Myanmar has been in the headlines of late, with pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction and sentencing to 18 months of house confinement.
But as a Worldfocus contributing blogger writes, a humanitarian disaster that has been brewing inside Myanmar for years has received relatively scant attention.
In the wake of Myanmar army attacks on ethnic Karen rebels, roughly 100,000 mostly Karen refugees have fled to Thailand and some half a million others are displaced within Myanmar.
Caroline Stauffer is in Bangkok and writes at World Policy about the plight of Karen refugees.
In a field cut off from the rest of Thailand by a muddy mountain pass, 1,000 people have been living under thin tarps for the past six weeks, having fled landmines and shelling in their native Myanmar. The tarps and wood platforms do not protect them from monsoon rains or the mosquitoes that spread malaria around their makeshift villages.
Factions of the Karen people have fought for greater autonomy from the country formerly known as Burma for 60 years, but the Karen villagers I spoke with just seem to be caught in the crossfire.
In the last few months, the world has turned its focus to the secretive, military-ruled state.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern over Myanmar-North Korea military links at the July Asean Regional Forum. The state show trial of pro-democracy leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi attracted international media coverage, brought UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to Burma and garnered a new release of the U2 song dedicated to the world’s best known prisoner of conscience. In an apparent gesture to this global clamor, the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the Burmese opposition was given what for the junta was a slap on the wrist — another 18 months of detention where she has already spent half of her adult life under house arrest.
Still, though the world has mobilized for the cause of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the decades old humanitarian disaster occurring in rural Burma remains under the international radar, and the situation is deteriorating.
The Karen villagers I spoke with on the Thai-Burma border said they face forced recruitment by the regime’s army and its ally, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. Villagers are made to serve as porters or told to walk in front of army patrols, literally serving as human shields. Their stories confirm accounts from exiled media and aid groups that the regime is forcibly recruiting civilians to build up a border guard force.
The Karen are not the only people in multi-ethnic Burma suffering abuse. Ten established camps in Thailand house Karenni, Shan, Mon, Kachin and Rohingya people.
The junta has said all ethnic resistance groups must put down their arms and become political parties before elections can occur. Some groups have tentatively aligned with the regime and are now called cease fire groups. Others fear that without arms they will lose any negotiating power they have left and will not be able to protect their people from the regime’s army.
The regime has been militarizing the Thai-Burma border for years. China and Thailand have signed on to invest in dams in Karen State, and demand that the area be secure before construction can begin. In the unruly, heavily mined jungles of Myanmar, enhanced militarization inevitably means more violence.
[…] One 50-year-old Karen woman I spoke with knew nothing about refugee camps or elections. She did say she was tired. After traveling across the Thai-Myanmar border three times in her life, she just wanted somewhere to stay put.
More abuses will occur in the coming months as the rains stop, elections approach and the critical gaze of the international community focuses on the aftermath of the trial in Yangon — or yet again abandons the country entirely.
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The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.