KAREN STATE, MYANMAR —
As most of Myanmar’s [also known as Burma's] ethnic armies maintain a fragile ceasefire with the government, some of the troops were able to let off a little steam, World Cup-style. A peace initiative is aimed at building trust between the opposing sides of one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.
In Myanmar’s Karen state, rival armies met up recently in what was expected to be a major clash.
But on this day, government troops and breakaway factions of the ethnic Karen army battled for the ball in a friendly football [soccer] game. In a country ravaged by more than 60 years of civil wars, organizing the match was no small task, said one of the Karen rebel commanders, Saw Nay So Mya.
“This event has made me proud of myself because this is not easy to see what has happened today. Every group still mistrusts each other and does not trust Myanmar government," said Saw Nay So Mya.
Decades of fighting have created deep divisions between military authorities and many of the armed ethnic groups. Events like this are aimed at building confidence on both sides, said Karen fighter Saw Eh Tha.
“I’m a Karen soldier from battalion 737. Today we are came to play football for peace. We are having fun and talked to each other like brother and sister. We are shaking each others’ hands," said Saw Eh Tha.
With the bad blood put aside for the moment, former Premier League striker Jaan Aage Fjortoff joined in the game on neutral ground in Karen state as a spokesman for a Norwegian peace initiative, Handshakes for Peace, which sponsored the event.
“I think that the great thing about football and sport is that we can reach a bit longer than the politicians where the politicians have to go the diplomatic way, we can just go there and play football as today with the different ethnic groups and have fun," said Fjortoff.
In the weeks since the game was played, reports of sporadic fighting in Karen state and other parts of the country have marred the peace-building process. As the August deadline for a nation-wide cease-fire draws near, it appears not everyone is yet ready to play on the same team.