INDIGENOUS and environmental activist Saw O Moo was reportedly killed in Karen State, Burma (Myanmar) on April 5.
According to the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), Saw O Moo, who worked with KESAN as a “local community partner,” had attended a community meeting that day to help organise humanitarian aid for villagers displaced by renewed hostilities between Burma’s military and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an armed ethnic group.
Despite a nationwide ceasefire agreement signed in October 2015, recent hostilities between the two sides are said to have displaced as many as 2,300 local people.
Saw O Moo was reportedly returning to his home in Ler Mu Plaw village by motorbike when he offered a ride to a soldier of the KNLA who was assigned to provide security for Karen civilians in the Ler Mu Plaw area. “At 5:20 PM, just as the two men were nearing Saw O Moo’s home in Ler Mu Plaw, they were ambushed and shot at by Burma Army soldiers at a place called Wah Klo Hta on the edge of the T’Ri Plaw plain,” KESAN reports.
According to The Irrawaddy, the Burmese military has denied any wrongdoing in the killing of Saw O Moo and claimed he was in fact a rebel fighter and that he had grenades on his person. The Irrawaddy reports that, in a statement released early Wednesday, the military says its troops “shot at two fleeing plainclothes men who were suspected of being involved in sabotage attacks and planting mines,” and that the troops had “captured one of the men dead.”
The Irrawaddy also reports that Saw O Moo’s family has not been allowed to retrieve the community leader’s body, and that soldiers have fired upon anyone attempting to do so.
A tribute to Saw O Moo posted by KESAN notes that:
Since 2006, he worked as a local community partner with the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network. Saw O Moo will be remembered for his life-long passion and commitment to preserving Indigenous Karen cultural traditions, promoting customary land stewardship, and leading local community forest conservation activities as the Luthaw Paw Day Community Forest Coordinator.
In his roles as Indigenous Wildlife Researcher and Kheshorter Community Forest Committee Advisor, Saw O Moo worked tirelessly to protect some of the last intact old-growth forest and endangered species habitat remaining in Burma. On August 9, 2017, Saw O Moo travelled to Yangon to help launch the Kheshorter Community Forest Documentary in commemoration of World Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Saw O Moo was also one of the most active local community leaders in the Salween Peace Park, a grassroots initiative to create a 5,400-sq. km Indigenous Karen reserve in Mutraw District. Saw O Moo was a member of the Salween Peace Park Committee and firmly believed in its vision for peace, biodiversity conservation, and cultural preservation.
Despite the decades of conflict in the region, the Salween River Basin is “one of Asia-Pacific’s most biodiverse ecoregions,” home to species like the Asiatic black bear, sun bear, eastern hoolock gibbon, and Sunda pangolin, Demelza Stokes reported for Mongabay in 2016. Karen leaders like Saw O Moo have joined with local people and NGOs in calling for the creation of Salween Peace Park, envisioned as an indigenous-led protected area.
“For us as Indigenous people, the Salween Peace Park represents our deepest desires and needs,” Saw O Moo said at a public consultation meeting in December 2017.
“Saw O Moo’s death is yet another casualty of ongoing fighting that has broken out between the Burma Army and the Karen National Liberation Army,” KESAN said in a statement.
“Since the fighting began on March 4th, over 2,300 villagers have been forced to flee their homes. Saw O Moo could have followed his wife and children into hiding in the forest, but he chose to remain at his home in Ler Mu Plaw to protect his people from the attacking Burma Army soldiers. For KESAN staff and all Indigenous Karen people of Mutraw, Saw O Moo’s death is an unspeakable tragedy. We will never forget his dedication in the ongoing struggle to build peace and protect ancestral lands.”
This article originally appeared on Mongabay.