A few feet down an unmarked dirt road that diverges from the Kawkareik-Myawady road in southern Kayin State, I and the rest of the crew working on a documentary video about the rebel-turned-Rambo-star Ko Min Htay saw an elephant emerge from a thicket of trees and meander through a shallow stream toward a cluster of three elevated wooden huts. Beneath the largest hut, a young man – possibly a teenager – cleaned his rifle while swinging lazily in a hammock. Another young-looking soldier napped in a smaller hut nearby.
The commander of this small rebel fort was Aung Win – also known as Arrow to his comrades in the 6th battalion of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). He invited us for a swim in the creek before sharing stories of his five years on the base. Arrow died of liver disease this week, but not before giving us a glimpse of how he and his men lived.
“Every day, we put in work for the regiment, providing food and security to our villages, raising goats and cows, and sometimes fishing,” he told Coconuts during our visit to the base last November. “We enjoy life in the jungle.”
This idyllic, nameless jungle fortress on the bank of the Kyaung Ma Hmu creek lies on the tranquil, if not technically peaceful, side of a divide within the KNLA. Whereas the 2nd and 5th battalions are fiercely protective of both their Christian identity and their territory in the highlands of northern Kayin State, the 6th and 7th battalions and the communities under their influence have grown accustomed to an ethnically integrated existence in the state’s southern lowlands. In this area, which includes the Kyaung Ma Hmu base, the presence of Bamar people and their Buddhist religion are not an immediate case for fear.
“Before, the Tatmadaw couldn’t come here,” Arrow said, gesturing in the direction of a Myanmar military base a few miles up the nearby highway. “But now, we have a good relationship with the Tatmadaw.”
In the 1990s and the 2000s, the southern battalions fought bloody battles against the government-aligned Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), but today, the closest thing to war lies 150 miles to the north, in Hpapun Township, where a conflict is simmering between the KNLA’s 5th battalion and government forces that are trying to build a road through the Karen heartland. The troops holding the fort at Kyaung Ma Hmu have no expectation to see that kind of violence, leaving them few ways to participate in the armed struggle their ancestors launched against the Burmese state in 1949.
“We still do military training every day, but we haven’t had any new recruits in a while,” said Arrow.
Relations between the KNLA and the Myanmar government were further normalized in 2015, when the militia’s political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU), signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Myanmar government. Thousands of Karen foot soldiers were then thrust into a peace process with their sworn enemy, whether they liked it or not.
Arrow, whose father was killed in combat in 1985, says he and his men are grateful to live without the threat of impending war. Nonetheless, he sees no reason to abandon his post and move back into civilization.
“We obey the orders of our leaders. Where we stay depends on them,” he said.
Today, the KNU’s chairman, General Saw Mutu Say Poe, is one of the highest-profile stakeholders in the government’s peace process. He recently negotiated a deal with Tatmadaw’s supreme commander Min Aung Hlaing for the halting of construction on the controversial road in Hpapun, though he failed to secure the withdrawal of Tatmadaw troops or the removal of construction equipment from the area.
In May 2017, the government of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi gave General Saw Mutu Say Poe the honor of delivering the opening speech at the second round of the Union Peace Conference in Naypyidaw. There, the Karen leader spoke about the importance of inclusivity in the effort to establish a democratic, federal union in Myanmar. But that inclusivity was more of a reference to the other stakeholders in the peace process, not to the soldiers holding down forts in remote jungles.
“At the grassroots level, we don’t concern ourselves with federalism and democracy. We just follow orders from our leader,” Arrow said. “If our leader is satisfied by the absence of battles, everyone is satisfied.”
However, the commander recognized that there was still much progress to be made on the path toward peace with Myanmar. Standing on a hill overlooking the huts that made up his small domain a few months before disease would take his life, Arrow fantasized about that unrealized future.
“If peace will be completed, we will try to develop our state,” he said. “But we will keep our guns. Karen arms should be in Karen hands. Karen people should be judged on Karen land.”