8 Minutes To Read

Hope and Heartbreak: Karen Communities in the Wake of the Coup

8 Minutes To Read

Shona Loong reflects on grief, heartbreak, and hope among Karen communities after the February 2021 coup.

Image courtesy of Shona Loong

Words cannot express

I found out about the coup on Facebook. I woke up early that morning, a month into 2021, determined to start the year afresh, again. It must have been 7am in Yangon when reports of Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention began to pour in. This horrified me. As a researcher studying the Karen civil war, I was used to crying foul on the NLD government. From my reading of the situation in Karen State, the Tatmadaw and the Myanmar government had entered an uneasy pact, to the detriment of non-Bamar populations. After the November 2020 elections, the Tatmadaw stepped up its incursions into Karen National Union (KNU) territory, which drew comparisons to pre-ceasefire counterinsurgency campaigns. The Tatmadaw’s spoils already seemed significant, so I brushed off media speculation over a coup; I couldn’t see what was in it for them.

A sugary coffee in hand, a few hours away in Singapore, the coup felt so very near and so very far away. As a state of emergency was announced, I fired messages off to people I knew. I didn’t quite know what to say, so I told them I was thinking of them. Their responses, in English: that they were ‘so so sad,’ ‘heartbroken’, and—most poignantly—that ‘words cannot express.’ It was a friend’s birthday, but she ‘couldn’t really be happy.’ There were some people I couldn’t contact. I understood that the Internet and mobile communications were down, and I worried about when I would be able to speak to them again; not knowing at the time whether communications cuts would be temporary. Even so, ‘we keep fighting’, a friend said. ‘I won’t sleep but I will stay calm,’ said another. I still didn’t know what to say, so I told them to take care of themselves, even as they held fast to hope, and to stay safe, unsure what that meant anyway.

I feel it is important to document not just why political upheavals happen, but how people feel about them, and how these feelings drive their reactions and open up possibilities for change. This article cannot provide a window into the hearts and minds of the people of all stripes, who feel the coup in their bones.[1] But it is a plea to recognize how political events impinge on the psyche; tossing and turning individuals in their tide, making them cry and mourn and keeping them up at night. In the coming days, we will read analyses of the role of China and the West, renewed debates over the viability of sanctions, and speculation over the motives of the Tatmadaw. All this is important. But alongside these hard-headed analyses, the emotional register of the coup deserves attention. The long-term effects of the coup—and many political events in Myanmar—are rooted in collective trauma.

Dashed dreams...

I spent several months in Hpa-An in 2018, teaching social science at a post-secondary school. When I first met the school’s principal, I asked if he liked his job. ‘Like?’ he said, ‘weird question. It’s very difficult, but it is also my dream.’ I thought about this exchange often in subsequent months, as my doctoral research settled into understanding the aspirations of civil society actors in Karen State. His words spoke of his tenacity in the face of disenfranchisement, but also the tiny, tentative vent created for his dreams in recent years. At the confluence of the 2012 KNU ceasefire and the Myanmar government’s post-2010 reforms, civil society actors in state- and mixed-authority areas of Karen State dipped their toes into unchartered waters; exploring opportunities to form associations and enact change that had been denied to them for decades. ‘We didn’t have a chance for seventy years,’ one civil society actor told me, ‘now we do.’

My friend, Will, a writer and formerly a teacher at one of Yangon’s graduate institutes, put it this way in his elegy for Myanmar:

Gone was the sense that this was a country always a moment away from falling back under military rule. It was not that everything was now okay. It wasn’t. My Burmese friends were well aware of the magnitude of the problems they faced. But when they talked about the future, they talked about it as if it was something they genuinely had a stake in, as if it was something that could be fashioned, with enough creativity and commitment.

‘In 2019,’ he wrote, ‘it seemed as if the gravitational pull of the past had weakened, and with this weakening came a sense that a different future was possible.’

I felt this in Hpa-An too, among students and fellow teachers. There, my Karen students came from state- or mixed-authority villages in Karen State. There, they grew up under conditions of fear and discrimination. They were familiar with the presence of armed groups, but sometimes could not distinguish them. They also felt that the Myanmar government had done little for their families and villages. There may have been a new road or a new school nearby, but they bemoaned a lack of opportunities for social mobility.

This changed when they moved to Hpa-An. The cruel legacies of militarisation remained, but many students emphasised how they felt—in Will’s words—that the future was ‘something they genuinely had a stake in.’ There was always a striking intergenerational dimension to the interviews I did with them.[2] My students emphasised that they were, as a generation, distinct from their parents and grandparents, who grew up under military rule. At 18 to 23 years old, they did not have living memories of the 1988 uprising and the subsequent crackdown. Some had spent more than half their lives out of junta rule, and a third of them under ceasefire conditions. My students embodied youth and hope, and they were cautious harbingers of a new future, determined to restore a sense of agency extinguished in decades past. Even so, their hopes were tempered by empathy towards their older family members. Few students were open to their parents about the nature of their involvement in civil society or their views on the KNU. A recent graduate, who had begun to work on ‘sensitive’ issues with a community-based organisation in Hpa-An, simply told her parents she was working in an ‘office’. She didn’t want them to worry. 

The anthropologist Jennifer Johnson-Hanks writes about ‘vital conjunctures,’ or moments in one’s life course ‘during which potential future are under debate and up for grabs.’ Such conjunctures, the geographer Jane Dyson suggests, can be precipitated by migration from a village to a city, which results in a reinterpretation of one’s original community. In 2018, I began to think about community schools in Hpa-An as spaces for a kind of vital conjuncture. Here, students were forming new, intra-generational bonds that solidified their hopes for a new future for Myanmar’s Karen communities. At school, they negotiated possible futures that were foreclosed before: to start a library or a school in their natal village; to pursue ‘critical thinking’ and uncover more about Karen history; to further their studies in Yangon or abroad.

In 2021, I feel heavy with their heartbreak. As the school’s principal put it, community education in Hpa-An is a ‘difficult’ endeavour. Indeed my research seeks to explain why and how civil society actors’ aspirations have been repeatedly frustrated. However, today I want to emphasise the tenaciousness of their hopes, and the extent to which they have been dashed. The coup presents a different kind of ‘vital conjuncture’, at which new futures must be—again—negotiated. I wonder if this upheaval is distinct because it has made a brutal dent on a generation’s aspirations, crafted according to their expectations for the persistence of civilian rule. Whereas previous upheavals occurred during a protracted period of military rule, from 1962 to 2011, the Tatmadaw has now seized power after ten years of reforms, which created hopes so widespread, they spanned the width of a generation. The 2021 coup represents the Tatmadaw’s veto power over the hopes and dreams of young people, in Karen State and beyond.

...or more of the same?

No essay about Karen communities can be complete without acknowledging the renewed violence in KNU areas in recent months. The 2020–2021 clashes in Karen State, mentioned at the start of this article, have now displaced 4,000 villagers. As the activist Khin Ohmar explained in a livestream, the coup—as with previous political upheavals in Myanmar—will not have an acute effect on those in conflict areas. ‘This coup probably has no meaning for them,’ she said, indicating the violence wrought by the Tatmadaw even when the NLD was in charge. For thousands of people living in KNU areas, the Tatmadaw has caused grief for years, elections and ceasefires notwithstanding.

Border-based civil society organisations have long decried the international community’s fixation on Myanmar’s central state reforms, vis-à-vis their relative inattention to armed violence in Karen State and other non-Bamar areas. The anthropologist Anne Décobert shows how health workers in conflict areas feel that donors have failed to confer them legitimacy over the past decade, when donors turned their attention to the NLD government. The same centre-periphery dynamics are at stake today.

What are non-Bamar communities and activists to make of a coup that has captured international attention, when they bear the brunt of a civil war that has been shunted out of the limelight? One response could be to feel bitter and resentful. ‘The people in Myanmar didn’t feel sympathy for us when we were suffering,’ Afrosa, a Rohingya activist, told a VICE reporter. Shame on us, a Burmese friend writes on Facebook, for recognising the Tatmadaw’s missteps only when we bear their cost. ‘But’, Afrosa continues, ‘I feel sympathy for them.’ The Karen people I know express similar sentiments. They are grieving and aggrieved.

Perhaps new futures will be created amid these ambivalences. It is surreal to watch a coup unfold on Facebook. It is equally surreal to see the extent to which the platform—which has almost certainly exacerbated social divides in Myanmar—allows my Karen and Burmese friends to express their solidarity for one another. I see pictures of candles being lit across Yangon, and watch videos of pots and pans clanging down a dark street. I see my students in Hpa-An bear real-time witness to these subtle signs of resistance, previously associated with the “8888” uprising and the 2007 Saffron Revolution, for the first time in their lives. They repost chain messages declaring their support, in Burmese, for the civil disobedience movement sweeping hospitals and Myanmar government offices. A community learning centre in Hpa-An has made infographics of English and Burmese translations of the words “coup”, “disobedience”, “condemn”. At the same time, they repost statements decrying the coup, made by border organisations—such as the Karen Women’s Organisation—the KNU, and other ethnic armed organisations. Bearing witness to this makes me wonder about the possibility of bonds forming between Bamar and non-Bamar, among non-Bamar groups, and even within these groups, that have been foreclosed for far too long.[3]

It is too early to know if these tentative displays of support will crystallise into something more substantial. The military’s orders for telecom companies to ‘temporarily’ block Facebook show that communications platforms are switches that the Tatmadaw can flick on and off. I fear that the coming days portend more crackdowns. I worry for my friends. The emotional tide will continue to turn—as it already has—from grief, to defiance, to something else altogether. There will be heavy-handed conversations about sanctions, resistance, and perhaps even violence. Even so, this is a plea to keep a close eye on peoples’ responses to crises, which are a window into the real costs of the coup, as well as a call to remember war-affected and otherwise marginalised communities. Their hopes and heartbreaks deserve attention.

Shona Loong is a DPhil student in human geography at the University of Oxford. Her ongoing research aims to understand how civil society and development actors are reshaping governance dynamics in Karen State, across areas controlled by the central government and the KNU. She is interested in understanding the role that civil society plays in reshaping social relations among civilians, and between civilians and armed groups, after war. 

[1] I decided not to do interviews for this essay. I worry about endangering my contacts and recognize that they have much more on their mind. In my opinion, three days in, it is too early to know what the current situation means for researchers and their participants.
[2] I did 14 life history interviews with students and recent graduates of community schools in Hpa-An for my doctoral thesis. I also interviewed several dozen civil society representatives in Hpa-An and Yangon. In this piece, I have largely elected to speak of my students collectively to emphasize the shared nature of their hopes and dreams, although there were certainly differences between them too.
[3] My research investigates some reasons for a lack of solidaristic bonds between civil society actors, including the role of donors; however, this is beyond the scope of this essay.