Monday, July 20, 2009

Burma II

Here's the second installment of articles on Burma. The novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, that I refered to in my previous post, is set "among" a small group of the Karen people who reside in the jungles, hiding from the junta who accuse them of being/harboring insurrectionists. The novel appears to mirror pretty exactly the situation of the Karen as represented in recent news articles. Below are a couple of articles/reports about the issue, including the implications of the Karen as refugees and stateless peoples.

The last piece, provocatively titled "Burma's Gaza," is about the conflict surrounding the status of the Rohingya, a Muslims ethnic minority in Burma.

(Photo: Getty Images)

New Delhi (mizzima) - Over 500 villagers from eastern Burma’s Karen state have fled their homes and are hiding in the jungles as military offensives by the joint Burmese Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a break-away Karen ethnic armed group, increases, a new report said.

The Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a group helping Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in its latest report on Friday said, at least 500 villagers from Mone Township of Nyaunglebin District in Karen State have fled their homes and three men have died while hiding in the jungle.

“The 500 villagers, who were now in hiding, have not been able to carry enough food and are facing shortages,” said the FB report.

Tha Do Moe, a member of the FBR told Mizzima on Monday that the military operation by the Burmese Army and the DKBA has not stopped in the region causing the number of IDPs hiding in the jungles to go up.

“The military campaign has never stopped. It is either a big or a small offensive. So there are increasing numbers of IDPs,” said Tha Do Moe.

He said it is impossible for the IDPs to return to their homes because, “If they [Burmese soldiers] catch them, they will be killed. So they are still hiding in the forest.”

He said, villagers who live in the regions under the control of the Burmese Army and DKBA, though they escape being killed, are faced with several rights abuses including forced labour and are used as porters. Most of their time is spent on working for the troops.

“They have marked conflict zones, and if they see anyone they are free to kill on sight. They often fire mortars into the forest where they suspect the IDPs to be hiding,” he added.

While the conflicts have caused villagers to continue fleeing, he said the fighting has got worse and more villagers are fleeing to the jungle than between 2005-2006 as the Burma’s ruling junta increases military operations in the area.

The FBR in its report said with the onset of monsoon, the IDPs are facing food shortage and are in need of proper medical care, especially the children, as the rainfall continues in the forest.

Iris, coordinator of the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP) said “The most important thing for the IDPs at the moment is medicines and food supplies.”

She said the Thai authorities have been negotiating with humanitarian groups including the International Organization for Migrants (IOM) over the future of more than 2000 Karen refugees, who have fled in June following fresh clashes between the Karen National Union’s armed wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the joint force of the Burmese Army and DKBA.

At a recent meeting held at the KNU’s 5th Brigade, the group decided that the KLNA in Mutraw District of Karen state would retaliate to the ongoing military offensives by the Burmese troops and its ally.

The KNU, which has waged over 60 years of armed struggle for self-determination, said it has decided to defend its people after reviewing that the junta “has no plans to end such attacks anytime soon.”

“The combined KNLA 5th Brigade and civilian leadership declared that it is prepared to defend the integrity and interests of Karen people at all costs, including militarily,” the KNU said in a press release on Monday.

Earlier, the KNU lost control over its 7th Brigade to the advancing Burmese Army and DKBA forces. They were forced to retreat into the jungle and can only launch guerrilla attacks. (Photo above: Dai Kurokawa)

Mutraw District’s Chairperson Saw Tender called on all Karen people to join hands with them in their fight against the enemy’s offensive.

“We hope that our people will understand our determination to fight against the SPDC’s destructive plans and that they will join hands with us in the fight against such evil,” he said, referring to the junta by its official name – State Peace and Development Council.

Calling the Shots
JULY, 2009
The Irrawaddy - VOLUME 17 NO.4

Photo: Larry Jagan/The Irrawaddy

For Karen refugees, the decision to stay or flee through the jungle to avoid clashing armies rests on the shoulders of their village leaders.

MAE SOT, Thailand — Intense fighting along Burma’s border with Thailand forced more than 4,000 Karen villagers to flee their homes and livelihood for the safety of refugee camps in Thailand in May and June.

The decision to flee rested with the village leaders—and it wasn’t an easy one.

“We are so sad to have left our village” said the leader of Ponyacho village, resting from his journey in a Thai monastery in Mae Salit. “But we had to leave. Now the fighting is more dangerous than ever.”

He recalled that as he was struggling with the decision to abandon their village, the sound of mortar and machine gun fire echoed through the mountains, which have acted as a last line of defense for the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) for more than 60 years.

Hearing the nearby gunfire, he quickly made up his mind.

The village leader ordered people to pack up what they could carry and to leave immediately. Many of the village men had been conscripted as porters in earlier armed clashes, and they were unwilling to risk capture again.

“If we stayed, we would have been forced to be porters,” said a villager who had previously carried the bed of a Burmese commander through the jungle. “The Burmese commanders want to live like kings, and they want us to live like animals.”

Villagers also feared the Burmese forces would need extra soldiers on the front line, and they would eventually be forced to participate in the fighting.

“How can the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) expect me to fight for the Burmese army and kill my Karen brothers?” asked one angry villager.

In the past, villagers conscripted by the Burmese army have been used as human mine sweepers—forced to walk in front of Burmese soldiers to set off any potential land mines.

“One Burmese soldier used me as a human shield,” said one villager. “As we advanced toward Karen soldiers, he hid behind me and held his gun over my shoulder. If anyone had fired at him, I would have surely died.”

Many of the fleeing villagers had been working hard on their farms and were waiting to enjoy their harvests. “We had been waiting for the mangoes to be ripe for eating” said the leader. “We’ve had to leave it all behind.”

Many of the Karen population retain their animist beliefs despite decades of Christian missionary work. As animists, every mountain, tree and river around a village has a name and spiritual presence.

“They have worshiped the spirits all their lives for protection” explained a Karen Youth Organization worker. “Outside of their village area, they wouldn’t know the spirits as well and for people who believe that spirits can kill, this can be terrifying.”

Some villagers hiked through the jungle for three days, traveling slowly to avoid detonating land mines planted by both sides of the conflict.

“Even if we don’t detonate a mine we are still faced with the risk of catching malaria or being bitten by a snake,” said the village leader. “When you travel with women and young babies, the decision to leave is not an easy one.”

When they finally arrived at the Moei River, the refugees crossed over on boats belonging to the KNLA’s 7th Brigade into the Thai village of Mae Salit. On arrival, they spread out, locating and staying with Karen families who had settled in the area in previous years.

They arrived in torn and ragged clothing. The Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) told the recent arrivals to congregate at a local monastery, where they were given new clothes supplied by a foreign donor and interviewed by members of various Karen organizations.

“There are so many mothers with young babies here,” said Blooming Night, joint secretary of the KWO.

“It’s not right that they should suffer in this way.”

For the children, this latest offensive will have long lasting affects on their lives. The school year had just started and all teaching material was left behind in the schools.

School children actually came under attack in Pa-an District, forcing 89 students and seven teachers to flee through the jungle. In the rush, they had no time to contact their parents. They travelled through the jungle, eventually arriving at Safe Haven Orphanage where nine children were diagnosed with malaria which they contracted on the journey. None of the children have received information about their parents’ whereabouts, or whether they are even alive.

“It’s very tragic. Most of the children’s parents have probably been taken as porters,” said Tasanee, the director of Safe Haven Orphanage, who goes by one name.

Tasanee’s mother established the orphanage in 1994 to look after children in the area who had been orphaned. Located near the Moei River, the orphanage is still close to the fighting and the sound of mortar fire often interrupts the children’s English lessons.

“When the mortars begin, the children stop singing,” said a volunteer English teacher. “They just sit there glazed over and silently terrified. They know what the noises are, and they know what they mean. Sometimes they come and hug us but mostly they just retreat within themselves. It’s like they’re shell shocked.”

The mortar fire worsened on June 10 when four rounds landed in Mae Salit, only meters from the monastery where the villagers had received aid. One round landed near Mae Salit Luang School.

Many villagers were concerned the fighting would spill over onto Thai soil. The Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) reported that a DKBA officer had sent a villager from the Ler Per Her area as a messenger to contact the recently arrived refugees. The messenger said the DKBA demanded 3,000 baht (US $100) per village to reimburse it for the cost of hiring porters to carry supplies during their offensive.

In response to the security concerns, Thai authorities have strengthened several checkpoints entering Mae Salit, and army jeeps with armed soldiers patrol the main road.

Observers say the recent clashes are designed to allow the DKBA to secure its new role as a border guard force under the Burmese army, and the KHRG reported that DKBA officials are already referring to themselves as the Border Guard Force.

If the DKBA and Burmese army succeed in their mission to eliminate the KNLA from the border area, many Karen villagers will be displaced and the survivors will be forced into refugee camps where they will be restricted for a long period of time.

Fully aware of the present dangers, the Karen villagers still managed to laugh and smile as they sat around the grounds of the Thai monastery.

“Our villagers feel lost and confused, but we are just happy to be away from the Burmese army—nothing can be as bad as living in a village under their control,” said the village leader.
“If I didn’t make the right decision, all our brothers and sisters would have perished in the village,” he said.

Burma’s Gaza?
MAR — APR, 2009
The Irrawaddy - VOLUME 17 NO.2

Citizenship and land rights are hot issues in Arakan State

MAUNGDAW, Arakan State—In a simple house on the edge of this small town near Burma’s border with Bangladesh, a Rohingya resident carefully adjusted his cheap Chinese-made radio. Six other Rohingyas also huddled around the radio, straining to hear its crackling broadcast.

“Here we go,” said 52-year-old Ahmed triumphantly. “It’s VOA reporting on what the international community is saying about the Rohingya issue. Listen carefully.”

Ahmed said he and his friends tune in nightly to Western broadcasts in the hope of hearing news about efforts by the international community and humanitarian agencies to pressure Burma’s military government to improve their living conditions.

In a teashop near Ahmed’s home, a small group of ethnic Rakhine people discussed the same issue—but from a different viewpoint. They were united in opposing any move to grant citizenship to the Rohingya people of Arakan State.

One man in his late thirties claimed the state and its majority Buddhist population would fall under the influence of Muslim Rohingyas if they became Burmese citizens. “They [Rohingyas] are like a virus,” he said.

Another man, in his early fifties, agreed. “Let’s hope the government doesn’t pay attention to international pressure,” he said. “The Rohingya are not among the 150 ethnic groups of Myanmar [Burma].”

His claim, supported by most Rakhine people and reflected in regime policy, is disputed by many scholars and historians, who trace the arrival of the Rohingyas in the Arakan region back to the eighth century.

Ethnologists say the Rohingya—far from being a homeless migrant people—are a distinct ethnic group derived from a bewildering ancestral mix of Arabs, Moors, Persians, Turks, Mughals, Pathans, Bengalis, Chakmas, Rakhine, Dutch and Portuguese.

For centuries, Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhist Rakhine people of the Arakan region lived in harmony. They enjoyed the same rights, guaranteed by the 1947 constitution and the 1948 Citizenship Acts.

Rohingyas were able to participate fully in post-colonial political life. They could vote and stand for public office in local and national elections, and they were granted Burmese passports and complete freedom of employment.

The 1962 military coup that brought Ne Win to power ended all that. Anti-Rohingya sentiments were allowed to fester. Race riots disrupted life in Arakan State.

“The Rakhine-Rohingya relationship was poisoned by the military junta,” said one moderate Rakhine historian in Maungdaw.

Denied protection by the Ne Win government and the current military regime, Rohingyas have been mercilessly exploited by many Rakhines, who are accused of treating the Muslim minority as a cheap workforce. The fiction that these dark-skinned people were illegal Bengali immigrants has been allowed to spread without much contradiction.

Discrimination against the Rohingya now permeates all levels of society in Arakan State, from local government departments to community life.

“The military government is systematically encouraging ‘divide and rule’ in our state,” said the Rakhine historian. “It can then exploit the instability it causes in order to rein in the people.”

Observers say the policy has inevitably fuelled racial tensions, leading to clashes between Rakhine residents and resentful Rohingyas.

Fear is said to reign not only in Rakhine towns and villages but also areas with Rohingya majorities—including Maungdaw Township, where more than 90 percent of the 493,000 inhabitants are Rohingya.

One other township in Arakan State has a large Rohingya majority—Buthidaung, where more than 80 percent of the 279,000 inhabitants are Rohingya. (Photo: Min Khet Maung/The Irrawaddy)

Building on Rakhine prejudice and exploiting social tensions, the current military regime has progressively tightened restrictions on the Rohingya, denying them not only citizenship but also the most basic rights.

Freedom to travel is severely curtailed, and permission has to be sought from local immigration departments for journeys even within Arakan State. Permits are issued for a maximum of 14 days.

The travel restrictions make life difficult for the Rohingya on many levels, including education. The university in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, has no faculties for medicine or engineering, meaning that young people wanting to study those subjects must enroll at universities in Rangoon. But that option is denied Rohingya students, who have difficulty enough trying to cope with the discriminatory practices and bureaucracy of Sittwe University.

Some restrictions are patently racist—one, for instance, requires Rohingya couples to sign an agreement that they will have no more than three children when seeking official approval to marry.

Many Rohingyas hope the general election planned for 2010 could bring about a relaxation of restrictions or even an end to them.

For one young Rohingya, who graduated from university two years ago, citizenship is the most important right he would like to see restored. “If democracy is restored, then we must be given the chance to ask for citizenship,” he said.

Yet the Rakhine historian warned that social tensions could increase if the Rohingya are granted citizenship and land ownership rights.

“If the government does not solve the problem wisely,” he said, “ this could be a hot spot of the future—another Gaza.”

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