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Billy Briggs THE spectacle of hundreds of saffron robed monks leading recent pro-democracy protests in Burma (Myanmar) brought back painful memories to Aung Than Mynt. As he watched graphic television images showing the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations in Rangoon, Aung remembered how his niece died at the hands of Burmas pariah military regime. In 1997, the Burmese army attacked our refugee camps on the Thai border and killed 100 people. My niece Maw Ka Moo Paw died. She was only 16 years old, Aung says. He is sitting in a house in Sheffield beside his friends Thin and Taw. In a corner of the room is a poster with the words Victory to the Burmese people written in black marker pen. These men are Karen refugees from Burma who arrived in the UK last year seeking sanctuary from a brutal military junta accused of gross human rights abuses and ostracised by much of the international community. The men are among 130 Burmese people now living in Sheffield, most of whom are of Karen ethnicity and who came from the Burma-Thai border where around 150,000 refugees have languished in nine camps, some for decades. Since shortly after the end of World War Two, the Karen, one of the most oppressed ethnic minorities in Burma, have been engaged in a 60-year battle for survival against the military regime, a prolonged struggle that has been largely ignored by the western world. When I watched the pictures on television I felt for the protestors who were attacked and arrested. But I also thought to myself, that this has been happening for more than 50 years to the Karen of Burma and no-one seems to care, Aung says.In Burma, there are eight major ethnic groups and 135 subgroups. Three of these political groups - the Karen National Union (KNU), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Shan State Army (SSA) - are fighting the dominant Burman government. The Karen people, whose ancestors were refugees from Tibet, live mostly in the hilly eastern border region of Burma. There have long been ethnic tensions in the country and after centuries of discrimination and servitude, the Karen fought with the British during WW2 against the Burmans and the Japanese and were promised autonomy for their efforts. The promise was never kept, however, and so the Karen have been battling for their freedom ever since. As many as 100,000 of our people have died, many during the forced relocation of the Karen during the 1990s when the military embarked on Operation Dragon King to ethnically cleanse our land, Aung says. Its a policy that continues today in Burma. In a report published earlier this year, Amnesty International said that military operations against the Karen in eastern Kayin (Karen) State and neighbouring districts had increased and, as a result, more than 16,000 people had been displaced by the conflict. Villagers reported widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law on a scale that amounted to crimes against humanity. Destruction of houses and crops, enforced disappearances, forced labour, torture and extrajudicial killings of Karen civilians increased, and many people faced food shortages after the authorities banned them from leaving their villages to farm or buy food. It is a desperate situation, one that Aung, Thin and Taw are familiar with. Aung, who became a refugee in 1985, fled his village Llaingbwe when it was attacked by government troops. The whole village - 300 houses - was destroyed. Some people were caught. The soldiers tied them upside down and poured boiling water into their noses, Aung says. Thin, who lived in south Burma, fled to a refugee camp more recently, two years ago after his family suffered persecution, and Taw spent 20 years with the rebel army in the jungle. All three men ended up with their families in one of the nine refugee camps. In Burma we were discriminated in every aspect of our lives and not even allowed to use the Karen language. It was not much of an existence, Thin says.The refugee camps, the men explain, are in essence prisons as the Burmese are not allowed to leave the perimeters. If they do, and are caught, they face being sent back to Burma. Taw explains there are also about another 100,000 internally displaced people just inside Burma who are living beside the Thumere River. They are not official refugees and are looked after by the rebel army, but life must be very hard for them, he says. A former medic with the Karen National Liberation Army until 1999, Taw tended to the victims of war in the jungle, including enemy soldiers who were injured. We were medics so we treated anyone who was hurt.He says that following the 1988 pro-democracy protests in his homeland up to 10,000 refugees fled to the Karen areas from cities when the military junta cracked down on dissidents. At least 3000 protestors died at that time, according to human rights groups. Taw says that the jungle fighting intensified in the aftermath as the regime sought to hunt down those involved and he fears this may happen again. I lost many friends, he adds.The only viable solution to stop the abuses and to end the humanitarian crisis, according to these three men, is for the international community to undertake military action against the ruling government and to replace the existing political system with a set-up similar to the UKs, whereby regions would have some degree of self-autonomy. The recent protests gave us hope but sanctions have not affected the regime. Nothing will change unless force is used. Unfortunately, this would mean some people would die - but the alternative is that the Karen and other oppressed minorities continue to suffer for another 50 years. How many people have to die? Aung says.THE Burmese refugees came to the UK as part of the Gateway Programme, under which highly vulnerable refugees and their families identified by the UNs refugee agency UNHCR, are resettled under arrangements between councils and the Home Office. The initiative was founded in 2004 and Sheffield and Bolton were the first cities to accept refugees, followed by Brighton, Rochdale, Norwich, Hull, Bury and Motherwell. To date, nearly 900 persons have found safety in the UK under the Gateway Protection Programme. Peter Kessler, of UNHCR in London, hopes that more local authorities will take part and says that refugees flee persecution and war often walking for weeks and suffering unthinkable hardships along the way. When refugees reach a border, that does not always guarantee safety, he adds. Officials from UNHCR - which cares for more than 33 million people - are posted in remote border regions worldwide to help victims of terror. Founded in 1951 to care for refugees from the Second World War, UNHCR is still almost entirely funded by voluntary contributions from the public and governments. Even once they cross a border, refugees are sometimes still not safe. Vast camps are sometimes used, but are frequently not the best solution, as some refugees may face various pressures or threats in the sprawling sites. For particularly vulnerable refugees who can neither return home or integrate locally, resettlement to a third country helps them restart their lives in safety, Kessler explains. Sheffield, the first British city to take part in Gateway, is home to around 1000 refugees and recently declared itself the UKs first City of Sanctuary for asylum-seekers and refugees, a decision viewed by Sheffield City Council as an important move to build a culture of hospitality for refugees and asylum-seekers. We recognise that asylum policy and decision-making must be decided at a national level, and that the power of local communities to defend individuals will often be limited. But within this legal framework there is the opportunity for local communities both to make the existing asylum system more humane for the asylum-seekers who live amongst us, and to counter some of the hostile public attitudes that drive government policy, a spokeswoman for the campaign says.AUNG, Thin and Taw say that the help, support and warm reception they have received from the people of Sheffield has helped them adjust to life in the UK over the past year and to integrate with local people. Both Aung and Thin have been in employment and Taw works as a volunteer in a charity shop. The worst thing is the weather but the greatest thing is having freedom. I was a virtual prisoner for 20 years, Aung says. Taw and Thin nod their heads in agreement.They held their own protests recently in Sheffield to show solidarity with all their countrymen who advocate democracy, no matter which ethnic group they come from. We held protests to support the monks and the Burmese protestors. We had enormous support from the council leaders and general public so we want to thank everyone, Aung says. For the first time in his life, Aung adds, he has real hope for the future and more importantly the knowledge that his four young children will grow up in a safe environment. When we finish speaking Aung takes us to a nearby community centre where a group of Burmese children are practising songs and dances for the Karen New Year. Here, the Burmese people meet, and they can teach their children the Karen language and about their culture without fear of arrest and torture. The children smile and sing and clap their hands. This is what life is about, Aung says. Ends. Copyright, Billy Briggs,

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