Naw Bway Paw (Photo by Saw
Story: A Woman in a Conflict Area in Burma
Back in Burma
During the last two weeks, I went back to Karen State in Burma to
the T’Nay Cha Township area. It is a four-hour trip from the
Thai-Burma border by car. This visit was the first time I had been
to this area since 2002.
When we traveled to this area in the past, it took five days to walk
there, but now it takes just a few hours. When we previously arrived
in the village, we were afraid of the movements of the Burma
soldiers, for they could arrest us or kill us at any moment. We
naturally tried not to be arrested or killed. We visited the
villagers during the day; and at night, we had to stay outside the
village and sleep in the jungle. At that time, human rights
violations happened every day—forced labor, illegal tax collection,
etc. No workers from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whether
from local NGOs or from international organizations in Rangoon, came
and helped the people. Only Karen community-based organizations,
such as those engaged in health care and education, came to aid the
Now I am back in this area, and I feel, from an outsider’s
perspective, that there is freedom compared to those times of the
past. You can now travel freely without fear, and you don’t hear any
gunshots. I talked with teachers, villagers and Buddhist monks and
heard a lot of stories from them. I feel that the people are still
oppressed but in a soft way, which in some ways is even worse. I
feel though the strength of the people who now speak out. Many Karen
people who even live in areas controlled by the military are not
afraid to speak into the camera and permit interviews recorded by
the video camera. Thus, the people are standing up, and our role is
to listen and think about what we are going to do with the stories
we hear and the information we collect.
It is with this purpose in mind that I would like to share the story
of a woman named Naw Bway Paw. She lost her land, but she still has
dreams that one day she will get her land back. She, like others,
isn’t afraid to speak out anymore.
The Story of Naw Bway Paw
Naw Bway Paw lost her land in 1996 after a Burmese military
offensive in T’Nay Cha Township, which is located in Karen State in
Pa-an District. Now Naw Bway Paw, along with 66 fellow villagers, is
trying to get back 1,500 acres of their land that was confiscated by
the Burmese military. She started to talk to me when I began
recording with my video camera.
When the battalion commander Saw Win came, he
stayed at my house, and afterwards, he took my land and worked
on my land. He lived with us the whole rainy season; and in the
summertime, he told us that we would have to leave, that we have
to live outside our land. We were not allowed to stay in their
battalion area, and they forced us to leave.
The commander [of the Burmese army] asked us to sign [a piece of
paper] that those lands did not belong to us, that those farms
were not our farms.
I told him that, if the farm is not ours anymore, I couldn’t
sign. If it meant I don’t own my land, then I couldn’t sign. I
could not sign; I would rather leave. Nobody in Lay Kaw Hti
He told me that “the Burman, when they want to take, they will
take it and get it. . . . Now the Karen face the problem, when
they run, they don’t have land. When they die, they don’t have a
grave; they have to find their own [land for a grave].”
I told him that I can’t [find another piece of land]. This is
our land and was given to us by our grandparents. We will stay
“You can’t live here,” he said.
I asked him, Where are we going to live?
I told the battalion commander that the Burman would force us to
He told me that “the Karen are like wild cats; they don’t like
to stay on flat land; they like the jungle.”
I told him that we already had made the field a farm. Our
grandparents gave us [this land], and he told me that “this is
not your grandparents’ place; it’s our grandparents’ land.”
It only belongs to your grandparents, not ours? I argued with
him. Nobody dared to argue with the commander—only me—I talked
to him because he lives in my house.
He told me that “now the land is owned by the State so you all
have to leave; you can’t live here; it’s all ruled by the
If they have no mercy, the villagers can’t live. The military
has [all of the] power and can do anything.
I asked the battalion commander, Are you not satisfied that you
took a lot of land? One came and took more; came another one and
took more so where are we going to live?
“Now,” [he said,] “you argue with me. . . . I am a soldier. . .
. I have a gun. . . . I can do anything to you.”
I told him we know it very well. . . . You are a soldier, and
you can win. . . . For villagers, even if we talk to you, we
lose. . . . [If] we don’t talk [to you], we lose.
I was very frustrated and was not afraid of anybody. . . . I
argued with everybody [the soldiers]. . . . Other people dared
not argue with them. . . . Your aunty [Naw Bway Paw] was not
afraid of them anymore. . . . I told him that, even if I am
still alive or dead, my life is no different—no land, . . . no
home, . . . Life is nothing. . . . I am not afraid to die.
Homeless and Landless: Life on the Edge of
After the Burmese army took my land, I worked
as a gardener. Summertime—I planted long beans, tobacco; and
after that, I exchanged tobacco with rice. . . . I have no land
and farm so we lived very hard outside the military area.
Now I am not like other neighbors. . . . If I go to another
village, people have a house; they have a music player; they
have a video player. . . . For me, . . . I have nothing.
If I want to watch a movie, they asked me to provide one liter
of gasoline for the generator. . . . Although I want to watch
the movie, I have no money for that.
Other people have a two- or three-story house. . . . My house is
like a chicken’s house. . . . I am very disappointed. Other
people can donate for a religious activity; but for me, [there
is] nothing I can do so I am very sad.
Other people have enough food for their life, but me—I have a
hard time struggling to survive on a daily basis. . . . Each
year I have a little amount of rice and have to manage very well
to live on it. I cannot donate for my religion [Buddhism]. I
can’t share with my friends. . . . I have to struggle with my
life up and down. [It is] like that.
As I get older, I don’t have nutritious food. . . . If I want to
drink milk, I have to buy it. . . . If I want to eat sugar, I
have to buy it. . . . Sometimes I sell one kilogram of beans,
and I bought sugar. Sometimes I sell one or two kilograms of
cucumbers and bought milk.
If I get sick, . . . I can’t work and have to borrow money from
others, and I have debts; and when I get better, I have to pay
back the money. My life is in a cycle like this.
I have nothing left, and I can’t depend on my children. . . . My
children also can’t depend on me . . . so we have to struggle on
Amid Despair, Hopes and Dreams Live On
Now I still dream that I live on my land; . .
. but in reality, I am not on my land.
I always dream that I live in my house and on my land. . . . I
always wish that one day I will get back my land, but I don’t
When I look at my land, I know exactly the boundary of my land.
. . . I planted those trees; I planted those mango trees and
dogfruit trees there. . . . I can recognize everything. . . .
Every year the Burmese army takes every product from my trees. .
. . When I look at the garden, . . . there are a lot of
I think to myself that these are my trees; and if I am there, I
can have [the fruit] for myself. . . . But they [Burmese army]
have taken everything, and [there is] nothing left.
This farm belongs to our great grandparents, [and] they told us
to pass it onto our children—generation to generation. . . .
They told us not to sell the farm to others, to share with our
Now I didn’t sell the farm, . . . but the army took it. [I]
lived on the land and constructed buildings on the land, and
thus, I lost everything.
I thought before that I would give this farm to our children.
Then, when we get older, we can depend on our children. Now we
can’t depend on them. . . . We can’t depend on each other. . . .
The older I get, the more difficulties I face. What are we going
* Saw Mort, a 2007 alumni of the School of Peace (SOP) conducted by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), is a video journalist for Karen News.