Planning is resistance: Indigenous people in Burma envision a self-determined future

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Photo of two people sitting on either side of a wide, moss-covered tree stump. One points at the surface of the stump. In the background, there are tall trees and a totem pole.
Paul Sein Twa from Burma speaks with Hereditary Chief Gaahlaay Lonnie Young on Haida Gwaii. Credit: Emilee Gilpin/Coastal First Nations - Great Bear Initiative

Burma and Haida Gwaii are worlds apart but neighbours in the struggle for self-determination. So, in June 2023, when Indigenous representatives from across Burma visited the islands off the coast of British Columbia to meet with members of the Haida Nation, the connection was immediate.

“They faced a similar genocide like the ethnic people in Burma have been through,” says Paul Sein Twa, who joined this learning exchange with Inter Pares support. He works with the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), an ethnic organization we partner with in southeastern Burma.

Paul is Karen, and like many ethnic people in Burma, uses “ethnic” and “Indigenous” interchangeably to describe himself. “We had similar experiences under colonization, including the banning of cultural practices and Indigenous identity.”

They talked about barriers each group has had to assert their rights under colonial powers and the different approaches each has taken to overcome them. The Haida Nation’s many-pronged activism – establishing their own museum, natural resource co-management, constitutional and legal sovereignty work – has given Paul ideas for KESAN’s future.

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“One of the nation’s pillars is cultural resurgence. They brought back their totem poles, ceremonies, singing, dancing, way of life, hunting... and integrated it into their children’s education,” Paul explains.

“In the past, we thought more about the political aspects and human rights, and focused less on culture, the environment and our Indigenous peoples’ knowledge.”

For many of the visitors, this was their first exposure to a federal system of government – something they have been striving toward for many years.

And while the military junta in Burma continues its brutal campaign against the people, Paul and others persist in their resistance by planning for that peaceful, federal, self-determined future.

This learning exchange was organized by an Indigenous peoples’ network in Burma, with support from a multi-donor fund. Our program in Burma is undertaken in partnership with the Government of Canada.

logo image: half a red maple leaf with the words "In partnership with Canada" next to it. Small Canadian flag is above the final "A" in Canada.

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