After a presentation by a group of people who just returned from Burma in February, I’m reminded again of my experiences working with the Karen people of Burma and Burma Issues in Thailand in 2004.
On the international stage, it’s more commonly known as Myanmar, but anyone interested in human rights and concerned about the ongoing, slow and painful ethnic genocide happening inside the country, continue to call it by its rightful name – Burma.
In the six weeks I spent volunteering at Burma Issues, I got to know a little bit about the Burma situation through those I met who’d fled the country.
Over Nescafe and fake Oreos Hsa Mu Lah told me how she and her family left Burma’s Karen State when she was quite young. She rmemebers a lot of walking, people sick with malaria, some people sho were killed on the journey to Thailand, and finally, crossing out of Burma.
It isn’t easy for refugees once they’re in the safety of Thai soil either. The Karen people are the only Burmese ethnic minority recognized as refugees by the Thai government. Any other groups of people, Shan, Wa, etc, stick to illegal refugee camps sometimes inches across the border and still in danger of attack by the Burmese army, or of being sent back across the border (to certain death) by Thai officials.
Burma isn’t an easy country to understand. I remember asking a official at Foreign Affairs Canada why the government has taken a stronger and more vocal stance towards China and its human rights abuses, than Burma. He looked at me and said, “Burma is a really difficult case,” he told me.
Since its independence from the British, Burma’s turbulent history has been marked with ethnic strife and communist undertones. An army coup in 1962 spiraled the country into a military-dominated regime that would last for the nearly 30 years. With no free elections, no freedom of expression and association, and resistance to the regime severely punished, emotions and frustrations were beginning to flare.
That frustration culminated in a series of 1988 pro-democracy rallies . The largest rally would later be called the 8888 Uprising, held on August 8, 1988.
The military crushed the demonstrations, firing into the crowds. Martial law was promptly instituted.
In 1989 the government changed the country’s name to Myanmar, to symbolize in part, a great move forward. The climax to the economic reforms, was the country’s first democratic elections in several decades. In May 1990, the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory.
The military, however, wouldn’t let the NLD convene for parliament, and continued to house Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She was released for a short time in 1991, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but is still at the mercy of the Burma’s military government.
And that’s only part of the problem! The other half of the Burma equation are its minority groups. There are a couple of dozen minority groups in Burma all with distinct cultures, language, and a desire for land. Some even have their own armies, like the Karen State and the Shan State armies.
This doesn’t bode well for the government of Burma who tend to crush any opposition.
Minority tribes live in a constant state of fear. The military is known to enter villages, torch and burn homes and barns, rape women, force boys and men to join the army and use anyone they can find for forced labour. It sounds impossible, even outrageous, but it does continue to happen.
It’s a slow and quiet genocide that has caugh the attention of such groups as Human Rights Watch and even the United Nations. There is seemingly, however, NO political will to do anything to stop it. There are simply too many stories like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Darfur to pay attention to something that’s quieter but just as serious.
For more information about Burma and its ongoing conflicts, check out:
- Human Rights Watch
- Karen Human Rights Group
- Burma Issues
- United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, Burma
- Free Burma Rangers
- The Irrawaddy News Magazine