In this guest blog, Program Officer Lindsey Freedman shares her experience traveling to Chiang Mai, Thailand, in March 2020, to meet with 2020 Prize winner Paul Sein Twa. Paul led his Indigenous Karen people in establishing a 1.35-million-acre peace park in the biodiverse Salween River basin in Myanmar. In February 2021, a military junta staged a coup d’état and seized control of the government of Myanmar. Since then, the regime has terrorized the Karen people and others, bombing the Salween Peace Park and using force to subjugate ethnic minorities and critics of the regime. It is within this context that Paul and his community are fighting for the future of both the Peace Park and of Myanmar.
By Lindsey Freedman
One of the things I love most about being a program officer at the Goldman Environmental Prize is meeting the Prize recipients for the first time. I had researched Paul for nearly four months, learning about the nuanced history of the Karen people and the complex geopolitical tensions in the region. But, despite my rigorous research, many aspects of his story remained complex and even opaque. After several months of planning, I was finally going to hear Paul’s story in his own words.
In early March, I left San Francisco for Chiang Mai, Thailand. Although the Salween Peace Park is actually located in Myanmar, I chose to meet Paul in KESAN’s Thailand office. Since my trips as a program officer usually take me to very cold and very frozen locations (like Mongolia during January), I was especially excited to travel to warm and sunny Thailand.
Paul and I met at restaurant on the outskirts of the Chiang Mai. Over endless plates of delicious food, we talked about the history of the Karen people, the conflict in Myanmar, China’s economic clout in the region, and more. We talked for so long that the restaurant started turning off the lights—our cue to leave!
The next night, I joined Paul at a party to celebrate the Karen New Year. Everyone was incredibly kind and welcoming—food, drinks, and music just kept coming. Although many of the partygoers had fled awful violence, oppression, and ethnic persecution in Myanmar, I was struck by their positivity. Big smiles were everywhere and the party was overflowing with laughter and good cheer. The celebration continued long into the night. I returned to my hotel full of good food and happiness.
Regretfully, my happiness was short lived. During the few days I was in Thailand, the coronavirus outbreak had significantly increased. As I planned my departure, I received a notification that my flight home was canceled. All available flights back to the U.S. were quickly selling out, and alternate routes were simultaneously shutting down. It became clear that I needed to get out of Asia as soon as possible.
I spent the next two days frantically dealing with endless logistics. Ultimately, I made it home unscathed, although disappointed that the virus had curtailed my time Paul.
While waiting in the crowded customs line at San Francisco International Airport, I began to reflect on my visit with Paul. I have profound respect for this remarkable man. Despite the hardships he and the Karen people have suffered, Paul’s character remains constant. He is gentle and kind. His smile absolutely lights up the room. And he has helped create the Salween Peace Park, a powerful reminder that peace and conservation can prevail even under the most trying of circumstances.
During this difficult time in Myanmar, it is critical that the global community supports the Peace Park, KESAN, and Paul and his colleagues, who have long sought peace, conservation, and coexistence among the many diverse groups of Myanmar.