Myanmar’s Karen community is mourning the loss of land rights and peace activist Saw O Moo, who was fatally shot by Myanmar troops near his home in Ler Mu Plaw, Kayin State, on April 5. Rights groups have described his death as the latest casualty in the Myanmar army’s ongoing effort to seize and militarize Karen lands.
The day he was killed, Saw O Moo was attending a meeting to help coordinate humanitarian assistance for Karen villagers who have been displaced by fighting between the Myanmar army and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). Around 2,300 villagers have fled to makeshift forest camps since March 4, when the Myanmar army began building a road in KNLA territory.
On his way home from the meeting, Saw O Moo offered a ride on the back of his motorbike to a KNLA soldier named Saw Hser Blut Doh. As the two approached Ler Mu Plaw just after 5pm, they were ambushed and shot at by Myanmar troops.
“When I saw the Burma Army soldiers, I immediately jumped off the motorbike and ran,” Saw Hser Blut Doh told Saw O Moo’s younger brother, who recounted the conversation to the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN). “Saw O Moo could not stop his motorbike immediately, so the soldiers shot him. I could hear gunshots as I ran into the forest.”
Saw Hser Blut Doh escaped uninjured.
KNLA authorities have confirmed Saw O Moo’s death but have been unable to retrieve his body, as Myanmar troops continue to fire at anyone who enters the area, ostensibly as they continue with their road construction project.
Saw O Moo is survived by his wife Naw Paw Tha and seven young children, who fled during the Myanmar army’s first attack on Ler Mu Plaw on March 4.
“Saw O Moo could have followed his wife and children into hiding in the forest, but he chose to remain at his home in Ler Mu Plaw to protect his people from the attacking Burma Army soldiers,” reads a statement released by KESAN.
The statement lists activist’s numerous roles as a protector of his community’s customs and land, as well as local wildlife, including his work with the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, the Kheshorter Community Forest Committee, and the Salween Peace Park.
“For us, as Indigenous people, the Salween Peace Park represents our deepest desires and needs,” he told a crowd at a public consultation meeting in Dec. 2017.
“Saw O Moo’s death is an unspeakable tragedy. We will never forget his dedication in the ongoing struggle to build peace and protect ancestral lands,” the KESAN statement continues.
“We also condemn the brutal actions of the Burma Army and its disregard for local villagers’ lives. This tragedy could have been avoided if the Burma Army had not broken the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and refused to resolve the rising tensions through the existing dispute resolution mechanisms.”