Island of Peace
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Island of Peace


Karen children on their way to Webi’s english Medium Middle School. (Photo: Edith Mirante)

A Karen village exists where children grow up in peace and security. They go to school and attend church with their families. They are not afraid of soldiers. Their parents vote and travel as they wish.

The village has electricity, clean water and shops. It is not in the insurgent territory of Kawthoolei, beleaguered Papun or the cyclone-swept Irrawaddy delta, and it is not one of the fragile border hamlets of Thailand.

Middle andaman  (seen here  in  red)  is  India’s largest island, covering more than 1,500 square kilometers.
This village is Webi, on an island called Middle Andaman, which belongs to India.

Claimed by the British in the 1850s and used as a penal colony for isolating the rebels and dacoits of their Raj, India’s Andaman Islands are an extension of the Pegu Yoma chain of mountains on mainland Burma, cut off since the rise of sea waters at the end of the last Ice Age.

The indigenous people of the archipelago—Jarawas, onges, Great Andamanese, Sentinelese—have lived there for more than 10,000 years. They now number around 500.

The islands were once home to colonial-era Indian and Burmese convicts and were also populated by waves of immigrants after India’s independence, including Bengalis, Ranchis and other ethnic groups from India.

During the 1920s, as the hardwood forests then covering the Andamans were being commercially exploited, British foresters brought Karen over from Burma to work as loggers and mahouts.

The first group were Christian Karens who arrived in 1925 accompanied by their pastor, Rev Lugyi. Eventually numbering a few hundred, they were given land for settlements, including present-day Webi, near the Middle Andaman town of Mayabundar. Their descendants are officially considered “locals” of the Andaman Islands.

In recent years, logging on the Andamans has been halted for environmental reasons. Around Mayabundar one still sees redundant elephants and their mahouts looking for alternative work.

The Karen of Webi and other villages grow crops for themselves and to sell at market. They also fish in the coastal waters and dive for shellfish. Some work for scuba tour companies.

Younger, educated Karens take jobs in government, environmental NGOs and the private sector in Mayabundar and Port Blair. The Karen have physical and cultural similarities (including Christian beliefs) with the indigenous people of India’s Nicobar Islands, directly to the south of the Andamans. In Port Blair, Karen and Nicobarese are often mistaken for each other.

From left to right: the Zion Baptist church in Webi; interior of the Rev lugyi Memorial church; a well-stocked village shop. (Photo: Edith Mirante)

Middle Andaman is the homeland of the animist Jarawa people, dark-skinned hunter-gatherers. Most of the island is a “tribal reserve” belonging to them, but the paved Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) cuts through their territory.

After numerous violent confrontations between the Jarawas and settlers who moved in along the road during the late 1990s, and the exposure of the Jarawas to diseases and other dangerous influences, the settlements were removed. The road remains open, however, though it is only sparsely traveled by limited motor convoys.

Closure of the ATR where it runs through the Jarawa reserve, as mandated by a 2002 Indian Supreme Court order for the protection of the Jarawas, has yet to occur. Residents of the Mayabundar area, such as the Karen, would be affected by the ATR closing, as they would have to rely on a ferry service for access to Port Blair.

The Karen, living north of the Jarawa reserve, were not involved in the settlement violence, but there were reports of some Karen evangelicals giving Christian crosses to Jarawas. The Jarawa word for anyone who poaches fish or game on their land is “Bema,” (Burma) which probably refers to people coming there in boats from Burma, but might also include some Karen fishermen from Middle Andaman.

Webi is a quiet place, with paved pathways, tall palms and shade trees. A few of the houses are made of woven bamboo and thatch, but most have concrete foundations and metal roofs.

1  |  2  next page »

more articles in this section