Steep climb to a bleak future
"Unless there is rule of law in this country, unless there is a system of government which will guarantee the people the basic right to life, the very basic right to life, there will be a continuing stream of refugees fleeing across our border."
Aung Sun Sui Kyi March 1998 address to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
* * * * *
The four principles of the Karen nation.
1. For us surrender is out of the question.
2. The recognition of the Karen state must be complete.
3. We shall retain our arms.
4. We shall decide our own political destiny.
* * * * *
The remnants of a people cling to a mountainside near Mae Sot in Thailand's northern Tak province.
At Umpheim Mai refugee camp, just 6km from Burma, the Karen people subsist in a camp carved from the clay, an endless series of steps which they ply daily in a hopeless search for normality.
The Karen are the only Burmese ethnic minority not to have signed a peace deal with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Burma's ruling military junta.
And they are paying dearly for their quest for an independent state, which began in 1949.
The camp's most senior monk, Na Ware, shakes his head - he disapproves of the junta's peace deals struck with other ethnic minorities.
"Look at the Mon, they have made an agreement with the SPDC and what good has it done them? All they have done is surrender their right to negotiate, they have totally surrendered their rights. And it is not the people's will for such agreements, the people have no say in such agreements.The peace deals have also freed many of the junta's troops and they have turned their full attention to the systematic destruction of the Karen resistance movement."
Na Ware supports the four guiding principles of the Karen state. "I have news from Burma that there will be demonstrations bigger than 1988 soon. The junta, they are in the process of preparing their soldiers for just such an event. They are trying to destroy the Karen people with cheap drugs, they are trying to divide the Karen people through religion."
He believes Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has no hope of negotiating peace alone. There must be intense pressure from the international community, otherwise all attempts at a negotiated settlement will fail.
"While some ethnic groups have entered negotiations with the junta, it will do them no good - refugees still keep spilling over the borders," he said. "The junta is always at the ready, always on the alert."
The state of the Karen people is one of utter disaster. In Umpheim Mai refugee camp, home to more than 13,000 people, conditions are harsh. The camp itself is set on an unforgiving clay hillside. When the daily torrential rains of the wet season pound the mountain range dividing Burma and Thailand, the pathways linking the various sections of this massive shantytown become water courses. Movement becomes extremely difficult, each step a slippery obstacle to be negotiated with great care. And there are hundreds of thousands of steps in this remote camp. When it is dry, movement for those who are healthy is easier, but the cold winds from the mountains drive waves of choking dust through the air.
For the Karen however, there is one aspect to the camp that means people will walk for more than a month through heavily mined jungles to reach it. And that is that life may go on . . . in whatever degraded form it might take.
For in this camp, separated by just one peak from the Karen homeland, there is less chance of being murdered by the military, or becoming part of a forced labour gang . . . or risking death as a human mine sweeper.
The Karen people are the victims of an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing the likes of which caused horror in former Yugoslavia and Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea.
In camps spread along the border anaemia and malnutrition are widespread, malaria a constant.
Inside Burma the Karen people are forced to construct roads for no wages, used as porters to carry munitions and armaments for months at a time, and sometimes just simply murdered.
There is no attempt to hide murders from the general populace, it is simply another tactic to force submission, or to create such fear that people take flight to Thailand.
At Umpheim camp as many as 20 new families arrive monthly, but at times of intense military activity, such as in January 2000 when SPDC troops attacked two villages in the Myeik and Dawei areas, 1,100 people fled across the border in just a couple of days. On July 17, 2001, more than 2,000 people spilled across the border when Burmese troops attacked an internally displaced person's camp.
Those who remain in Karen state, on the 'inside', must battle an epidemic plaguing their community - amphetamines. The Thai government knows there are between 40 and 50 amphetamine factories along the Burmese border. The military estimates as many as 800 million amphetamine pills have already crossed the border this year.
Once, the drugs were predominantly produced in Shan state, along the Burmese-Chinese border.
But now the Thai border is where most factories are based, and drug production has increased.
Many of the pills are destined for Thailand, but around the factories extremely cheap drugs are made available to the local populace. It is a problem in the camps also, but the self-regulatory nature of the Karen refugees ensures it remains on the fringes.
The future for the refugees is at best bleak, many say they are quite content to simply stay in the camp. They cannot imagine a time of peace in the Karen state, they have never known such.
Ley Thaw, 34, was a student at the time of the 1988 uprising. At the time he fled the provincial capital of Pa-an. He travelled to the border to play a coordinating role for students taking refuge in Thailand. He helped many young people flee and then chose to stay - he began teaching at Huay Kalok, an insecure border camp torched repeatedly by the junta and eventually closed. Teaching with a gun at his side, he instructed his students to stick together and should fighting break out, he would guide them to a safe place where they could again establish a makeshift classroom.
Ley Thaw then began fighting with the Karen National Union's army, headed by General Bo Mya. In 1993, however, he was wounded by troops from the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, renamed the State Peace and Development Council in 1997 with cosmetic hierarchical rearrangements). Shot from behind with an M-79 grenade launcher, he was hospitalized in Mae La refugee camp, the largest camp near Mae Sot, now home to more than 30,000 people.
Would he again take up the fight against the junta?
"I don't want to kill anybody," he said.
"But if the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) asks the refugees to return without adequate security arrangements I will not go, I will again take up a gun."
For people such as Ley Thaw, life is tough, but Karen farmers are facing increased difficulty just existing as they have for hundreds of years.
Once content with simply stealing farmers' rice at harvest, junta troops have now begun removing young rice seedlings. The field is then sown with landmines.
Ge Ra and his family began walking out of Karen state on July 12, 2000, they arrived at Umpheim camp on September 8. The rice farmer had had enough, he didn't want to end up like his father Kin Ma, who had been killed 10 years ago while working as a porter for Burmese troops. He'd seen what a landmine had done to his father, both his legs were torn off by the blast and he died a slow, agonising death.
For three years Ge Ra had lived under the constant stare of Burmese military intelligence officers.
In 1997 each brigade handpicked five of its most militant number to shed uniforms and become the eyes and ears of the military in the regional villages. These groups, said Ge Ra, have more power than the military. If they dislike a particular villager, or they know people have relatives in the camps, they are at liberty to kill them. They are all-powerful and instill terror in the villagers, they may go to people's homes day or night and execute them.
There is nothing clandestine about their activities.
"If you are seen gathered in groups of more than five you are considered to be plotting against the government, that means a seven year jail term.
"The military comes into the villages and takes people at random to act as porters, we are forced to carry munitions and communications gear, but then there is no-one to look after our farms."
"Sometimes we are forced to work for the soldiers for three months at a time, and if you become too exhausted to keep moving they just kill you and walk on."
And so Ge Ra left, he walked through the forest with his wife and two children, guided by local villagers. He has made a small bamboo shack, areas of which have floor, and now spends his days with his family 'at home'.
Ma Cho is a 31-year-old refugee who arrived at Umpheim on September 13, 2000. She stayed in her beloved Pa-an as long as she could.
She had been paying the military 200 Kyat often, so she was not forced to act as a porter. But daily her family could earn only 150 Kyat, selling fried fish from a small cart. And with the increased military presence in Karen state, the military visited more often.
"They always took at least five people from each village per brigade, but then some brigades demand more money than others, some ask for 200 Kyat, others for 300."
"My family had no choice, we could feed ourselves with the fish we caught, but we had no money to pay the military anymore," she said. "Festive occasions are the worst, that's when they simply walk in and demand 500 Kyat. If you have no money, they arrest you."
Ma Cho lost her brother to a landmine while he was working as a porter. She has two children, one who is nine she has brought to the camp. Another, just seven, she has left in Pa-an.
She is staying with people she knows until she can somehow begin to build her own life in the camp.
A moment's silence follows her story and she begins to weep. One of the camp's senior men, in his 60s, offers her some comfort and a Karen language book. It is titled 'We Cannot Forget'. To possess the volume inside Burma is punishable by death.
It costs about Bt5,000 to build a shack in the camp, the bamboo can be bought from Thai businessmen.
An added luxury is a tarpaulin, which offers protection from the wind. Travel can also be arranged if one has money. Bribes of Bt200 to Bt400 create access to areas the poor cannot afford, such as the nearby town of Mae Sot, where a little labouring work can sometimes be found.
Demand from Thai businesses certainly exists, and many lament the ongoing deportation of their workers. The Karen are a cheap source of labour and the economies of scale of factories in Tak province demand cheap labour. A Burmese labourer will work for Bt70 daily, as opposed to the minimum wage for Thais of Bt162. But recent crackdowns by the Thai military and police are once again forcing hundreds of people back into Burma daily. People are loaded into trucks and shunted back along "special" routes inside Burma.
They are prodded like cattle with long poles into the trucks because they lack appropriate identification.
Such identification takes the form of a Polaroid snapshot with a number held before their chest. For them the future is uncertain, but SPDC authorities will be waiting to greet them when they arrive home.
Late at night, sipping weak black tea in a shelter-cum-cafe a refugee in his mid-twenties succumbs to his frustration at life as a refugee since he was just eight years old. There is a cold wind blowing through the makeshift walls and he is braced against it.
"They chose this place, because one thing the refugee knows, they want us to go home, that's why they chose this site."
He hates the camp, he hates the Thais, he hates the junta. He is Karen and his people are dying.
Published on 12/1/01