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MEDA Myanmar currently works in two states – Shan State in the North and Kayin State in the South. I have been here for almost two months now, and I’ve had the privilege of visiting villages in both of these areas and observing the stark differences between them. While Southern Shan villagers have been blessed with the assistance of numerous NGOs due to the lack of armed conflict in the area, Kayin villagers have been tormented for over 50 years by the ongoing conflict. Burdened by a shared border with Thailand, Kayin’s Christian rebel group (the Karen National Union) and Buddhist rebel group (the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) use proceedings from controlling border trade to fund weaponry used to fight the Burmese Army.

And for good reason.

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The Burmese Army implemented its “Four Cuts” strategy in the 1970s to destroy all armed ethnic groups within Myanmar; of which there are 17. This is so they have uncontested control over the country, its borders, and thus, its revenues. The “Four Cuts” have been described by some as a form of ethnic cleansing, as it involved cutting access to food, funds, information and recruitment from areas where ethnic groups reside; often areas with women, children, and elderly. As a result, since 1949, ethnic rebel groups all over Myanmar have fought back to claim freedom from the Army.

As we drove into Hpa-An, capital of Kayin, I couldn’t help but notice all the ugly construction sites against a backdrop of serene rice paddies and sky-scraping mountains. Since the signing of a temporary ceasefire agreement in 2013, Kayin’s borders are opened for the first time to foreign tourists, and with them, funds for development. Drivers and colleagues alike constantly point out to construction sites where new hotels are being built.

“See that hotel?”

Says one.

“That was the only hotel in this city when I was here last year.”

While foreign tourists flock to Kayin to see its mysterious caves, roaring mountains, and tranquil monasteries, locals are still skeptical about the safety of the region. Just last week a Karen National Union vehicle was ambushed by an “unknown group”, according to the United Nationals Department of Safety and Security.

“The last time I was in Kayin I was an intern for World Vision Myanmar. I was just 19,” Explains one colleague.

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“DKBA insurgent vehicles used to drive through these streets every day with armed men and guns. They could arrest and shoot anyone they wanted to – they had complete control. Everything stopped when their vehicles drove by. Cars would come to a halt; people stopped in their steps.

One day I was walking home from work when a vehicle approached me.

I stopped, frozen in fear, and some armed men got off to look at me. I think it’s because I’m half Chinese and half Myanmar, so I look different. I was so terrified because they could have done anything they wanted with me. Luckily they didn’t, and from then on I never walked home alone again.”

On the second day of our Kayin trip, we drove into a sleepy village. Once inside, I realized that decades of fighting definitely left its dent on the agricultural potential of rural Kayin. With ongoing conflict and a lack of government technical support (such as water irrigation systems, the introduction of new crop varieties and the creation of market linkages), the majority of the workforce has illegally crossed the border to Thailand to work as day labourers. As a result, only the old and young are left behind to cultivate Kayin’s most popular crop - rice. This migration of people out of the country is a challenge for our project. High demand for labour within Kayin has stripped farmers of the ability to pay for labourers to help in the rice paddies come the busy transplanting season. Unfortunately, farmers can only cultivate 15% of their land. In addition, Kayin rice is labour intensive to grow and hard to gain a profit by. While Kayin labourers in Thailand work with no social security and the constant threat of being kicked out, their daily wage is $50CAD/day there as opposed to just $5CAD should they stay back to cultivate rice. 

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As I embarked on the seven-hour journey home from Kayin to Yangon, our bus shook and wobbled across the uneven asphalt. I thought about the solutions our team came up with – to introduce less labour intensive varieties of rice, to create market linkages for it with the rest of Myanmar, and to teach rural women ways of farming more efficiently.

Kayin definitely has its rough patches, but hopefully rice will be its saving grace.