Universe Column for January 2003
By David Alton
March 9th has been designated as the global day of prayer for Burma. In the refugee camps, where many of the 130,000 Karen people have fled to escape Burma’s genocide, voices will be raised in the earnest prayer that 53 years of conflict will finally come to an end.
Along with prayer, we need to redouble the political pressure on western governments and on the Burmese military junta. There are also a host of initiatives that individuals and church groups can take to help those who are suffering.
I have just returned from the Burma border where I was taking evidence, along with American Congressman, Joseph Pitts, on behalf of Jubilee Campaign. We collected truly shocking accounts of the latest violations of human rights. Although the British Government still refuses to categorise these crimes as genocide there is no doubt in my mind that no other word adequately describes the realities in Burma’s Karen State.
Two years ago the Catholic human rights activist, James Mawdsley, graphically brought that suffering to light. His brave decision to launch a protest inside Burma and the 17 year sentence and 13 months solitary confinement that followed made many people aware of the harrowing atrocities committed by the military regime.
The story of one small child I met at a refugee camp near Mae Sot illustrates how the brutality and violence of this perfidious regime continues.
Saw Naing Gae is just eight years old. He saw the Burmese military shoot dead his mother and his father. He was then trafficked across the border and sold to a Thai family. Desperately unhappy he managed to escape and made his way to the camp, where he is staying with a group of thirty other orphans. Even as these children sang and welcomed their visitors Saw Naing Gae seemed unable to join in or even to smile. Every trace of joy and innocence had been stamped out of him; and all of this by the age of 8.
Saw Naing Gae squatted alongside four other children, brothers and sisters, whose parents had also been brutally murdered. The oldest girl, aged about 12, and now head of their family, dissolved into tears as she recounted their story.
Naw Pi Lay, whose photograph illustrates this article, did not survive.
Aged 45, the mother old five children and pregnant with her sixth, Naw Pi Lay was murdered in June of last year by the Burmese militia. During a massacre in the Dooplaya district of the Karen State, twelve other people were killed, including children aged 12,7,5, and 2 years old.
Elsewhere in the same district, at Htee Tha Blu village, further violations of human rights were carried out by Light Infantry Battalions 301 and 78. They beat and tortured villagers, stole their belongings and burnt down their church and their homes.
The last time I visited this region, about four years ago, I illegally crossed the border and entered the Karen State. I heard and saw evidence of the internally displaced people – estimated now at 600,000; of the scorched earth policy that has depopulated and destroyed countless villages; and of brutality unequalled anywhere I have travelled.
This time I met one of the Free Burma Rangers who had just come out of the Karen State. He had been with a little girl of eight who still had a bullet lodged in her stomach. To help people like hr he had taken in some nurses and medics. Why was he, an American, so committed to the Karen? “I love these people, and I simply don’t want to see them suffering like this. We’ve got to do something, even if we’re just like a small barking dog,” he told me.
At Mae Sot we took evidence from the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People. They provided me with over 100 pages of carefully documented examples of human rights violations committed by Burmese military over the past twelve months alone. One day I hope that this evidence will be placed before an international court and as at Nuremberg the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
The report lists three mass killings by the SPDC (Burma’s singularly ill-named State Peace and Development Council). It is a carefully chronicled account of looting, burning, torture, rape and murder. The SPDC routinely plant landmines indiscriminately and in areas where landmines have been laid by their opponents the SPDC use people as human landmine sweepers.
I saw some of the victims – people whose limbs have been severed from their bodies, whose skin has been peppered with shrapnel, and others who have been left blind. I also talked to the families of people whose loved ones – men and women – had been seized and used as porters and construction workers, and who have never returned. The SPDC kill many of the porters in frontline areas, especially when they are unable to any longer work because of exhaustion or sickness.
The international focus on Burma has long been on the heroic struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). The SPDC are part of a military dictatorship that has brutalised its people since a coup in 1962. Having called an election in 1990, which the NLD won, the SPDC refused to accept the result. Although in the past twelve months the military have allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to travel more freely, tentative talks between the two groups appear to have stalled. During the same period the attacks in most parts of Burma have increased.
A settlement with the NLD represents a solution to only half of the conflict. The seven ethnic groups who have been fighting for self determination or autonomy since the end of World War Two – the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Arakam, Kachin, Chin and Shan – will still need to have their grievances addressed.
In Chiang Mai I met with the authors of a carefully meticulous 120 page report on the Burmese military regime’s use of sexual violence in the Shan State over the past six years. The report of the Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women’s Action Network, “Licence To Rape”, details how rape has been used as a weapon of war. Sexual violence – especially widespread gang rape – has terrorised and humiliated communities, flaunts the power of the regime, “rewards” troops, and demoralises resistance forces.
Women who have been raped have frequently been abandoned or rejected by their husbands. One woman described how she was gang-raped when she was 7-months pregnant and then gave birth prematurely to her child. Another was told by her husband to leave: “You didn’t control yourself. You are no longer my wife. Leave our home.”
The Burmese Junta have turned their country into one vast concentration camp. They are Nazi thugs who deploy Nazi methods. Like their Nazi predecessors they fail to appreciate the strength of the human spirit and the capacity to endure and survive.
Typical are the joint secretaries of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Bo Kyi, a student leader who spent seven years in Burmese jails, told me that “torture is designed to break down your identity, to turn you into a non-entity with no connection to the world outside of the torture chamber.”
Naing Kyaw served 8 years in Insein and Thayet prisons and still manages to joke that “insane” would be a better spelling. Regularly beaten with a chain and ball on his back, and often kept in solitary confinement, he was offered the chance to become an informer.
Instead, he learnt English from the professor who was housed in the adjacent cell – so that he would be able to tell the world about Burma’s suffering. He has put the language to good use in his essay in “Spirit For Survival” which he dedicates to a despairing young woman who took her own life: “All the suffering you felt we will change into strength. This grief, this feeling of deep hurt and bitterness will become a volcano, which is going to explode.”
I was struck that even as the suffering deepens no-one is giving in. Democracy activists continue their struggle and the beleaguered ethnic minorities refuse to capitulate.
In amongst it all are people trying to bring hope and help – like the Karen Catholic priest I visited who is simply known as “the jungle priest.” He is running an illegal school for young people denied education. Or the Thai Catholic nuns, inspired by the vision of one of their number, Sister Love. They have created a wonderful centre and school for six hundred children. The evangelical Life Centre for girls rescued from traffickers, the Bible School in the heart of one of the camps, and the non-governmental organisations are all doing wonderful work.
There is an old saying that the darkest moment is always just before the dawn.
For Naing Kyaw, Bo Kyi, and the other extraordinarily courageous men and women I met on the Burma border, this indeed may well be the darkest time.
Until now the Thai Government has been generous and hospitable in allowing refugees and democracy activists a place of shelter. While our delegation was in the country, not only did a group of 2,000 Burmese military attack Karen settlements in the Tak district, we also learnt that the Thais had raided the homes of pro democracy activists and were seeking to repatriate them. It would have been more humane to have issued an order for their summary execution and have done with it. Imagine Winston Churchill deporting members of the French Resistance to occupied Nazi Europe and you have the correct parallel.
All this has to do with the Thais seeking to strengthen commercial links with the military junta. On February 9th the Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra and the army chief, Somdhat Attanant, travel to Rangoon. It is impossible for me to imagine how any democratic leader could want to do business with a regime that kills and brutalises its people and that relies on drug production to finance its economy.
Last year more than one billion meth-amphetamine pills were produced in Burma and most were sold on in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, causing disastrous social consequences. The junta have been making a killing from illegal trafficking of drugs, timber, and people, and then they use their illicit gains to kill their own people. One day the people who have collaborated in this profiteering will be held to account, tried and jailed.
These words from Psalm 61 were handed to me as I left the Karen refugee camp on the Burma border: “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you. I call as my heart grows faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”
They represent a plaintive and last desperate cry by a people who have suffered beyond reason. Their cry is indeed issued from the ends of the earth. How much longer will they have to wait for the rest of the world to respond?
On March 9th the people of Burma will be sorely in need of our prayers. But they need our help too. Please resolve to help in some tangible way.
HOW YOU CAN HELP – WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Jubilee Campaign has campaign material available: email@example.com or telephone Jubilee at St. John’s Seminary, Wonersh on 01483 894 787
- You can send a “Good Life” pack of small gifts for displaced children inside Burma (they suggest chewable vitamins, a small comb and mirror, a small toy, pencils) in a heavy duty Ziplock freezer bag, marked “gift/school needs/ no commercial value”, to Christians Concerned for Burma, PO Box 14, Mae Jo P.O., Chiang Mai, 50290, Thailand.
- You can sponsor or support the education of children being cared for by James Mawdsley’s Metta Trust, by the Burmese Jungle Priest or by Sister Love and her co-workers. Cheques should be made out to Jubilee Action and sent to St. John’s Seminary, Wonersh, nr Guildford, Surrey GU5 0QX.
- You can write to your MP, to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Prime Minster, demanding that Britain press for genocide charges to be brought against the Burmese military junta. (all c/o House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA)
· Write a letter of protest to the Burmese Ambassador:
His Excellency Dr Kyaw Win, Embassy of the Union of Myanmar (Burma)
19A Charles Street, Berkeley Square, London W1X 8ER
Telephone number: 020 7499 8841
· Organise a Day or Prayer on March 9 in your parish or at your home