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Burma’s hidden diaspora

North-west of Bangkok near the Thai–Burma border lies the seemingly quiet town of Mae Sot. Below the surface, Mae Sot pulsates with the presence of illegal immigrants from Burma, gem traders from India and NGO workers. For the past 20 years, indigenous Karen people fleeing into Thailand from Burma have used Mae Sot as a congregation point and have established refugee camps nearby.

Many in the camps remember entering Thailand in the late 1980s after fleeing the Burmese military. Some of the children born in the camp to those new arrivals are now in their late teens.

For many years life seemed to stand still in the camps. One day drifted listlessly and hopelessly into the next. People in the camps got no support from the United Nations unless they were registered persons (eligible for resettlement in the West), but at least there was the security of food, shelter, some schooling and some hospital facilities, making their plight a little less desperate than that of the other half million displaced Karen people living illegally inside Thailand.

International commentators coined the term ‘warehousing’ to describe their situation. It might be jarring, but it is nevertheless an accurate description of the conditions of incarceration that many Karen face, as do refugees elsewhere in the world.

Now the refugees’ situation is changing. Western countries are raising hopes of resettlement so that families can start new lives. Several temporary aid organisations have set up in Mae Sot hoping to ease the human problems brought on by Burma’s civil war. During this period the Karen have fought to keep their land, Karen State, ravaged by the government’s Burmanisation policy that aimed to eradicate the communal life of the country’s ethnic nationalities (40 per cent of the population). Villages were desecrated, and thousands of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) either escaped into the jungle or were herded into relocation camps.

The story is one that has to be heard. My own frequent visits to the Thai–Burma border focus largely on supporting Anglican communities in and outside the camps. It’s not enough to read occasionally in the press that Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. So much more needs to be said, especially about the plight of the ethnic people. The work of the artist Maung Maung Tinn illustrates much about the situation. He lives at Dr Cynthia’s Clinic just outside Mae Sot, where Karen victims of land mines, the war-wounded, pregnant women and those suffering HIV/AIDS and malaria come for treatment.

His paintings of IDPs are now being sold in the United States and Europe, the proceeds assisting the work of the clinic. One is of a small family group huddled together on the bamboo floor of a temporary shelter in Karen State. The dominant colours of bright yellow, green and purple are incongruous given the desperate scene: a young mother lies exhausted on the floor, probably after having searched for berries or any other food she can scour from the jungle; the grandmother comforts a baby in her arms and a young boy sits gazing into the distance, looking lost and longing to find hope.

Refugee communities are by definition temporary, and structured around emergency and relief needs. Rice, fish paste, oil and bamboo are supplied each month by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium. A hospital serves each camp and there are schools to year-10 level as well as camp section committees that report to the Thai authorities. Productive activity that requires equipment or the use of land has always been forbidden; boredom and frustration are pervasive. More than 120,000 people have been crowded into these camps. Until recently nothing permanent was allowed, such as laying a concrete floor, yet quietly over the past few years some microeconomies have emerged: vertical horticulture (growing pumpkins on thatched roofs), small weaving industries, a row of shops, and some (unofficial) forms of youth education and training.

While the camps will continue largely as they are, a couple of significant changes are being proposed. The Thai government is recognising the long-term plight of the refugees and is considering providing opportunities for further youth education. Information technology could become an everyday part of camp life.

Another change is to do with resettlement. In the past 12 months several Western countries have turned their attention to the refugee warehouses. The first faltering steps to peace between Burma’s ruling junta and the democratic groups ground to a halt late in 2004, when the military leadership deposed the Prime Minister, Khin Nyunt, and imprisoned him along with many government officials. One major response of the West has been to step up resettlement efforts, and hundreds of Karen families have been moved to other countries. Australia’s intake of Burmese citizens had virtually stopped for years, but last year the intake of Karen people was 200, with probably more this year. The US is taking many more.

The decision to apply for resettlement in another country is a difficult matter for the community-minded Karen. One family recently came to Melbourne after many years of hoping and waiting for a visa. Standing inside their new western suburbs home, they wept for friends they had to leave behind in the camp.

The concept of worldwide diaspora, unimaginable in the past, is now familiar to Karen leaders. The eight million Karen of Burma’s population of 40 million had their own state in Burma until 1997 when the Karen army headquarters fell and the tables turned in what is considered the world’s longest civil war. As well as refugee Karen people resettling in other countries, there is the build-up of an internal diaspora, the IDPs who remain inside Burma. Small cross-border programs are sprouting up in an urgent effort to help them.
Now leaders of Karen communities throughout the world are pondering these realities with feelings of disempowerment and determination. So much has changed in the 20 years since thousands fled their homeland that it is difficult for them to know where to start rebuilding and preparing for a new Burma.

Part of the answer is to focus energies on the Thai-Burma border. NGOs and community-based organisations have been working in the frontier region for many years as small but strong contributors. The Karen Women’s Organisation is such a group; last year it sent representatives to Australia to publicise its work documenting many recent cases of Karen women being raped by Burmese soldiers.

Paradoxically, the warehousing might turn out to be a small blessing. Government restrictions within Burma make it difficult for aid organisations to develop training programs in that country; the exodus to the West of refugees with skills gives ‘all the more reason to develop resources there’, according to an officer from the Thailand Burma Border Consortium. The Australian Government understands these matters and is considering possible assistance.

The Karen people’s concerns are for their young. They speak of their hope for a future Burma: a peaceful land, a revived rice bowl of Asia. There are parallels with East Timor where, in the years before independence, life had become so much a matter of survival that it was difficult to sustain training and education. The Karen, despite the difficulties, must commit to preparing and training to build a civil society; their unity will help maintain this focus, whether they are living on the Thai-Burma border or in diaspora. In the meantime, the IDPs are scarcely managing to survive within the isolated areas of Karen State.

Ron Browning is an Anglican priest who has worked with the Karen people of Burma for several years.



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