United we stand, divided we fall
The ethnic people and groups opposing the Burmese military dictatorship are struggling to loosen the strangle hold the regime has on the country and its people. The recent amount of foreign investment in Burma has been massive and it is this finance that keeps the regime in power.
Burma is not a poor country, it is resource rich, but has been plundered by the regime at the expense of the people of Burma. Time magazine recently reported that: “In 1988, Burma boasted only $89 million in hard-currency reserves, but by 2004, it held $685 million.” Most of this money has come from foreign investors eager to get their hands
on Burma’s natural resources. China and India have signed deals worth millions of dollars for Burma’s oil and gas resources. Thailand also increased its natural gas imports from Burma in 2005 by more than 22 per cent.
The people of Burma will not reap any benefit from this invested revenue. The profits will go into the coffers of the regime or flow out of the country to the bank accounts of foreigners. The present economic situation for most Burmese is dire. Most Burmese towns rely on clapped out generators for power. Even hospitals can’t rely on the government for their electricity needs. While the regime sells its large oil reserves to foreign energy-hungry nations – China, India and Thailand – the price of petrol in Burma has reached new highs.
Environmentalists warn that agreements signed with Thailand to build hydroelectric dams on the Moei and the Salween rivers will destroy forests, fishing grounds, the livelihoods of indigenous people and cause large scale displacement. Karen National Union president Saw Ba Thin, called for all the people of Burma to stand together to oppose the regime.
“As long as the military dictatorship points their guns at us we have to keep struggling. We are walking a tightrope, it’s a hard place to be, and we ask the international investors not to deal with the dictators.”
Regime deny Karen health and education
Wee Dah doesn’t know how old she is. She is a Karen from Htee Baw Day village. She takes pride in wearing the traditional dress that young girls wear until they get married. Wee Dah is a displaced person who was forced with her family from her home. They now
hide from the Burmese military. There are about thirty families hiding out at Htee Baw Day village.
The village doesn’t have a school. Wee Dah says. “I have never been to school, except for a couple of months. I loved it. Now I work with my parents.” Many children in Karen State have the same problem. Villagers want to set up a school at the village, but they don’t have enough food or enough money to buy rice or pay for a teacher. The village headman from Htee Baw Day says a lack of education places a big disadvantage on the village.
“We want to build a school, but we do not have enough food or money. Another problem is that we live in a mixed administration area that makes it very difficult for us.” The headman claims villagers are desperate for their children to get an education.
“They try as hard as they can, some send their children to a refugee camp, some to a bigger town, but few of our children get to go to school. Many of our children want to learn, but they don’t have a chance living like this.” Wee Dah agrees. “I wanted to attend school, but my parents could not afford to pay for it. When I was young I went to a refugee camp and wanted to go to their school so much.” Wee Dah went to school with her new friends for two month, but her parents were not happy living at the camp because they felt that they were jobless and had no work to do there. They returned to Htee Baw Day with Wee Dah.
Wee Dah says.
“There are many Karen girls like me who cannot go to school. Not only here in Htee Baw Day village. Many girls get married when they are only 14 or 15.” According to Wee Dah many of the girls say they married young because they didn’t get an education.
“We get married here so early and many girls say ‘when our children grow up they can help us and that will make life easy for us’. Karen leaders say the strain of hiding and surviving on displaced people will have diasterous, long lasting effects on the standard of education and health of their people.
Soldier, Medic sets an example
Name – Saw Swe Tun Kyaw
Age – 23 years old. Resident – Pa Kha village, Lu Blai Township, Pa-an District. Occupation- former soldier, he now works as medic at Ler Per Her clinic. Saw Swe Tun Kyaw is a Karen, who wants to work for his people. His father was a freedom fighter. His father now works for the Karen revolution.
Saw Swe Tun Kyaw says.
“I am an only son, I left my mother at our village and came here to help my people. I joined the Karen army when I was 19, not by force, I volunteered. In my village people
were forced to work as porters, we were beaten and treated like slaves by the Burmese army. In one month, six villagers [forced labourers] were given only three tins of rice. For this reason, I could not endure to see my people suffer anymore and I joined the Karen
revolution. I believe my decision was not wrong. My mother did not accept it because I am the only son. I joined the 2nd Battalion and worked for three years until my leg
was blown off.” Saw Swe Tun Kyaw was hit by a landmine one of his friend’s planted.
“I was injured and shot at on a Sunday. Burmese troops were out patrolling and opened fire on us. We were afraid that the enemy would come to our camp so we quickly turned around and headed back. On the way back I trod on a landmine that our troops planted
three years ago. I did not know they planted it — it is my fate. After I got injured, they carried me to Ler Per Her Clinic and then to Mae La refugee camp and then onto Mae
Sot. I stayed at Mae Sot Hospital for more then a month. I was discharged and returned to my work.
Saw Swe Tun Kyaw was now disabled and Karen leaders urged him to work at the Clinic. “I’m now a medic, it is also not by force but voluntarily.” Saw Swe Tun Kyaw says he has a message for his younger Karen brothers and sisters. “Soldier work is not the only work of our people. Being a medic or teacher is also important for our people. I workhere not by ancestry but as a volunteer.”
Saw Swe Tun Kyaw says his disability does not mean he is not valuable. I would like to contribute as much as possible to our struggle. I choose this way to serve my people.”
Born to run
Karen villagers forced from their villages and homes by Burmese soldiers are in dire need of food, clothes and security. Hiding in forests and jungles with only rough ground for beds and trees for shade. The forests have become their towns and wild animal paths their roads. They live in fear and grab fitful sleep, prepared to run from Burmese soldiers.
Naw Ma Chat, from Kwee La village in Nyaw Linbin District says.
“When the soldiers come closer, our security warns us and we have to move our rice and other useful things.” In September 2005, a Burmese army battalion of about 350
soldiers and led by their commanding officer Tin Toe Aung took over Kwee La villager for two months. They destroyed houses, ripped out bamboo floors, walls, and roofs. Villagers escaped to the nearest village, Kler Kee, a twohour walk, over mountains.
A Karen woman documenting human rights abuses claimed the villagers had no choice but to take refuge in the jungle. “We climbed up the mountain for two hours; we built temporary huts and stayed there for two months. Young kids faced disease, students had to study in the jungle and the pregnant women gave birth while running.”
The woman said the Burmese soldiers stayed in the villager for six weeks. “They stole and ate all the pigs, chicken and vegetables. They left after destroying every single house.”
A woman from Kwee La village said the soldiers were cruel.
“They dug pits under our houses and built a sharp wood staked trap inside. They covered the pit with a bamboo mat and banana leaves and lay rice on top. Pigs driven by
hunger came to eat and fell into the hole and died on the stakes. The Kwee La villagers said it was hard for the students to settle down to study in the jungle.
Naw Paw Wah, 14, one of 32 students hiding said.
“While living like this we are not so interested in studying as we were in the village. We have to worry when we might have to run again. We have to do without our clothes and we don’t have much to eat.”
Naw Paw Wah said their first priority is to protect themselves from insects and mosquitoes. “I have just recovered from malaria and I don’t want to get dengue fever or malaria again.” Naw Ma Chat, a mother with two children said she was pregnant at the time the soldiers forced them to flee.
“When I ran I was eight-months pregnant and after a month in the jungle I gave birth. Villagers have returned to their village [Kwee La], but I will stay here as it’s too far for me to walk with my new baby. The soldiers destroyed our house so we’ll have to rebuild it.”
The woman said if the soldiers returned the villagers are prepared to move again. “In 2005 we had to run four times. They have taught us how to run – it became our best lesson.”
Never too old to learn
When the evening sun sets over the Ler Per Her school playground, busy teachers move between young men and women and children. Some are holding notebooks others sit or lie on the ground.
“This year if I pass my examination, I will be very happy,” said Saw Eh Doh Si. “I am sixteen years old, but still have to do third standard. If I do not pass this exam my parents will not allow me to attend school.” Saw Eh Doh Si adds that he started school at the age of 12.
“When I was four years old I went to school but the situation was not good for me. So I had to stop and I lost my chance. I wanted to go to school so much my mother took me to Ler Per Her School.”
Saw Eh Doh Si says he was much older then the other students. “They teased me a lot, but I didn’t care. My teachers are good they encouraged me to learn.” Saw Eh Doh Si, says there is no shame in being an older student. “I’m happy. If it is possible I would like to attend school up to tenth standard. When I see some people becoming interpreters for foreigners I would like to work like that.”
Saw Eh Doh Si urges other Karen men and women not to be ashamed to learn. “I want to encourage my younger brothers and sisters to try hard to learn as they will be the future strength of our Karen nation.”
Naw Shar Mlu 30 a Karen Baptist relates her life story for Inside News.
I was born on Sunday, 23 October 1975. When I was eight months old it was the time the Burmese military started their Four Cuts operations against the Karen people. [The aim of the operation was to deny village support for the Karen Army. Areas were designated into zones either hostile or neutral to the Burmese regime. Villagers caught in classified ‘Black Zones’ were shot on sight.]
My parents moved to Maw Chi when I was eight and I began my studies. When I was 14 my parents returned to my village and to our farm. My family are hill farmers. A year later my mother died. My father looked after us but we were very poor.
The strain of caring for the family wore out my father and four years later he died. I have five brothers and sisters. My older sister and my elder brother got married. But my three younger sisters are still single. We faced many difficulties just to live. In April 1996, when I was 19, I got married. Two months later, the Burmese army started harassing us again. On 10th of June, we were forced to relocate to Maw Chi. When we arrived at Mow
Chi we found there was no work we could do so we returned to our village. The army had burnt down all our homes and destroyed the village.
We fled to the hills and stayed hidden deep in the jungle. On December 30, my first daughter was born in the jungle. I did not have any medicine but luckily everything
was okay. A year later we managed to survive by growing rice and vegetables and onSunday 23 of August, my son was born. When he was five months old, my husband went
fishing with his two friends. Burmese troops caught them. The Burmese troops released my husband’s friends but not him. The Burmese soldiers forced him to follow them and work as their porter for two weeks.
I feared my husband would be disappeared for good. I felt so sad. I could not sleep or eat. But, by the grace of God, my husband returned. But it was only for a short time. His brother who stayed at Pa Soung came to our house and said the Burmese troops that forced him to porter returned to their camp.
His brother told us if we didn’t leave immediately we would be caught, but the Burmese troops came and forced my husband to work for them for one and half months before releasing him. When my husband came back I was very happy. We stayed at Pa Saung for six years, three children were born but I lost two daughters in childbirth.
In November 2005, armed militia, from the Karenni Solidarity Organization (KnSO), an armed group aligned to the Burmese regime started fighting with the opposition army, the KNPP. KnSO soldiers came to our house and called my husband to follow them to their leader. I never saw my husband again. I wanted to go and see my husband, who I loved, but the KnSO wouldn’t allow me. Since then, every day and every night my tears flow from my eyes.
Everybody was very happy because it was Christmas. I could not be happy knowing they had my husband. Two weeks later, I heard that he had been sent to Loikaw prison. I still hoped if he was in prison we could be one day reunited. After Christmas, I heard the KnSO had killed my husband. My heart is filled with sadness. I wondered how I would keep on living, how could I feed my children? How could we survive?
It was a difficult time for me. My youngest son was only nine months. At that time I thought that if I moved to a refugee camp, it would be better for us. I met with my first cousin who lived in Mae La Oo camp in Thailand. I followed her back to Mae La Oo camp. But the camp did not accept me. I went to Mae Ra Moe camp. It was very difficult for me because I did not know anyone at the camp. The camp leader and elders accepted me I was very thankful to them.
It has been 10 years since my marriage to my beloved husband. Since his death, my tears have never stopped flowing from my eyes. I cannot say when my worries will be gone, but I am pleased that everything is in the hands of God. Finally, I ask your readers, to please remember, my three children and me, in their prayers. Thank you.
Dance of life
Every year on the 31st January the Karen people celebrate Karen Revolution Day. Many Karen from different places come to celebrate and dance. Naw Htay Htay Myint is a Done dancer from Ta Kot Wa village. She is highly skilled in the traditional Done dance that tells the story of Karen culture.
Naw Htay Htay Myint has danced the Done since she was 11. It is her voluntary work and her hobby. She says. “Done is a Karen culture dance. It also has the meaning that after harvest time our ancestors gather and show their unity and happiness by dancing the Done” Naw Htay Htay Myint says the Done dance can be danced anywhere.
“Mostly, it is danced on Karen New Year Day and Revolution Day. When we dance the Done we dress in our traditional Karen costume.” Naw Htay Htay Myint explains that
a Done dance group has 30 to 50 members. Every Done dance group has “Hta” singer, xylophone, harp and flute players. It is sung by the two main Karen groups, Sgaw and Pwo.
“The Done is difficult to dance at first, but it is important to our culture and glorifies our National celebrations and that is why we dedicate ourselves to learning it.” Naw Htay Htay Myint says. “The words of the songs are about a particular event. It can be NewYear, harvest or our revolution. I am grateful for the opportunity to come here and dance to glorify our Karen Revolution Day.”Paw Sa, a respected teacher of the Done say she learn the Done when she was a child.
“It was my hobby but I am also aware it was important for it not to disappear from our culture. I would like Karen youth and the next generation to be able to dance this cultural dance. I don’t want it to be concealed. That’s why I try to teach it. “Paw Sar explains that there are several kinds of Done dance such as Buffalo, Comedy, Kre, and Tamaw. “Done dancers from Karen state are recognized as good Done dancers and they take the celebrations as an opportunity to compete against other groups.” Paw Sa says the Karen Done dance is an important part of Karen culture.
“The “Hta” songs words are real proverbs from the old times and are invaluable for our people. The Done dance does not divide Buddhist or Christian. Every Karen has the opportunity to dance.”
Resisting the regime
Many Karen people forced from their homes by the Burmese army refuse to give up. They take to the hills and the jungles. Despite landmines, torture and being forced to labour for the military they find ways to resist the regime and maintain their dignity.
Naw Tay is one such woman. She and her husband left their village because the Burmese army soldiers burnt their home and stole their possessions.
“We’re afraid of the Burmese and the DKBA (a Karen militia armed by the regime). When they come to our village they took our rice, even our clothes, they left us with nothing. We were frightened.” Naw Tay says the Burmese soldiers have no discipline.
“They do what they want; they take the clothes of the back of old people. Now they have nothing, except a few pots. The situation in our country is not good but we still have to live there. It’s no way to live, but we’re happy.”
Naw Tay says villagers have to bear the brunt of the Burmese army aggression. “If there’s fighting between the Burmese and the Karen, the Burmese shoot the villagers. Naw Tay stays with more than 200 Karen people in a jungle hideout. “We have 76 children with us, but we don’t have a school. We need money to set up a school. We can supply the wood for the floor and the roof, but we need wooden poles, blackboards, teachers, books, pens and food for the students.”
Naw Tay says the villagers have learnt not to keep their food supplies near their homes. “If the soldiers come they steal or burn our rice, vegetables and chickens. Our paddy is about two hours walk from here.” Naw Tay slowly empties her large pannier of vegetables.
“I spent about an hour gathering all this. We grew most of it. This is a result of what we planted last year. We have la tha (fruit), new wah (potato), baw kay (taro) and taba (a green leaf vegetable). We don’t have enough good soil to grow the rice we need.
Naw Tay laughs and says it is hard to find money in the jungle. “There’s no job and we’re short of chilli, salt and oil, but we don’t have money to buy them, unless we can find wild foods like bamboo shoots and mushrooms to sell across the river in Thailand.” The small cluster of bamboo huts, are nothing more than basic shelters, but that hasn’t stopped the people from working hard to keep them clean. Using handmade brooms children sweep the area.
Naw Tay smiles and says. “I have only one son. My other babies died in childbirth or from sickness.” The harshness of her life is etched in the lines on her face. Her body is hardened by work, walking and digging. Naw Tay’s husband, Saw Shwe Htun (Golden light) joins us and smiles.
“Women work harder than men, they’re bigger and stronger.” Saw Shwe Htun says the villagers worship flowers. “We offer food to the spirit of the flower, any flower, like sunflowers. In our old village we had plenty to eat. We even had tigers and bears and we had to be careful of the bears. They were very fierce. But Karen people fear DKBA and Burmese soldiers more than wild animals.”
Burma Army tortures villagers
In February 2006, Burmese soldiers detained and beat to death Karen villagers they accused of helping the Karenni army. Fearful for their safety, eight Karen families, long-time residents ofKarenni State, fled to Thailand.
One of the arrested, Saw Nu Nu from Pa Haw Ko village said. “I was arrested by 428 Battalion. When I was released I took my family and fled to a refugee camp. Back in Burma we were persecuted by the army.”
The families are now safe and living in Mae Ra Mo refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. Saw Nu Nu says the increased Burmese military presence is a result of the regime shifting their military headquarters from Rangoon to Pyinmanar.
“At the beginning of 2006, we noticed a lot more soldiers in our area. They started accusing us of belonging to opposition armies, Fearful for our lives, about 70 of us ran to Thailand and are now living in Mae Ra Mo camp.” Saw Nu Nu says soldiers arrested him at 8pm on the night of the 16th December.
“They beat me and tortured me with [live] electric wires. The electric knocked me unconscious and when they stopped I was told if I didn’t want more of the same I had better spy on my friends for them.”
Saw Nu Nu says other village men and women were also beat by the soldiers. “Some villagers ran away, nine villagers were beat all through the night, five were released and four made to carry arms and supplies. The soldiers killed one of the porters, Saw Eay Htai, in the jungle.
When Saw Nu Nu was released he warned his friends. “We waited until the soldiers were asleep before running away. I fled alone. The next day the other members of my family ran to another village. Later on we met and together we fled to the refugee camp. We could not suffer any more.”
Saw Nu Nu named other villagers beaten by the Burmese soldiers. “Naw Kulu was beaten severely until he bled from his nose and his jaw was broken. Saw Su Su was struck with a gun on his head and was badly hurt. At the village there is no medicine or medics to treat them, situation is not good, I don’t know whether they will die or live.”
Popular Karen singer, K’Nyaw, says. “When I saw how our people suffered I felt very sorry. It made me sad until my tears fell, but I could not do anything for them. God will help our people gain their country, the freedom and help our people stand on their own feet.”
According to Saw Nu Nu living in the jungle meant village children could not go to school. “Day by day we have to look for the food. It is very difficult. The jungle is not a safe place for us. My future hope is [that] my children get a good education here in the camp.”
Saw Nu Nu says he does not plan to go back to his village. “If I go back, I will die. The Burmese troops recorded our names. I can live here. If the other people stay here.”
School of Dreams