrations in a large Karen village near the border with Thailand.
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
Not far from the festival games and musical events soldiers from different Karen rebel battalions square off in good-natured boxing matches under towering bamboo trees in a makeshift ring.
Image Credit: Cory Wright
Kaw Thoo Lei: ‘A Peaceful Land’
Crowds disperse following the last match of the night during Karen Revolution Day celebrations in Karen state, Burma (Myanmar).
Image Credit: Cory Wright
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