Pwa K’Nyaw, Seeds of Resilience

Pwa K’Nyaw, Seeds of Resilience

Matias Bercovich, 2023 Finalist

Pwa K’Nyaw, Seeds of Resilience explores the surviving cultural and natural heritage of the Karen indigenous people, which has endured more than seven decades amid Myanmar’s longest civil war and is now critically endangered by unprecedented levels of conflict in the aftermath of a military coup in 2021.

Military students gather to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the Karen struggle for self-determination against the Myanmar central government, which began on January 31, 1949. Dae Pu Noh, Karen State, January 2020.

After building two bamboo altars known as Tar T’ Moe and Ta Lu in his swidden agriculture field, Saw Christ Baw, 45, offers betel nut, chili, salt, tobacco, chicken meat, and rice to the Htee K'sah Kaw K’sah and other powerful nature spirits in the land. This animist ceremony, known as Lu Hku Thet Hku, is performed annually by community members before the August full moon to protect their rice fields from pests and ensure an abundant harvest. Hee Poe Der, Karen State, August 2022.

A villager contemplates the remains of a destroyed building bombed by airstrikes on March 27, Myanmar Armed Forces Day. Dae Pu Noh, Karen State, March 2022.

Naw Leh Du, 40, recovers in a hospital from a wound caused by the shell fragments of a mortar fired in her village by the Kayin Border Guard Force, a Karen splinter group that since 2010 operates under the command of the Myanmar military. The mortar attacks on that day, January 29, 2022, killed a 3-month-old baby and a 20 years-old woman and injured six other persons. Karen State, February 2022.

A deserted 20-lane highway runs through Naypyitaw, Myanmar's capital city, built in the middle of sugarcane fields and rice paddies by General Than Shwe's military regime in 2005. With a surface area of 7,054 square kilometers, Napyitaw is roughly nine times the size of New York. But despite its vastness and hulking infrastructure, the city's population is only a fraction. Naypyitaw, February 2020.

A family returns to their village after hiding for two months in the jungle from military attacks. According to the UN Refugee Agency, at least 1,5 million people remain internally displaced in Myanmar. A figure which has more than doubled since the military coup. Roughly 50 percent of the newly displaced – about 500,000 – are children. Mae Koh Kee, Karen State, May 2021.

Shell fragments from the bombs dropped on March 27, 2021, by the Myanmar army in the Karen stronghold of Mutraw during the first airstrikes in over 20 years. The initial wave of attacks killed three civilians and injured eight. New airstrikes on the following week killed 20 more people and wounded 40. Since then, the Myanmar army has dropped more than 3,000 bombs in Mutraw, one of seven districts in Karen State. Dae Pu Noh, Karen State. 

In Ler Mu Plaw, a village less than a kilometer away from the nearest Myanmar military base, farmers harvest their paddy fields despite their continuous livelihood insecurity caused by decades of protracted conflict. In 1997, the Myanmar army burned to ashes the whole area, driving local populations into displacement for nearly ten years. In 2018, another offensive resulted in the murder of Saw O Moo, Ler Mu Plaw's most prominent environmental activist. Since 2021, the escalation of fighting has caused, once again, a wave of massive displacement in Mutraw District and the disruption of people's farming activities. While some displaced families have been able to return to their villages in time, hoping to plant their crops, others have no option but to rely on humanitarian aid along the Myanmar-Thai border to survive. Ler Mu Plaw, Karen State, November 2022.

"The mother advised us to save the seed of the taro. The father advised us to save the seed of the yam. If we save up to thirty kinds of seeds, our lives will be sustained in times of crisis," says a well-known Karen poem, recited orally by the elders to the youth as a way of passing down their indigenous knowledge. For millennia, local communities in the Salween Basin have practiced rotational agriculture with numerous vegetable crops. Ideally, this method uses the land for one year and then leaves it fallow for seven to ten years before using it again to enable the soil to recover. But climate change, land shortage, and armed conflict in the past decades have been gradually pressuring farmers to reduce agricultural cycles from two to five years resulting in soil degradation and the loss of pristine forests. Saw Mu Plaw, Karen State, November 2022.

As the sun goes down, Saw Christ Baw, 45, crafts a bamboo basket inside his house. Bamboo is essential to the culture of local communities, who rely on this material for diverse aspects of daily life, such as constructing their homes and domestic utensils, conducting ritual ceremonies, and using traditional medicine, among other practices. Hee Poe Der, Karen State, July 2022.

After three months of training in the jungles of Karen State, Free Burma Rangers embark on a relief mission to aid civilians affected by the escalating war in Myanmar’s ethnic borderlands. Yunzalin River, Karen State, January 2022.

Saw Ta Day, and his wife Naw Paw Say, hide inside a bunker with their children as the Myanmar military conducts airstrikes in Dae Pu Noh, Karen State, July 2022.

An animist community offers rice alcohol to K’sah nature spirits during the Ta Bo Law Ter Ra Law ceremony. “We ask the spirits to protect our country and indigenous culture,” says Saw Shan Nay Moo. “We pray for the heart of the Myanmar military to change.” Traditionally, local communities have held the animist ceremony at least twice a year to protect peoples and lands against the dangers of climate change, conflict, and disease. However, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the escalating conflict since the coup in 2021, they are now holding it every month. Loh Koh, Karen State, November 2022.

Daw Lar Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Karen State, lies in an area under the control of the Myanmar military, only eighty kilometers downstream from the Hatgyi Dam site - one of five large dams proposed along the free-flowing Salween River. In 2013, after the state government sought to grant the lake as a concession to a private company for commercial fishing, local communities, who had been sustainably managing the area over generations, came together to warn of the potential impacts and to assert their customary rights to their lands. Their mobilization successfully prevented the lake from becoming privatized and served as the initial step of an ongoing “Community-Based Water Governance Project,” aimed at strengthing local stewardship against future threats. Hpa-An, Karen State, May 2019.

In 2019, over 100 hectares of land belonging to ten different families were suddenly confiscated by the Kayin Border Guard Force and the private company Yatai International Holdings Group for them to develop a joint economic project in Karen State known as Shwe Kokko. The US$15 billion new city, popularly dubbed “Chinatown” because of its mainly private Chinese financing and workforce, has sparked widespread controversy due to the social impacts on forcibly displaced local communities, as well as as a crime hub of illicit activities such as online gambling, human trafficking, and money laundering. Shwe Kokko, Karen State, February 2023.

Saw Chi, a villager from Meh Kaw Law, Dwelo Township, stands in his destroyed rice field, after being bombed by a Myanmar military airstrike. On that day, January 4, 2022, another eight bombs were dropped in the area injuring three people and forcing all the villagers to flee to the jungle. Meh Kaw Law, Karen State, January 2022.

A baptism ceremony is held on the banks of the Pwe Lo Kloh (Yunzalin) river. According to Karen folklore, in the past, the Karen once possessed a book of knowledge, which Y’wa, the creator, had taken out of their hands and given to Pu Dee Wah, their younger white brother. The prophecy said that one day, Pu Dee Wah, who had left with the book, would return to give it back to their oldest brother and share with him the lost words of god. With the arrival of Christian missionaries to Karen territory in the 1800s, waves of conversions proliferated, and Karen evangelism developed with unprecedented success during British rule. The first Karen script, flourishing churches, and distinguished schools would give birth to a modern educated class of Christian Karens who revitalized their ethnic consciousness throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1881, they formed the first political organization in modern Burma - the Karen National Association, the predecessor of the contemporary Karen National Union. Since then, Christianity has been central to the Karen struggle for self-determination. Dae Pu Noh, Karen State, January 2022.

A primary school and a church in Ta Baw Kor Der village stand in ruins after an airstrike attack by the Myanmar army on November 9, 2022. 

Due to the intensification of fighting in Luthaw township, northern Karen State, students from Tha Nu Chet La school shelter in temporary classrooms built in the middle of the jungle. Tha Nu Chet La is the only school in Mutraw District to include a cultural curriculum that celebrates and educates traditional beliefs and practices. In addition to the ordinary school subjects, the elders and teachers pass on their indigenous knowledge of weaving, artisanal handicrafts, and Karen traditional poetry to the younger generations. Karen State, December 2022.

Kaw is a word in S’gaw Karen that means "country". Kaw is also the Karen indigenous land management system. A territory governed according to the history, culture, and beliefs of each particular community. Some Kaw are small and include only a single village, while others may extend hundreds of square kilometers and include several villages. Although individual families own paddy fields and gardens, most land in a Kaw is communally managed following social taboos and ritual obligations to K’Sah nature spirits that guide people's relationship with the environment. Por Lau Pi Lin, Karen State, November 2022.

Paw Kee, 35, weaves Karen traditional clothing inside her house in Hee Poe Der, Karen State, July 2022.

Following the coup, hundreds of young people involved in the resistance against the Myanmar military fled their towns to receive Free Burma Ranger training in the forests of Karen State. The 198 rangers who graduated in 2021 made up the largest class in the history of the multi-ethnic humanitarian movement, which is dedicated to human rights documentation, providing relief and emergency medical care to displaced people in Myanmar's conflict zones. Dae Pu Noh, Karen State, January 2022.

Saw La Shwe Moo is one of the custodians of the Kheshorter Community Forest, an ecological, social, and spiritual sanctuary for Karen indigenous people encompassing 14,604 acres in the Salween basin. Building on their ancestral knowledge of the ecosystem and social taboos against hunting and farming, local communities formally established the Kheshorter to conserve its rich biodiversity in the aftermath of a major offensive by the Myanmar military in the late 1990s that forced them to take refuge in this sacred site for almost ten years. At the time, internally displaced populations overused natural resources to survive, causing significant deforestation, and so they established regulations to ensure their shared and sustainable management. Kheshorter, Karen State, December 2021.

Photographer's Statement: 
My work explores the connections between environmental conservation, armed conflict, and cultural survival in Karen State, Southeast Myanmar. A region where I've spent most of my time since beginning my career as a documentary photographer in 2018. Over the years, the events I've witnessed, the people I've met, and the stories I've documented have taught me invaluable lessons on critical issues, ranging from our human relationship with nature, community development, spirituality, ethics, and the photographic medium itself. Through my work, I intend to share some of these lessons and address the value of the critically endangered heritage of the Karen people, hoping to contribute to ongoing conversations about indigenous sovereignty and inspire audiences to question their own ideas, practices, and environments in society.
For generations, Myanmar has been mired in a multi-faceted crisis fuelled by prolonged political struggles, armed conflict, racial discrimination, and rapid socio-economic changes — recently exacerbated after the 2021 military coup. Yet, one critical issue that I believe is often overlooked is a crisis of representation. The pro-democracy movement of the Bamar majority population led by Aung San Suu Kyi against the Myanmar military has been the main story being told domestically and across borders over the last three decades. In fact, most of the country’s challenges and solutions have been sought in this movement. But little interest has been paid to the struggles of ethnic minorities living in the borderlands, which have played a significant role in the social, economic, and political landscape, especially in the ongoing civil war that has been raging since the country became independent in 1948. While the massive exodus of the Rohingya people captured worldwide attention in the past years leading up to the coup, mainstream media coverage of these events has been almost entirely dominated by victimhood narratives focusing on the immediate consequences of war. Rather than contributing to a greater understanding of the causes of state oppression and the values of local communities affected, I believe these narratives risk reducing people's complex identities and experiences by only portraying them as refugees, victims, or stateless.
"The search for more dramatic images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become the primary source of value and stimulus for consumption," expresses Susan Sontag in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others.
My long-term project Pwa K’Nyaw, Seeds of Resilience is motivated by a sense of urgency to fill in these gaps while addressing the negativity bias in the media imagery of the conflict to provide a more in-depth and diverse record of the Myanmar crisis, with a particular interest in the Karen struggle for self-determination. By adopting this reporting perspective, I am not focusing solely on the problem –on the atrocity– but also on the response, on how local populations overcome trauma, insecurity, and devastation through an extraordinary resilience rooted in their ancestral relationship with their lands. Even though the project started as a traditional feature reportage, as I have become increasingly dedicated to understanding the complexities of this region and the unique worldviews of Karen communities, it has since evolved into a visual anthropological exploration embodying a form of storytelling based on research by combining several mediums, including photography, extensive interviewing, audio recordings, and ethnographic materials.
MatiasBercovich's picture

Matias Bercovich was born in 1995 in Barcelona, Spain, into a family line of photographers. Growing up surrounded by images, he developed a passion for photography from an early age. Between 2013 and 2017, he delved into the formal study of visual storytelling through programs in Argentina and Spain and also by following his BA in Photography at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Netherlands. In 2018, he moved to Myanmar, where he has been working ever since on a long-term multimedia project that focuses on the links between environmental conservation, ethnic conflict, and cultural survival in Karen State.


His work has been published in international media outlets such as Al Jazeera, Clarín, Photo District News (PDN) and Frontier Magazine among others. In 2020, he was nominated by the World Press Photo Foundation for the Joop Swart Masterclass and awarded by the National Geographic Society with an Exploration Grant. In parallel with his personal documentary work, Matias has a strong interest in education and since 2017 has been teaching aspiring photographers, visual journalists, and social activists through storytelling workshops in Spain and Myanmar, both independently and in collaboration with non-profit and community-based organizations.