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Are We Blind to the Problems
of a Warring Country?

A Look at How the Karen People
in the Southern State of Burma Live Everyday

by Natalia Bachelor
of SCM Aotearoa and WSCF AP Human Rights Intern in Burma Issues
June-August 2002

Following the turnover of Burma from England to the people of Burma in 1948 the planned democracy did not last long. A military junta took power in 1962 during a military coup and has ruled the land with fear since. Burma is a country torn by ethnic differences; all 16 ethnic groups have a different idea of the perfect Burma. The Burman people are the largest ethnic group. They dominate in population and are the group of people who lead the military. Other ethnic groups who felt the exploitation and repression, have established many small armies and have taken up arms against the Burmese and themselves. They have been fighting for over 50 years for independence and democracy.

Policies of the junta have caused many arrests, injuries and deaths. It seems the world can turn a blind eye on what is happening in this country and if it were not for the fact that people have started to vocalise their disgust many countries would feel no problems dealing with this military junta. The land and sea are rich with natural resources and many other countries and big businesses are interested in investing in their share of these resources. But international pressure from human rights groups have slowed the trade with the military junta and stopped most companies from having anything to do with Burma.

But still they ignore the real problems in Burma. The fact that human rights abuses still happen throughout the country is warrant enough to have some strong intervention from the United Nations, but the concerns of groups such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other NGOs are ignored.

Some documented human right abuses range through the following:

  1. Forced Labour – People are given no choice but to work for the military junta. Many villages are forced to send people to work on projects such as roads and military facilities for no wages. Due to recent international pressure some people are being paid. This money comes from the extra taxes demanded from the very village that the workers are from and still there remains no choice but to work. Children, women and men are used for this work, often having to walk for miles to the construction site and provide food for themselves during the long 12-hour workdays.
  2. Forced Portering – Working as slaves for the military. There are hundreds of documented reports of people being used as porters for members of the military. These reports come from both the people used in the portering and ex-soldiers of the junta who have fled in fear or disgust of the treatment of the ethnic minorities. Men are often shot if they are unable to keep up with the well-fed and trained soldiers; there are also many cases of women being raped by the soldiers.
  3. Rape – Both gang and individual rape reports come out of all parts of Burma; it has become a weapon against ethnic minorities. It is also seen by some as a way to breed out the minority races. Recently the Shan people have published a report on 173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, involving 625 girls and women from their state by the Burmese army troops. (Contact details follow this report)
  4. Forced Relocation – Whole villages being herded and moved to a new area for many reasons. Leaving behind their farms and often many if not all of their possessions. These relocations vary, some beneficial, some life threatening, depending on one’s ethnicity and race and according to the way the military junta rule that particular village.
  5. Forced Displacement – Whole villages told to move with no or little warning and no place to move to. This either makes room for new tenants or for a business venture that they are in the way of. They have to leave their farms and can only take possessions they can carry.

Both these groups of relocated and displaced people are part of the portion of the population who are internally displaced. These internally displaced people have no if any voice. Below is a story of real time, of what is happening today for an ethnic minority in the most southern part of Burma. This story is of the daily struggle that the Internally Displaced Karen People in the Tenasserim Division face every day.

Internally Displaced Karen People in the Tenasserim Division

Burma map

With all the bitterness the new generation of Karen children are being brought up with, it is the leaders’ biggest worry that they will seek revenge. The Tenasserim Division is the southernmost area of Burma, it boarders with Thailand. The battle between the ethnic minorities and the Burmese troops has been ongoing for many generations. Since 1997, times for the Karen people have become worse.


The Karen people in Tenasserim Division have been moved into relocation camps, not unlike most ethnic groups in Burma. They are moved here for several official reasons, the main one is for their own protection from the rebel armies and which the Burmese troops will protect them from. The unofficial reason is in fact stopping them from joining the rebel armies.

The Karen People in the Tenasserim Division of Burma ironically have two choices in their lives that can be the difference between life and death. There are two main choices, the Karen have decided to either live in the relocation camp the Burmese troops have assigned them to, or live as an outlaw in the thick jungle by the boarder of Thailand. Both these options have their disadvantages.

Relocation Camps

There are approximately 50,000 Karen people living in the relocation camps in the Tenasserim Division. Living in a relocation camp, the Karen people are treated as a slave by the Burmese troops that patrol the camp. The people are forced to work for the Burmese troops as cleaners, road builders, dam constructors, military base builders and army porters. This forced labour is an everyday occurrence for these people. There is also the rape of many women. These go unreported due to the shame for the family and the lack of justice dealt to the perpetrator, instead the women often gets their punishment of a beating for telling lies.

There is a lack of food in these relocation areas and there is no land to grow food for the needs of the family. If the people want to tend their land that they have been forced to leave, the permit costs 150-300 Kyat (Burmese currency). If the people are lucky enough not to get shot while they are out tending their crops, they must return to the camp by dark or will be beaten (often to death) for not returning in at the right time. When it comes to harvest time, the troops get first pick of the crops; they choose the best and often take about 50% of the total crop for free. With what is left over, the people sell to make enough money to pay the taxes for the year to come. Paying taxes to the military is a means of guaranteeing the family’s safety, as the punishment is often a beating to death if the people did not pay up.

Education is limited; schools have no resources and are only to teach Burmese which is another of the many rules in these camps. So the children lose their language, their culture, and their ancestry.

There are many daily ironical choices the people make in this environment. Do they trust their next-door neighbour with any information for fear of them being the informers of Burmese troops? Do they teach their children to comply or not comply with the Burmese troops? Is tending their land worth the risk of getting shot or beaten by the Burmese troops? How are they going to raise the high taxes? Who in the family can do the forced labour today? Will the people report the rape of their 13-year-old daughter and risk her humiliation?

Jungle Living

The other group, the Internally Displaced Karen People (IDKP) live their daily lives in fear. The Burmese Military sees them as the enemy because they do not live under their control. They live in free-fire zones and anywhere away from the relocation camps, and are hunted like wild animals by army battalions.

They live in dense jungle where it is hard for the Burmese troops to find them. They make their buildings from forest materials such as bamboo, palms, coconut leaves, banana leaves etc; these resources are plentiful and also give good camouflage. The IDKP move on average one to two times a year but it was known of people who have moved up to five times a year to escape Burmese troops that are hunting them. They set up camp in small groups maybe three to six families together, close to the top of a stream so they have water to drink and irrigation for their paddy. Other such family groups set up at the ends of other streams around, but not so close so it looks like a village.

The people live in fear of Burmese troops finding their cluster and are constantly on the lookout. Often weary of any strangers and trust only the people in their little group. Many of the children have only one or no parents due to living in free-fire zones. The children with no parents are often `adopted’ into other families even though they are struggling to look after their own children.

To set up a paddy is a whole village’s effort and all the members of the family play a role, either working to clear the dense bush or keeping an eye out for the Burmese troops. Each paddy takes many days to clear, prepare and plant. There can be up to six little groups living in the approximate area and each group will need a paddy area. Their rice diet is supplemented with plants from the jungle. The people have become experts in preparing food; some of it poisonous if not prepared the right way. Children are taught which plants to eat from an early age, as often during an attack the children and adults get separated and the children will need survival skills. There are reports regarding starving children choosing the wrong food to eat, getting ill and often dying due to preparing food wrong or mistaking the identity of a plant. Therefore they are taught very carefully to avoid this happening. There are also the other dangers of living in the jungle, wild animals, poisonous insects and disease carrying pests. There are no medical supplies and they often have the most basic of weapons to defend themselves. Every day is an ongoing struggle just to stay alive.

Schools are primitive, hidden and moved often. Parents run them and there are no formal educational supplies. Unlike the relocation camps they learn their own language (Karen) along with Burmese, Thai and English (when there is a parent who knows these). But their school black boards are made from bamboo covered with several layers of charcoal that needs to be reapplied daily and soft rock is used for chalk. These boards do not last long and have to be left when the school is raided. Sometimes a large boulder or cliff face is used as a blackboard. Banana leaves and sharpened bamboo sticks are the children’s writing supplies. Although affective, all work disappears when the leaf shrivels and goes brown.

There are choices that are made in the daily lives of the IDKP that impact on their survival. Choices such as, do they allow their children to go to school for fear of a raid that would separate the parents from the children? Do they bother building a rice paddy that may have to be moved before harvest? Do they keep in contact with their family in the relocation camps? Do they give up and head to Thailand?

The Future

It is understandable that children brought up in this environment are bitter and angry. When democracy finally comes to Burma, it will be a huge struggle to get over this anger. There will be rebuilding of villages, farms and more importantly broken souls. Education is the key to the future generations for the Karen People of the Tenasserim Division.


Contacts to organisations that work on issues in Burma:

The Peace Way Foundation
PO Box 1076
Silom Post Office
Bangkok 10504

Committee for the Internally Displaced Karen People
PO Box 11
Kanchanaburi 7100

The Shan Human Rights Foundation
PO Box 201
Phrasing Post Office
Chiangmai 50200