Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Residents of eastern Burma actively engaged in peaceful resistance, says Karen Human Rights Group

Sein Myint
Mon News
25 November 2008

Rural villagers in eastern Burma are actively resisting harsh military rule, says a new report released by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) on Tuesday. Highlighting local non-violent resistance, KHRG argues, is crucial to ending international perceptions of rural residents as passive, without agency and justifiably excluded from aid administration and political processes.

The report, titled “Village agency: Rural rights and resistance in a milijavascript:void(0)tarized Karen State,” documents a variety of tactics villagers employ to undermine the exploitation and restriction that punctuates daily life in the border areas. Though villagers often live under constant threat of violent retribution, the KHRG report indicates that villagers regularly undermine regime authorities through jokes and counter-narratives, as well as find ways to discreetly or even overtly avoid compliance.

KHRG also argues that displacement should be understood as a preemptive, overt form of resistance, rather than simply a reactive coping mechanism. Rural residents “vote with their feet,” says KHRG, which both clearly stamps the regime as illegitimate and reduces the population it can control, and harness for exploitation and resource extraction.

This “village agency,” as KHRG calls it, includes establishing hiding sites ahead of expected displacement, hiding food stores and covert agricultural projects, trading with residents of regime controlled areas in secret “jungle markets,” sharing resources and cooperating to provide community services.

Though the tactics documented by KHRG are not rare, depictions of ethnic Karen residents of eastern Burma tend to focus on villagers as passive victims, caught in the inevitable cross fire between armed insurgents and an abusive military regime. Such depictions, argues KHRG, have “perpetuated the exclusion of [rural villagers] from the ongoing political processes which effect them” and can “promote inappropriate external responses to the situation in Karen areas.”

Based on its report, KHRG makes a series of concrete recommendations, which can be separated into three essential categories: first, new efforts should be undertaken to support local civil society groups engaged in ongoing efforts to improve daily life, through assistance to both organizations that operate in regime controlled areas and cross-border organizations operating without government consent.

Second, non-governmental organizations, United Nations agencies and any other actors implementing support projects should do so with careful consideration of their effect on local resistance efforts. And third, the voices of rural villagers should be incorporated into academic and policy discussions, as well as journalism and advocacy efforts.

Nai Kasauh Mon, director of the Thailand-based Human Rights Foundation of Monland, agrees with the push to recognize the agency of rural villagers. “Residents of the border areas, internally displaced people, they have the capacity. For example, in the Mon community, health workers, education workers and other people in the community work to help each other,” says Nai Kasauh Mon. “In reality, people use lot’s of strategies. But often the media only learns a little. They don’t always do in depth reporting. Something big happens, and they focus on that.”

The KHRG argument for support of local-level civil society also appears to dovetail with the thinking of other Burma analysts and experts. According to David I. Steinberg, distinguished professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, developing local support networks will help pave the way for a more democratic and responsive government in Burma. A strong civil society network, Steinberg says, “widens the space between the state and society, giving people greater freedom from government control. Such pluralism is an important base on which more responsive and responsible governments can be built.”

Ashley South, a Burma expert frequently tapped by the United Nations, concurs and argues that development of such civil society networks are a prerequisite to lasting change in Burma. “One consequence of Burma’s fifty year civil war has been the erosion of pluralism and democratic practices,” he argues, going on to say, “alternative forms of social and political organization…will be essential if any elite-led political transition in Burma is to be sustained, and positively effect the lives of people.”

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