The Karen are the second biggest ethnic group in Myanmar. After World War II, Burma was granted independence from Britain. The Karen people had been loyal to the British and fought with the alliance during the war. Among other minorities, they were promised their own state, and Kaw Thoo Lei (The Land without Evil) was founded, but the Karen people never received sovereignty. Suffering oppression and violence from the Myanmar government, the Karen fled south to the Thai border. Though they can claim refugee status in Thailand, they have no rights and face the constant threat of arrest and return to Myanmar. Further, because of discrimination, educational opportunities and paid work are hard to find.
Gyaw Gyaw was co-founded by Norwegian landscape architect Line Ramstad and villagers from the remote Karen village of Noh Bo in 2008. Ramstad visited Noh Bo as part of a short -term architectural project, then when the project was finished she decided to stay and work in partnership with local villagers – a collective that would eventually become Gyaw Gyaw.
Ramstad didn’t start the organization with a set vision, nor did she have a particular building style in mind. Gyaw Gyaw’s development has been organic, governed by a few general principles: source locally, involve everyone, take it step by step. Their work is deliberately small scale, and the budget is a mere $60,000 annually by choice.
Gyaw Gyaw’s work promotes a combination of both traditional and contemporary building methods. This design choice is intended to show viable alternatives to the NGO model of primarily concrete buildings, both physically and socially. By creating the knowledge, materials and tools for Karen villagers to make their own buildings, Gyaw Gyaw has developed a program that reduces dependency on foreign aid and allows a stateless people to put down their own roots.
With Line moving her base to Norway in 2017, Gyaw Gyaw was in need of additional architectural expertise. Daniel Evensen and Jae-Young Lee are both architects with thorough knowledge, and previous work experience, from the border area. Paw Eh Wah is now leading the organization and is the bridge between the designers and the team.
We had an opportunity to have an extended conversation with Line on our podcast, Social Design Insights. Listen to the episodes below.