Photo Essays | Society | Southeast Asia

Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

Largely hidden from the world, the state can now contemplate the possibility of peace for the first time in decades.

By Brennan O`Connor for
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

Karen soldiers battle it out during a bare knuckle boxing competition.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

A child is engulfed by a sand storm during Karen New Year.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

Dancers prepare to perform during Karen New Year.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

The Karen National Union inked a ceasefire with the government in 2012, ending more than six decades of conflict.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

Men watch a boxing competition in Karen State capital Hpa-An.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

A ex-Karen National Liberation Army soldier who was injured by a land mine prepares for a shower at Care Villa in the Thai Mae La refugee camp.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

Over 120,000 Myanmar refugees, mostly Karen, have lived in nine camps along the Thai border since the early 1980s. Observers expect that after the 2015 elections most of the residents will be repatriated back to Myanmar or resettled in other countries.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

A truck stop along the northern route to Hpa-An.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

A small farming community lies on the edges of downtown Hpa-An.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

Staff operate a human powered Ferris wheel during Karen State Day in Hpa-An.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

The northern route to Hpa-An is so narrow, the direction of traffic must alternate each day. A new highway to accommodate new economic zones forged between Thailand and Myanmar is currently in the works.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor
Inside Myanmar’s Karen State

Hpa-An is set for many changes after being designated as an industrial zone in 2012.

Credit: Brennan O`Connor

Hidden from the world and divided by fighting, the veil has been lifted on Myanmar’s Karen State. Reforms introduced by the quasi-civilian government—which saw ceasefires signed with nearly all the armed groups—have brought the promise of development for a state wracked by conflict for over six decades.

Signs of progress are already emerging. The Thai border town of Mae Sot and Myawaddy in Myanmar have been designated as part of a special economic zone. Karen State capital Hpa-An became an industrial zone in 2012. A new highway from Myawaddy to Hp-An is in the works, as is a second friendship bridge connecting the two countries. Travel restrictions on land crossings for foreigners were lifted at several of the border checks in late August of last year.

Recently, the Karen National Union played host to the country’s most prominent ethnic armed groups at their Hlaingbwe Township headquarters. Discussions centered on the government-initiated nationwide ceasefire scheme.

Despite all of these developments, pressing issues remain unresolved. Much of the state is still heavily militarized and off limits to foreigners. Troop reduction and the removal of the thousands of landmines buried in former conflict zones still need to be addressed.