My day started off with my usual banter about how life is unfair, how hard work is often overlooked, how many dumb heads in the world are leading great lives, and so on. Being the cynic that I am, it was routine for me until my eyes landed on an article in the Guardian, talking about Burmese Muslims, Rohingyas, who are denied Burmese citizenship and have nowhere to go. They have no country they can call home, forget a home. It sometimes amazes me that this is still the world we are living in, where one half feeds on billion dollar homes, while the other rots on the streets.
Caption: How intolerant are we?
I am not a socialist, but would like to think that it does not take a socialist sentiment, but only a humane sentiment to understand the plight of the these people. Right from the time I step out of the house to begin my day, all I come across is lack of sensitivity and intolerance – in the trains, bus, work place – everywhere.
My profession(s) – journalism and law – allow me to explore these grey areas of humanity. And this story in particular reminded me of an article I had written as a journalism student in Canada about the situation in Burma. Here goes:
Fighting for Burma
A M Mutraw spent the first two months of this year in Burma. She travelled with resistance groups in the Karen state, her home state and taught at a school run by the Karen National Union. General election is scheduled to be held in Burma in 2010. However, Mutraw says democracy is far from reality. “People are living under fear on a daily basis,” she says. “My family is there and I go once a year to experience the same fear.”
Mutraw’s family and many others in Burma have been living under the fear of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military government of Burma. It has been 61 years since Burma became independent. However, the Burmese are still clutched to the shackles of the military dictatorship. Once known as the “rice bowl of Asia”, Burma is now among the 20 poorest countries, according to the United Nations.
The military has dominated the government since 1962 when a military coup ousted the civilian government. The democracy movement lives in Burma that the West sees in the form of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy. However, the military has managed to suppress opposing voices within the country, evading the international community. Activists, journalists, monks, bloggers and artists have been arrested over the years by the military for criticizing their rule.
A number of Burmese citizens have left their country with the hope of leading a free and decent life in the neighbouring countries. Citizens flee to Thailand, India, Bangladesh and other countries in the region to start life afresh. However, as most countries in the region have strong trade relations with the Burmese military government, the plight of the refugees aggravates even after they escape Burma.
“It’s a terrible situation to be a civilian in Burma. Things are much more complicated for ethnic and religious minorities,” says Kevin McLeod, a member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Friends of Burma. In 2004, Human Rights Watch noted that about 4 million of the country’s 50 million people may be internally displaced and 2 million Burmese may be living in Thailand, where they are exploited as cheap labour and live in the constant fear of arrest and deportation.
Mutraw is Karenese, an ethnic group that constitutes about 7% of the Burmese population. They have been fighting for independence from Burma that they were promised since 1949. Mutraw calls the province a “war zone”. “When the troops walk around, they would kill animals without a reason. It’s a free fire zone. Their presence creates instability in the region,” says Mutraw.
The abuse took the context of counter insurgency activities against the Karen National Union, one of the very few ethnic minority groups that is still fighting the SPDC. A June 2008 report of the Amnesty International describes the situation in Karen state in the context of ‘crimes against humanity’. It includes widespread and systematic targeting of civilians, arbitrary arrests, burning down houses and villages, confiscation and destruction of crops, punishing unarmed insurgents and so on.
“In the past, the military has been taking on insurgents, but now the military is deliberately targeting civilians. It is a widespread and systematic crime,” says Brian John, Myanmar coordinator for Amnesty International Canada.
Hundreds of Karen villagers flee to other states of Burma or into Thailand. There are around nine official refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, about 62 per cent of the Burmese refugees in Thailand are Karen. While some refugees are offered the chance to start a new life abroad, others get stuck in between the Thai government and the Burmese military.
There have been reports of harassment of refugees by the Thai police. Human Rights Watch reported that Thai security forces forced Karen refugees and asylum seekers to return to Burma from the refugee camps in Thailand in July 2008. In addition to the problem of relocation, the procedure for registering refugees in Thailand has been bogged down. Without registration, most people are not eligible for food, shelter or even protection from the UNHCR.
“This is the problem with the Refugee Convention,” says McLeod. “It does not recognize starvation as a reason to seek refugee.” The Thai government has not only been turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses of the military, but also been party to it.
The Rohingya is a mostly Muslim ethnic group and live in the Arakan state bordering Bangladesh. An Amnesty Report of 2005 says “the Rohingyas’ freedom of movement is severely restricted and the vast majority of them have effectively been denied Myanmar citizenship. They are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage.”
Refugees in Bangladesh have also faced forced repatriation. Reports suggested that physical abuse and mental torture was used to induce repatriation. “The government of Bangladesh is credibly restrictive of NGOs and reporters that investigate the status of refugees in Bangladesh,” says McLeod.
Villagers in the Chin state share the fate of the Karen and Rohingyas. Chin is a Christian minority group in Burma. After facing persecution from the SPDC, most of them fled to Mizoram in India without proper documents. India tries to prohibit officials of the UNHCR from visiting the Chin refugees in Mizoram, most of who face religious repression and arbitrary arrests there.
Most refugees spend their life time in these camps, facing torture from their own government or of some other country. However, some others manage to make a new beginning abroad and continue to pursue their struggle.
Tin Maung Htoo is the Executive Director of the Canadian Friends of Burma. He participated in the 1988 uprising in Burma as a student, but had to flee to Thailand as his life was in danger. He spent three years in a Thai prison after he was detained by the authorities for “illegal immigration”. After Amnesty International pressurized the Thai government to release him, he settled down in Canada.
The refugees who get the choice of resettling in some other country end up being cheap labour for the country that accepts them. They settle down in countries like US, Canada or Australia. However, it is difficult for them to adjust themselves in any situation after spending 20 years of their lives in “awful” camps, says McLeod.
Mutraw has made a life for herself away from Burma. She still calls Burma her “home” and goes back every year. She says she is aware of the security threat along the Thai-Burma border. “No risk is bigger than what the locals are already facing.”
Many others like Mutraw and Htoo hope to see democracy in Burma in the near future. Many like them are leading struggles from different corners of the world. Just as one might think that the release of 6,000 prisoners by the military government a few days back would provide hope to these people, Mutraw retorts. She says SPDC knows it’s being watched closely and hence, it is in its best interest to calm the international community down.
If held, the 2010 election will be first election after the 1990 election which the military declared null and void after its defeat to the National League for Democracy led by Suu Kyi. Brian John calls the election a “false hope”. “You can expect the election to be sham and unjust like the referendum of May 2008 which provides for the election.”
Hon. Larry Bagnell, the elected chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Burma, is not hopeful either. “The referendum itself is dangerous because it will help the dictatorship stay in power. And having an election would permanently put the military in power,” he says.
Tin Maung Htoo is meanwhile looking at the pictures of Suu Kyi pasted on the walls of his cabin. “Burmese people are patient. However long it takes, it is my dream to see Burma as a democracy,” he says.