Karen Sanctuaries Transcript
Intro: This is the Nordic Asia podcast.
Quynh Le Vo: Welcome to the Nordic Asia podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. I'm Quynh Le Vo, a master's student in environmental change and global sustainability specializing in climate change adaptation issues in Southeast Asia. As part of my master's thesis, I took part in the virtual SUPRA residency organized by the Nordic Institute of Asian studies this spring.
I'm really pleased to have with me Terese Gagnon, a PhD candidate at Syracuse University where she is completing her dissertation about Karen food, seed and political sovereignty across landscapes of home and exile. She is also co-editor of the book Movable Gardens: Itineraries and Sanctuaries of Memory and will be starting a postdoctoral fellowship at NIAS in the late summer. Terese, welcome and thank you for joining us.
Terese Gagnon: Thank you so much for having me, Le. It's a pleasure to be here.
Quynh Le Vo: So your co-edited book has just been published. Congratulations! The book sounds absolutely fascinating and according to the blurb, it is a collection of studies from various geographical regions exploring the role of seeds, plants and food as repositories of memory and how they can counter the alienation caused by displacement.
So in addition to editing the book, you've also contributed a chapter based on your research with Karen communities, both in Myanmar and abroad. Could you tell us more about how the idea for the book came about, its themes and your own chapters specifically?
Terese Gagnon: Certainly. Thank you so much for that question. The idea for the book first came about when my undergraduate mentor, Virginia Nazarea, and I were organizing a panel for the American Anthropological Association annual meeting and that was in 2017. And we had quite a number of people who we wanted to invite to be part of this panel so it actually became a double panel. So we had this really great lineup of scholars who were all doing work around food and memory and agriculture and basically the ways that people hold on to and preserve biodiversity and relationships with plants. But especially in the context of this, you know, complex, modern, rapidly moving world that we live in.
And we realized that across those two panels, all of the scholars combined were kind of articulating something that felt new and it felt like something that hadn't really been said in a concrete way. So we got the idea to create this edited book, which is basically talking about what it means to hold on to biodiversity and memory and those kinds of relationships with plants that ultimately create a sense of place and home in the context of for example, forced migration, austerity, migrant labor, and lots of these themes of movement that are characterizing the world today.
So that's the book itself. And my contribution was a chapter that was looking at Karen refugees’ experiences, both in Mae La camp, which is on the Thailand-Myanmar border and also in a Karen village that was on the Myanmar side and in the US, and kind of tracing different relationships that people have across these landscapes. Often people maintain networks that are spanning these different places and I was really trying to think about how food and seeds and plants are constituting home in this complex transnational context.
Quynh Le Vo: That sounds really interesting. I think one of the things that makes the book especially fascinating to me is that I think of migration also as an adaptation strategy to climate change. And one of the problems people often face with that is this loss of identity that's connected to their culture and that's connected to their sense of place. So I feel like this book really could address how we could deal with that sense of displacement and cultural shock that will come also as part of climate adaptation.
But back to your research, which focuses on various aspects of Karen sovereignty. The Karen people constitute one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Myanmar and I understand a large percentage of the population is concentrated in Karen State itself, which is in the Southeast of Myanmar. However, the long civil war between the Karen armed groups and the Burmese military as well as widespread land grabbing for various reasons has led to mass displacement of Karen people. So I was wondering how these socio-political realities have influenced and informed your research.
Terese Gagnon: So this forced migration is a really long story. As many listeners may know, the Karen revolution or this armed conflict between Karen armed groups and the Myanmar military has been going on for 72 years now. And so it's often referred to as the longest civil war in the world. It's this really long-standing, protracted conflict that's gone through multiple periods.
This has resulted in the fact that there are people who are living in refugee camps on the Thailand side of the border who have been there for more than 30 years. Multiple generations of family members have grown up in those camps. And so it's kind of this condition of life that crosses generations and has defined multiple generations' experiences of life. And it's something that's again in the news. So I'm sure many people will be aware that the current post-coup developments have led to there being now somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 people displaced along the border between Karen State and Thailand.
And these multiple waves of displacement have led to people having really complex relationships with their homes in Karen areas and also having to find ways to craft lives, even within the confines of the refugee camps, which are so restrictive and also in resettlement locations like the US, or also Australia and Norway, Canada are just a few. And so I've really kind of focused on the way that people create home and try to hold onto those relationships with this territory of Karen State or what Karen people will often refer to as Kawthoolei, the free Karen homeland, through connections with seeds and plants that people can take with them.
Quynh Le Vo: So could you expand a little bit more on what kind of role plants and food play in the formation and preservation of Karen identity when they are displaced?
Terese Gagnon: Absolutely. So of course food is such a large part of identity for most people. And I think in particular, since a lot of Karen folks who are coming from the Southeast borderlands of Myanmar and Kawthoolei are subsistence farmers, so I think there's also a special connection to agriculture as well.
And so in the camps people are growing things from home, but what I found in my dissertation research was that actually those kinds of relationships are being transformed oftentimes because there is really limited space. And there's some NGO programs that are trying to assist refugees in the process of holding on to these agricultural traditions. But oftentimes the kind of agriculture they are carrying out in the refugee camp looks quite different from the kinds of really complex, mixed agroforestry and swidden upland rice cultivation that people would be practicing, say, in their villages. So that was one thing that I was interested in thinking through in the process of writing my dissertation was what exactly is happening in the space of the camp.
And then when people have the chance to perhaps have more land in somewhere like the US, what other kinds of challenges do they face, like toxins in the soils and in the waters, that are adding complexity to their attempts to hold on to gardening and fishing and hunting and other ways of engaging with food and plants that connect them to home.
Quynh Le Vo: And from what you're saying and from your book chapter as well, I get the sense that Karen communities feel quite a deep and direct kinship with their homeland and also its biodiversity, the specific plants and seeds that grow in that land. And that really reminds me of how other indigenous peoples around the world feel about their homelands. And in general, we know that indigenous people have a critical role as guardians of global biodiversity and indigenous sovereignty itself is also a key component in fighting climate change. So I wonder if you'd say that this applies to the Karen people as well?
Terese Gagnon: I would say absolutely. I think that it was really interesting over the course of doing my dissertation research and multiple years of going back to the border area, really starting to think more about these communities and the research that I was doing in the context of indigenous sovereignty. I think that that's definitely the language that lots of Karen people use and Karen organizations use.
And this Salween Peace Park, which has been this really visionary project to create an indigenous conservation area within Karen homelands, has also articulated exactly what you say, this importance of indigenous communities controlling their own lands. But then preserving these kinds of relationships between humans and other species that are not always accounted for under the kind of national laws and frameworks of Nation states that can be seen as settler colonial nation states, you know, is the language that's used in North America. And I think that to a certain extent a similar thinking can be useful when we think about how the Burmese military-state's laws that regulate land relationships are fundamentally at odds with the way that Karen communities think about communally held lands and relationship to land.
So I think that definitely. In the process of carrying out this research, I've come to frame things a lot in terms of indigenous sovereignty and kind of relational ontologies that help provide a different vision for what human relationships with other species in the natural world can look like.
Quynh Le Vo: Yeah, that's really interesting. I feel like in North America and even in South America as well, indigenous sovereignty and their relationship with the land comes up a lot more and it's much more accentuated compared to the conversation we have about indigenous peoples in areas like Southeast Asia, where it tends to be, especially in Myanmar's case, a lot more emphasized the type of political struggle that they're in. So do you see them connected and do you feel like there should be more emphasis on these kinds of biodiversity environmental aspects of the struggle for sovereignty in Myanmar?
Terese Gagnon: I would say yes. I think that it's been really interesting and productive to have a great group of colleagues and lots of people who are working on these ideas. So definitely my thinking has been inspired a lot by other friends and colleagues, including Professor Robin Roth and Andrew Paul, and the work of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network definitely has influenced my thinking. And these are scholars and groups who are framing things in terms of indigenous sovereignty.
So I think there's a conversation that exists, but it's quite marginal at this point. And I think that it's still a bit shocking sometimes to scholars who work in the context of Southeast Asia to even frame, you know, politics in Myanmar, for example, as having to do with indigenous sovereignty, because it's a context that's so often been talked about in terms of ethnicity and ethnic politics. And so I think that it's kind of a particular labor to shift that discourse a little bit and to question, like, is ethnicity or like this certain understanding of ethnicity the most useful framework in the context of Southeast Asia.
Quynh Le Vo: Yeah, for sure. And it's such an important conversation to have and kind of significant shift to make as well. So I wonder, you've characterized the Karen autonomous territory as a sanctuary, a kind of place of refuge. Could you explain what the territory is and what you mean by this "sanctuary" characterization?
Terese Gagnon: Definitely. So this Karen territory has been maintained by predominantly the Karen National Union which is the Karen State in effect. It's a Karen political organization and there's a certain portion of this territory that's been maintained under Karen control primarily. And it's also this area that's been protected from a lot of more invasive forms of extractive development. And so that's been one function of the administrations that are controlling this area is to really regulate and protect what kinds of development is happening there. And part of that has to do with preserving the biodiversity and the waters in this territory.
And this Salween Peace Park has been a further step in articulating that kind of vision for this space as a haven for biodiversity and also for indigenous sovereignty over this territory. So I think that there's been a lot of really great work done by Karen scholars and activists, especially highlighting the importance of this space for Karen people, but also globally. It's, you know, these incredible, thick forests and really rich biodiversity with all kinds of orchids and large mammals that are not found elsewhere.
So it's a biodiversity hotspot, but it's also, as we were discussing, a space where different kinds of political imaginations are being harbored. So when I think about it as a space of refuge, I'm thinking about this biodiversity component, which is of global importance, but also the different sort of political imagination that it harbors.
And we're kind of seeing that play out in interesting ways, too, in the wake of the coup because these borderland areas have been important spaces for resisting dictatorship and for lots of people from around the country that are now seeking to resist the coup and the current military regime. And so I think that the maintenance of these spaces and Myanmar's borderlands provides a refuge on multiple levels.
Quynh Le Vo: Mm, yeah. I did want to ask you about the coup because you mentioned a little bit earlier as well and I wonder if you've been able to keep in touch with your contacts in the Karen space and how they've talked about the coup, what kind of on the ground developments there have been how have the mass protests and strikes by civilians been visible in that area?
Terese Gagnon: I think there's been some really great journalism coming out of Myanmar and Thailand, talking about the kinds of resistance movements that are coming out of ethnic areas and also out of cities and especially the interface between those two spaces. It's been kind of the historic context that people in cities in Myanmar oftentimes don't understand the struggle people in ethnic areas are going through and that's definitely something that we can see as intentional.
But one really interesting development in the wake of the coup is that now people in different parts of Myanmar and Myanmar's borderlands are starting to talk about and understand one another's experiences a bit more. And I think that's especially true for people in urban areas that were not previously aware of the kinds of suffering and struggle that people in ethnic areas have undergone. So I think that that is one area in which we can see some really encouraging social developments of people actually talking across these different experiences and trying to find common ground, although it's still very, very hard and complex, that work is definitely being done.
Quynh Le Vo: Mm. Do you know at all if this kind of conversation also extends to the biodiversity sphere or the connection and relationship with the land and environment sphere? Have there been any movements in that regard?
Terese Gagnon: That's such a great question. Now that you say – there have been some. I just remember seeing months ago, really early on in the protest, people carrying signs in Yangon saying, you know, like "Myanmar military, stop stealing indigenous lands".
I think Stella Naw, one scholar and activist and now member of the civilian government, who was articulating these ideas in a public space that this environmental aspect is something that has to be talked about and that Indigenous/ ethnic communities' control of their lands is something that's not negotiable, that's something that's part of what a federal government framework would look like. And this is something that we really have to talk about now and not save it for later or once there's been, you know, a consensus made that this kind of recognition of relationships to land and perhaps biodiversity also, although I'm not sure I've seen that specifically discussed, but basically acknowledging that indigenous and ethnic communities in Myanmar should have the ability to decide what kinds of development happens in their land.
Quynh Le Vo: Right. I also wanted to maybe go back to what you said about extractive industries and how thisi Karen autonomous territory is a sanctuary also from the different types of mining or land grabbing that's happening elsewhere. How will the coup affect these kinds of dynamics? Is it exacerbating the situation or has it put on hold all of these extractive industries in the country and specifically in the territory that you're most familiar with?
Terese Gagnon: One really interesting outcome of the ceasefire period, what can more broadly be referred to as this transition period in Myanmar's politics, was that actually the land grabbing increased during that period and a lot of my Karen colleagues who I've talked with really talk about the way that in some ways militarization increased quite paradoxically during that period, because there was not as much active fighting happening. And so there were different kinds of violences or dispossession that people were experiencing. And so people were happy in some ways not to have as much active fighting and immediate threats to their lives. Yes, there were still skirmishes and still outbreaks of fighting, but there actually got to be more Myanmar army camps in this area.
And then I think that in multiple ethnic areas of Myanmar different kinds of extractive development increased during this period. So that was a major critique that lots of different ethnic groups had of the so-called peace process or transition process in Myanmar. I think at this point it's hard to say exactly what will happen in the wake of the coup, but I think it's probably made it quite difficult for large scale extractive development projects to go forward. And part of that has to do with transnational corporations and different nations and corporations that would be investing in those projects and even the feasibility of doing that. So of course no one welcomes that outbreak of war and fighting in any case, but it probably means that some of those areas that are perhaps threatened by development projects will not have that specific threat right now. But I can't say for sure how, how the coup will affect things.
Quynh Le Vo: Yeah, it might be that they've just postponed all of these developments that will maybe come back even fiercer than before. But I think you make a good point, because I feel like for those who don't follow Myanmar as their job or don't specialize in the country, so to the general international community, this transition period has been painted as this great democratization experiment and there's been a bit less talk about how that's affected the different ethnic communities in the various areas of Myanmar.
Right. So I kind of wanted to finish off after we talked about the coup and all of this extraction and different struggles, I wanted to finish off with something a bit more hopeful and talk about imaginations of the future. Because I think we both recognize how important imaginations can be and how much they really shape the way we think about the future and how we then constitute and make it, reproduce it.
So in your conversations with Karen people in different contexts, be it in the US or in the refugee camps in Thailand or in Myanmar itself, I wonder how do they talk about their hopes and dreams in relation to their homeland back in Karen State?
Terese Gagnon: Yes. That was a question that I was always asking and trying to understand in different ways through the course of my time spent, especially with young people. I did end up spending quite a lot of time with college age people in the camp and in other areas where I was doing my research. And I think that there's oftentimes an assumption in the migration literature that people are aspiring to a certain kind of modern lifestyle. And discourses on urbanization perhaps assume one kind of aspiration. But I think that what I saw was a lot more complex with these young people who I was talking with and spending a lot of time with.
And I think that of course everybody likes having social media and digital technology. And so not to like paint this kind of untrue image of people, but at the same time that people love video chats and playing on smartphones and doing all the normal things that a college-aged student will like to do. People do also really enjoy foraging and enjoy, you know, actually getting out and clearing land, was one moment that was kind of an "aha" moment for me when these college students were just having a blast, they were having like the time of their life clearing this land on this hillside for planting and it was the most joyful that I'd seen them.
And so I think that there are these moments where you realize that people do still carry this knowledge with them about wild plants and about biodiversity and cooking that they might even claim they don't have, if they've been growing up in the US or living in the camp. But when you dig a little deeper and talk to people, actually young people know quite a lot. And I think a lot of people do aspire to some kind of life that will let them, yeah, connect with gardening and connect with plants and fishing and hunting, which is something that a lot of Karen folks in the diaspora definitely enjoy in their free time. So I think that people, people find really creative ways of holding onto things that are important to them.
Quynh Le Vo: That's so interesting. I wonder if the enjoyment that they derive from these acts – is it connected to their memory and cultural identity as Karen people and through these acts, they're reproducing their cultural identity. Would it be wrong to say that?
Terese Gagnon: No, I think you're right. I think that it is definitely connected to that and it of course manifests in different ways that I think sometimes people have this idea of performing culture has to look like this kind of very rote thing, but I think it's always, always shifting. And so meeting people who had been resettled in Norway and had been living there for a long time and enjoyed hunting and fishing and maybe on the surface, it wouldn't look like they were doing this innately Karen thing, but I think it is definitely connected to people's backgrounds and it's a way of holding on to identity. And yeah, I would agree with that.
Quynh Le Vo: It's such a private thing in a way, and it really just is quite individual, what evokes for you your roots and where you come from and how you feel about yourself. And I really feel like more and more now it's becoming more widespread, this kind of doing through your hands and connecting with the land and that way connecting also, with your place in the world. So I feel like what you're saying really connects to wider trends globally as well.
So you're starting your postdoc at NIAS at the end of the summer. What exciting plans for research do you have for the coming months and years? And do you have, for example, presence on any social media through which we could follow your work or how can we keep up with you?
Terese Gagnon: Oh, thank you. So when I'm at NIAS, I'll be turning my dissertation into a book and that will be one thing that I'm doing with my time there, and I'll also be undertaking a second research project. And my plans for that project is to really look at this space of refuge that we've discussed and this Karen homeland and the way that that's connected to different diaspora communities. And so like we were talking about people's aspirations and ways of connecting with home and the relationship between these homelands and different diasporic communities to kind of delve more into that specifically. And thinking about how this is such a global and transnational phenomenon that in the world today indigenous homelands are not maintained in isolation, but they're definitely maintained through connections that span the globe.
And yeah, I do have a Twitter account so you can find me there. It's just my name, Terese Gagnon, and I, yeah, I would really love to hear from anybody who's interested in talking more about these issues.
Quynh Le Vo: Oh, that sounds so amazing. I've learned so much from this conversation, so I'm really looking forward to reading your book. Thank you again for sharing your research with us and thanks for coming!
Terese Gagnon: Thank you so much, Le. It's been a pleasure.
Quynh Le Vo: My name is Quynh Le Vo. I've been talking with Terese Gagnon, co-editor of the book Movable Gardens: Itineraries and Sanctuaries of Memory and incoming postdoctoral fellow at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.
Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.
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