Burma: Return to the Borderline

Our Burma & N. Korea co-ordinator Wendy has recently returned from several weeks on the Thai/Burma border and she has been kind enough to write up the following report on the situation in Burma and her experiences out there (as well as a helpful timeline at the end):

WAITING FOR NEARLY 70 YEARS:  the Panglong Agreement was signed by General Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s (ASSK) father) in February, 1947 and was aimed to establish a Federal Union based on the principles of equality and self-determination for ethnic nationality groups, but shortly afterwards he and other key figures were assassinated.  A new Constitution came into being in September, 1947 and full independence from Britain in 1948 but the territorial issue, particularly for the Karen State (the largest ethnic group) was never resolved (their territory has never been owned by Burma). In 1984 the Burmese Army attacked the Karen and 10,000 fled to the Thai border. Burma’s Tiananmen moment was on 8/8/1988 when 3000+ died (more than actual Tiananmen or the Twin Towers) and 10,000 students fled and joined up with the ethnic groups on the border.   It was at this time that the ethnic issue became also a democracy issue. Up to that time the Burmese government claimed that the Karen were a bunch of insurgents and of course the whole subject came to World attention and never more so than when ASSK won the General election of 1990 for the National League for Democracy (NLD) while under house arrest at the time and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, collected in 2013.

I BECAME INVOLVED in 1990, when a Karen lady (whose son and daughter had been in the '88 riots) arranged for a boat across the lake and up the river for me to take supplies of hammocks and boxes of sardines for the 3rd year medical students in Krain Camp outside Sangkhlaburi. In 1995 I travelled around Burma and met one of the NLD MPs who was running a guest house near Inla Lake where he showed me a video of himself being released from prison as white as a sheet and half his body weight.  Myself and other backpackers also marched up and down ASSK’s house in Rangoon but of course were soon moved on.   I am on the FCO list for briefings on Burma from our Government and here I meet the UK’s Burmese community and, through them, I got some work with the Karen Educational Department (KED) in Mae Sot in 2012.

In 2013 Angelique (from Bath Amnesty) and I had interviews with the Mae Tao Clinic, The Border Consortium who feed the refugees, the Aid Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) and inside Mae La Refugee Camp (follow links to see these posts from 2013) and we also met with Ariana who with others was just setting up Burma Link. I returned last year to visit my friend who is working as a psycho social worker in the small Ban Don Yang remote refugee camp outside Sanghklaburi and where I found out that all the 3rd year medical students I met in 1990 did in fact get out to Western countries within 3 years through the Red Cross and ARC.

WHY ARE TOURISTS VISITING NOW when it has always been available?  If it is for ethical reasons that things have become better, may I enlighten them of the current situation: There are currently 120,000 refugees over 10 (9 plus 1 which the UN does not recognise for some reason) camps on the Thai side of the border and they have come because of armed conflict, human rights abuses at the hands of armed groups, land confiscation for military purposes, land grab for development projects, fear of landmines and forced labour. There are 400,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the Burma side of the border. There is a massive drug issue both in the camps (which causes domestic abuse) as well as throughout the ethnic areas which is very under-reported. In Shan Sate alone, it is said that it would be unheard of not to have at least one family member be a drug addict on either opium or heroin. It is also said that half the youth in Kachin Sate use heroin and 90% of those in the mining areas are on heroin. Suicide and depression is becoming another problem with long-term refugees....hence my friend’s job. It is said that drug production and use increases in conflict areas when the usual crops of rice, corn and tea are either razed or bought compelling the owners to move into the mountains where only the growth of poppies is possible (Afghanistan another case in point).

SINCE MAY 2012 there has been ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya muslims, with 280 dead and 140,000 displaced persons and 200,000 people from Burma living in refugee-like situations in Bangladesh. Even when these people try to leave to get to another Muslim country such as Malaysia or Indonesia, thousands are trafficked by the Thais and treated like slaves so much so and despite the new Thai Military Government’s assurance to address the problem, vigilantes have taken on the job of trying to stop this abuse (reported Bangkok Post). In both the Shan and Kachin States in the NE, the Burmese Army continues to launch attacks on ethnic civilians, killing and torturing innocent villagers, burning and destroying their crops. At least 100,000 Shan, Kachin, Paulang and Lahu have been displaced. In total, then, it is estimated that 2 to 3 million have fled Burma since the 1980s. This past December a 56 year old female peaceful protester for the Letpadaung Copper Mine (50% Military 50% Chinese), where 4 villages have been destroyed with 26 more to go with inadequate compensation, was shot and killed.  Two female teachers of 19 and 20 were raped and killed in January by Burmese Military Battalion 88, Infantry 503 in N Shan State. This month (February 2015) the Burmese Government declared a state of emergency in the Kokang region, killing 100 people and driving tens of thousands over the border into China as reported in The Times and front page of the International New York Times on 19th Feb. There has been increased curtailment of free speech with Bath Amnesty writing protest letters on a monthly basis. E.g. 2 journalists are in prison for 10 years with hard labour for revealing that Burma has a chemical weapons factory, 15 activists in Michaingkan have been imprisoned for peacefully protesting about land confiscation without compensation. Htin Lin Oo has been imprisoned for making a speech at a literary event saying that Buddhism should not be used to promote discrimination and prejudice which was “insulting” to religion...presumably this was with regard to the Rohingya situation. There are currently 82 political prisoners (Burma Campaign says 161) with more than 200 in prison awaiting trial. A new law is about to be passed whereby a Buddhist woman cannot marry outside her faith which of course discriminates against both Muslims and Christians (Karen people are in the main Christian) and limits women’s freedom to choose. If as a tourist you speak to the locals, they are almost certainly to be the majority Burmans and they may refer to changes for THEM but possibly know nothing about the ethnic situation as their media is controlled by the military as the ruling party.

According to International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) Burma is the only state in the world to have scattered mines every year since 1997 and although 162 nations have, they have not signed the Mine Ban Treaty.  It must be said, however, that some ethnics also plant their own mines in order to keep out the military, but do advise their own villagers where they are.  When I mention ethnic minorities in Burma it should be pointed out that they collectively represent about 32% of the population so I think they should have a voice in matters. The Burma Study Centre in Chiang Mai in Thailand did a small survey of some of the just less than 1,800,000 legal migrants but actual figures could be over 3 million. Responding to the question: Has the situation in Burma improved since 2010 elections? 74.9% said it had improved only slightly or not at all.  To the same question in your village: 55.5% said not at all. Although 84% of those surveyed plan to return to live in Burma, many fear that it would not be safe for them to do so at this time.  Asked:  do you think there will be a nationwide ceasefire? 77.7% said strongly doubtful.

It is not all doom and gloom, and although in the NE and NW as outlined above, things are not so good, in Karen State things have improved with a recent ceasefire (there were still attacks only this last September/October 3 km from where I was) and some villages are being rebuilt. Children are getting an education in the camps and also in Mae Sot by volunteer teachers in some 60 schools, which is most inspiring.

THE FOUNDER & EDITOR OF THE IRRAWADDY  news organisation and winner of numerous international journalism awards and author of 2 books, Aung Zaw, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the 1988 pro-democracy protests, says: “I think the 2010 election was a joke...something happened in 2010 because the Western world was expecting something...The West in return also promised something which was “If you open up, if you change, even if you cheat in the elections, if you take off the uniforms and wear the civilian clothes, we will still come with aid and we will recognise you” and that is exactly what happened...even though we know the election was fixed, the West was happy that at least they had made some concessions like the Myitsone Dam building being suspended (there are 8 more dams) and the release of ASSK, release of some political prisoners (but counted in the numbers were criminals and those who were genuine political prisoners were often rearrested after the figures were published). He goes on to say, “It would be very interesting if the international community and the Western governments who want to believe and romanticise the changes in the country actually had the interest and capacity to listen to the common people in Burma”. This brings me to Burma Link for which I volunteered this winter and which used to be called “Silenced” because they consider this very attitude of the Western world has indeed SILENCED the ethnic minorities. I couldn’t agree more. Their “Agents of Change” workshops aim to create a network of empowered young leaders who can act as role models in their communities and help their community voices to be heard. This supports their overall goal of sharing the voices and stories of Burma's ethnic nationalities and displaced people.

WHY? to all the above: because all Burma’s natural resources like hydro, teak, copper, gems, gold, poppies etc. are in the eastern fringe throughout the ethnic areas!

Wendy Hughes, Mae Sot on the Borderline, February 2015


1824                Burmese try to invade India
1886                Britain conquered entire country starting in 1824 as a result of invasion
1937                Administered as a province of British India until 1937 then separate, self- governing colony
1942 - 44        Burma Independence Army (under Aung San) and Arakan Army fought with Japanese against Britain but in 1945 switched to Allied side
1947                 Panglong Agreement signed
1948                 Independence from Britain and known as Union of Burma as a democracy
1961 – 71        U Thant became the first non-westerner to be Secretary General of UN (with Aung San Suu Kyi as one of the Burmese working under him)
1961                General Ne Win led a coup d’etat that toppled civilian government and military have ruled under various titles ever since (Ne Win for 26 years)
1962, 74, 75, 76, 77 student protests violently suppressed
1988                Widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country with casualties said to be 3000+ (more than Twin Towers and Tiananmen)
1989                Socialist Republic of Union of Burma becomes Union of Myanmar and, although recognised by UN, not by UK, Canada, US
1990                Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD (National League for Democracy) win first free elections in 30 years, which were annulled. Aung San Suu Kyi held under house arrest or prison off and on from 1989 to 2010.  My visit to Krain Camp
1991                Aung San Suu Kyi wins the Nobel Peace Prize.  Refugees 250,000
1995                I visit Burma, campaign outside ASSK’s house and meet NLD MP
1997                Burma admitted to ASEAN
2007               Saffron Revolution by Monks, students and general population
2008               Cyclone Nargis leaves 138,000 as casualties or missing. New, and still current Constitution point No. 359 permits enslavement
2010                November sham elections in which the military put on civilian clothes and continue to rule. 13 November Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest.
2012                I go to Mae Sot and work for the Karen Education Department (KED)
2013                Angelique and I visited Mae Sot and Mae La Refugee Camp, The Border Consortium, the Aid Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), Mae Tao Clinic (donation from friends and Bath Amnesty members)
2014                I go to Sangklaburi to revisit Karen lady who helped visit the students in 1990 and also to visit my Australian friend working in Ban Don Yang refugee camp for Australian Volunteers International (AVI)
2015                I volunteer for Burma Link and take donations from Bath Amnesty members and friends for them and above organisations.

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