Burma’s Attention Deficiency


by Mark Rowland

While the West seems pre-occupied with itself, one of the world’s cruellest regimes continues to act with impunity.  Mark Rowland comes face to face with the human cost of Burma’s ethnic cleansing and explores what more could be done.

I thought I understood what was happening in Burma.  After only a week on the Thai/Burma border, it was salutary to discover I did not.  The situation is more complex and tragic than I had imagined.

Almost as shocking as Burma’s ruthless dictators’ though is the level of ignorance which is still pervasive in the West. We have become masters at providing ‘wholly legitimate’ reasons why Burma does not flicker on our personal radar screens.

Last week, I joined a team heading into a remote Karenni refugee camp on the Western Thai/Burma border. We had to walk long into the night and sleep in the jungle to reach the camps. Our subversive mission? To interview 60 Karenni children – all of whom had been separated from their families as they fled Burma.  Each child had their own story of survival and suffering.  One had lost her leg stepping on a landmine, others had been used as forced porters by the Burmese military.

Swee Beh Thoo’s experience was not uncommon yet the absence of self pity and his courage captivated me.   His father had drowned in a river trying to escape the Burmese troops. The Burma Army later destroyed his village. He walked for weeks, leaving behind his mother, to reach the refugee camp. It put our supposed gruelling trek into stark perspective.

This twelve year old boy had endured more than I could imagine, yet he told me, ‘I am grateful to be living in safety now, with the opportunity to go to school.’

The central problem in Burma is simple: military leaders (who with Orwellian irony called their government the State Peace and Development Council) are executing a strategy to crush any form of resistance from the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon, Arakan, Kachin, Chin, Rohingya, Lisu, Pa’O, Lahu and other ethnic groups living inside the country’s borders.  It is a conflict of David and Goliath proportions. Faced with a multitude of small ethnic armies and splinter military groups, the junta’s 400,000 strong army rides roughshod over village communities destroying everything in its wake.

The result: over one million people in the border areas have been fled their homes under attack from the Burma Army.

From hidden settlements in the jungle, internally displaced people (IDPs) face a huge challenge to survive.  One of the biggest threats remains a shortage of food. Displacement means farming is rendered nearly impossible – the chief means that the people can sustain themselves. Livestock such as chickens, goats and pigs are often stolen by Burmese troops as part of systematic extortion rackets exercised against already destitute villagers.

My one night sleeping in the jungle was sufficient to appreciate just how hard an IDP’s life is. Poor diet leads to malnutrition and susceptibility to a range of diseases from Malaria to Cholera.  Most IDP areas have no medical clinics close enough to provide even the most basic of assistance.  Mobile medial teams give intermittent relief but it is not enough.

Education which is so critical for the future and for peace is suffering too. Temporary schools are established in IDP villages – only to be burned down when the Burma Army attacks. Providing the young with some semblance of an education is an honourable task but few teachers are either willing or able to meet the need. Consequently, literacy rates are woeful and the prospects of further education for gifted students, remains gloomy.

Even child-birth becomes a life and death issue when it happens under the canopy of a jungle with plenty of threats to a vulnerable, albeit precious little life.

Add to this the conscription of IDPs as forced porter and the use of rape as a weapon of war and you can understand the degree of human suffering that is being endured.  This is genocide although the UN still won’t concede it.


At least 600,000 people have fled into Thai refugees camps. But with no freedom to travel, work or even choose what to eat each day, daily life is closer to that of a prisoner. Many face a stark choice: the danger of the jungle or the boredom of the camps.

Despite the darkness, there are inspiring people lighting a flame. In fact, they are blazing a trail.  It is not just the work they do that is impressive.  It is the spirit of fraternity, dogged determination and kindness that has struck me.

The smaller organizations are especially impressive. Often these groups have been established by Christian individuals who have taken responsibility for what is happening and implemented a belief that they should stand against oppression.   Whether it is the training indigenous medical and journalistic teams to gather information from deep inside Burma or the long-term work of supporting schools, child-care programs and income generating initiatives – all are critical if the future is to be brighter.

Alongside this grassroots work, a major political assault is needed by the international community. We need more than words.  A Burma official recently dismissed a report which called for UN intervention in Burma by critiquing the unimpeachable credentials of its sponsors, former President Vavlac Havel and Archbishop Tutu. He called them ‘lemmings engaged in political gaming’.  Such flippancy would be harder to sustain if the UN followed the recommendations of the report and mobilised a peace-keeping force in Burma.

Perhaps the Burmese Generals are also able to maintain their grip of power because we have legitimised passivity and indifference in the West.  The politicians simply follow our lead.

Recently, I watched Hotel Rwanda – a horrifying indictment of the West’s disinterest in preventing genocide. After the film finished, I flicked onto the final episode of a US TV series. The show ended with the main character skipping down the street, carrying a couple of Gucci bags and concluding that the most important relationship in life is the one you have with yourself.

It was a poignant reminder that our fascination with ourselves can blind us from another world, crying out for our attention.

Mark and Nicky Rowland recently left their jobs in the UK and have moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Formerly the Assistant Director of Jubilee Action, Mark now works for the Free Burma Rangers and Partners Relief and Development.