The Story of Gyaw Gyaw

Line Ramstad is a Norwegian Landscape Architect, with an additional bachelor Degree in Anthropology and Geography. After 5 years of work practice in private Norwegian architect office, Agraff as, she founded Tyin Barnehjem together with two architect students. The goal was to explore possibilities for use of architecture in development work. By chance they met a Norwegian who ran an orphanage for Karen children on the Thai/Burma border. Design and construction of new dormitories for his orphanage became a case for their study.

The orphanage is situated in a village named Noh Bo on the Thai side of the border. It’s a migrant village with mainly paperless Karen refugees who has fled the Burmese army’s constant attacks and eventually decided to cross the river to Thailand.

Since paid work is rare, “the whole village” signed up for the Norwegian project and progress escalated rapidly. The dormitories, later known as “The Butterfly Houses”, were designed and constructed in half a year. The orphanage had also got better-suited outdoor areas that additionally will prevent the site from further erosion. In cooperation with NTNU, the team also arranged a workshop for the university’s architect students, resulting in a library for Safe Haven Orphanage. When this was accomplished, the two students decided to move on. Line decided to stay.

Phillipa, Peter and Pah Me had all been day labor on the dormitory and library projects. They invited Line to accompany them and together they started out as construction workers for other NGOs in the area.

The most used terminology in between them, as well as from others, was: Gyaw Gyaw – slowly, take it easy, step by step.

After a year on the border, Line went back to Norway as planned, but instead of going back to normal Norwegian life, she quit her job, sold her apartment and made Gyaw Gyaw a registered organization. She also signed the first sponsor programs, sponsors that have faithfully followed the team ever since.

With sponsors on board, the team was finally in a position to build projects based on their own philosophy: Sustainable architecture with a basis on local knowledge and materials, with a strong focus on function and climate adaptation. With both locals and a foreigner in the team, Gyaw Gyaw could also introduce new techniques and alternative use of existing materials. As long as it was done small steps at a time, and in close cooperation and a mutual understanding with the village representatives and future users.

One of the biggest steps was the introduction of adobe as building materials. This is locally produced sun dried earthen blocks. In comparison with concrete, the most used alternative to traditional timber and bamboo construction, it is both cheaper and more ecologically, economically and culturally sustainable. Thick adobe walls also keep inside temperatures more stable and in combination with natural ventilation the results are comfortable good spaces, perfect for learning.

Since the beginning, Gyaw Gyaw has collaborated with all aspects of the society where they live and work. The church, the monastery, military and refugees have all been their cooperation partners, and the village in general now embraces them and promotes their work. This opens doors to new projects and gives them the opportunity to spread their knowledge, philosophy and democratic examples, to an increasing number of new areas.

Line, Phillipa, Peter and Pah Me are still going strong. On the team are another 7 proud Karen colleagues and a Norwegian one. In every project they also hire local workers who get income for their families, contribute to a common knowledge exchange and secure ownership to the building for future maintenance. Gyaw Gyaw has also done two cooperating projects with Agora architects situated in Mae Sot, and they have designed and built two projects with BGET (Border Green Energy Team), that are also locally based. A recent collaboration with local CBO Solbakken is also initiated. With a similar sustainable approach, they provide electricity and water access/clean drinking water to the projects, and complement the work of Gyaw Gyaw in a beneficial way for both the organizations and the projects.

With an exception of a two weeks workshop every year, Gyaw Gyaw don’t take international interns or volunteers,

After all these years, Line is better integrated in the community and her colleagues are more used to a different cultural understanding, but the cross-cultural combination is still a winning concept. The local knowledge and ties are priceless when it comes to local affiliation and culturally determined use of the buildings, while the western architectural knowledge can question the established truths, suggest small changes and show architectural examples from other places in the world.

Gyaw Gyaw, slowly, step by step, project by project, the team is gaining knowledge, acceptance and confidence, the projects are simplified and strengthened and the democratic aspect is steadily becoming a bigger part of their job. It’s an everlasting development, both internally and in cooperation with the society around them, but the road has only just begun.

And this is the framework we are working within:

Situation on the border today

For updates on the situation in Burma, and for the Karen in particular: Bertil Lintner, Burma Link, The Irrawaddy, Karen News, Democratic Voice of Burma, Asia Times, Myanmar Times

History

The Karen independence movement in Burma can be dated to the late 19th century, with the formation in 1881 of the Karen National Association.

Early Karen nationalists were influenced in particular by the American Baptist Mission. Through provision of Christian education, a pan-Karen national identity emerged and was developed during the first half of the 20th century. Burman nationalists regarded elites within the Karen minority as favored by the colonial administration, laying the seeds for conflict during the 2nd World War and the post-independence period.

The Karen National Union (KNU) was established one year before Burma gained their independence from United Kingdom, in February 1947.

Having failed to reach a political agreement with the newly independent government, the KNU went underground on January 31st 1949 at the battle of Insein; this date has since been celebrated by the KNU as ‘Revolution Day’. The revolutionary feelings were sparked by the grievances felt by Karen communities as a result of massive abuses perpetrated by predominantly Burman militias during World War II and afterwards, and the strongly-held nature of Karen aspirations for national self-determination.

 

By supporting the Allies during the 2nd World War, the Karen where promised their independence in the aftermath of the war. But the collapse of the British Empire did not bring the promised independence.

For much of the next half century, the KNU operated as a de facto government, controlling large swathes of territory across Karen State, and adjacent parts of the Bago, Yoma highlands and Irrawaddy Delta, where many Karens live. After some early successes however, from the early 1950s the KNU was fighting a protracted rearguard operation. By the 1990s, it had lost control of most of its once-extensive ‘liberated zones’, although the organization still exerted varying degrees of influence over areas contested with government forces and proxy militias. The decline of the KNU was exacerbated by the defection in late 1994 of several hundred battle-hardened soldiers, who established the government-allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and shortly afterwards overran the KNU’s long-standing headquarters at Manerplaw. This was a huge setback to both the KNU and the loose alliances of pro-democracy organizations it sheltered along the Thailand border.

Refugees

Over the decades of fighting, severe violations of crimes of war, and crimes against humanity have been widely documented.

Many Karen still live in a climate of fear, and despite recent changes, the Burmese government has failed to seriously address the human rights situation and to take action to prosecute those responsible for the abuse.

The Burmese army has been responsible for numerous serious war crimes, including deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, summary executions of civilians, sexual violence against women and girls, torture, use of child soldiers, attacks on populations’ livelihood and food supplies, forced displacement, and use of anti-personnel landmines. In fact, almost all the acts enumerated under Article 7 of the Rome Statute have been repeatedly documented by various independent sources, including both NGOs and human rights organizations as well as the United Nations.

 

Burmese military has employed counter-insurgency strategies that deliberately target the civilian population in attempts to demobilise support for armed opposition groups. A number of organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have characterized these strategies as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

As a result of the systematic attacks on ethnic minority civilians, around three million people are thought to have fled their home country. Due to the close proximity, hundreds of thousands have fled conflict and persecution in eastern Burma to neighboring Thailand. Approximately 120.000 refugees live in the 9 camps scattered along the border. Countless others live in small refugee villages by the border. Noh Bo is one of these refugee villages.

The refugees have the option to stay within the registered camps, without the freedom to neither move nor work, or do as many of them do; live as illegal aliens, without any sort of legal status, risking harassment, arrests and deportation to live and work outside the camps.

Steps towards democracy

In November 2010, Burma held its first election since 1990 when the military refused to hand over power to the democratically elected government. The international community assessed the 2010 election as neither being free nor fair due to an array of flaws. Nevertheless, the military-backed USDP officially won over 75% of the vote and a nominally civilian government, mainly made up of former generals, took office in March 2011. A former general Thein Sein was elected as the President.

The April 2012 by-elections in Burma received an unusual amount of attention from international media, mostly due to the fact that only a few years ago it was considered almost impossible that Aung San Suu Kyi would not only be released from house arrest,  but also be allowed to contest for a seat in the Parliament. Suu Kyi`s party National League for Democracy (NLD) contested, and won 42 of the 43 open seats in the by-election, with Suu Kyi taking one of the seats.

 

Nevertheless, NLD only won about 6% of the seats in Parliament and no real change in power occurred. One should remember that the 2008 Constitution secures 25% of the Parliamentary seats to the military, whilst the Constitution can only be changed with a 75% majority.

The election in November 2015 resulted in a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD, despite the generals and current administration doing their best to limit NLDs political platform. 60 % of the registered votes was won by NLD, while 35 %  of the votes went to different ethnic minority parties. The current government only received  5 % of the votes. The result is yet another crystal clear indication of what we have all know for a long time: The current regime ha no legitimacy in the public opinion.

On March 15 2016, Htin Kyaw from NLD was chosen as the county`s first civilian president in 53 years.