Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, describes her work to empower women and explains the Karen people’s decades-long struggle for equality in Myanmar.
I am a refugee from Karen state in southeastern Burma. My parents fled Burma after the government started what they called the ‘Four Cuts’ strategy against ethnic armed groups in the late 1970s, which meant cutting off villagers’ food, supplies and communications in order to isolate them. The army was fighting against the Karen National Union (KNU) and kept attacking our areas. The situation was so difficult for my parents – they couldn’t survive there, so they fled to the Thai-Burma border.
I was born along the Salween River on the border between Thailand and Burma. I grew up between the two countries, going back and forth across the border. Mostly my parents stayed in Burma, but there would be an attack every year so my family would have to flee to Thailand to take shelter for a while. Sometimes it was for one month, sometimes three months and sometimes a year. We would then return to Burma; we’re not allowed to stay in Thailand forever. But in 1991, there was really intensive fighting where my family lived. It became impossible to go back to Burma so I became a refugee. I was 11 or 12 years old.
Karen women becoming leaders in their communities
I then grew up and studied in the refugee camps in Thailand, joining the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) after I finished high school. When I first came to work at the KWO, I took part in workshops on human rights and democracy. It opened my eyes; I had never realised that I had these rights and that I could be part of the community and contribute to it.
Attending the workshops, I realised that there were so many other women like me. We hadn’t had the opportunity to be exposed to the outside world. I had grown up as a refugee, and a lot of the other women had grown up internally displaced in areas with conflict. There were no democratic rules in our areas; you always lived in fear. So when I learned about democracy and human rights, about foreign affairs and geopolitics, it really empowered me.
I’ve now been working for the KWO for 15 years. KWO has a membership of over 45,000 women. We have programmes relating to four main areas: education, health, social welfare, and the empowerment of women. I’m especially proud of the Karen Young Women’s Leadership School programme, which we set up in 2001. Working with international women’s development agencies, we’ve developed a curriculum and the course materials to train young women. The success of this programme means that there are now more young Karen women who have the skills and desire to work for and become leaders in their communities.
For peace, we must know our rights and have a voice
The struggle of the Karen people has gone on for over 60 years. What we are struggling for is equality among Burma’s different ethnic nationalities and the right to self-determination. I hope that the ceasefires between the ethnic armed groups – including the KNU – and the Burmese government will head towards a political dialogue that leads to ethnic national equality, including respect for ethnic cultures and languages. We want to see things moving forward; we don’t want to go back to the days of constant fighting, when there was bombing and shelling.
But as long as the Burmese government sees the ethnic groups as being incapable of ruling themselves, it won’t bring peace: ethnic people want to have a voice, a say, in what is happening in their communities. Both sides need to behave in a respectful manner and try to trust each other. We also need to bring in civil society more. The community needs to be part of the peace process because in the end, it’s not only about the leaders of the two sides agreeing – the people need to know what the agreement is so that they can monitor it. If the villagers know their rights – including what the military can and cannot do – they will be able to protect themselves more effectively.
How the international community can help
We hope that with the increased attention from the international community, we’re not in the same situation as we were in the past when little notice was paid to what was happening in Burma. However, a lot of the international media coverage is focused on what is happening in the capital, Rangoon. We have to be cautious and also look at the underlying causes of conflict in the ethnic areas.
Ethnic people have their own public service structures – both within Burma and on the border – including those for education and healthcare. We feel that right now, a lot of international support – especially in terms of development and humanitarian aid – is going to the Burmese government while very little is going to the ethnic people. When you try to build peace, you need to empower both sides so that they can be equal partners at the table.
With equality for all, the union will be stronger
So as the Karen people negotiate for our right to self-determination, we need financial and technical support to ensure that our people can continue to help their communities. We need to develop our education system and maintain our language; we need to provide skills training for midwives, nurses and community health workers. What we’re trying to achieve in Burma is a federal union system in which different states would be able to exercise their autonomy within the union. If the people in each state are able to develop the necessary skills and are given the right to administer themselves, then the whole union will be stronger.
Naw K’nyaw Paw is Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization and a Member of the Executive Committee of the Women’s League for Burma. She is based in the town of Mae Sariang near the Thailand-Myanmar border.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.