Along the Thai-Burma border, we meet the women peace activists working in the midst of the world’s longest running civil war.
Along the Thai-Burma border, we meet women peace activists working in the midst of the world’s longest running civil war. In the Karen language, Kawthoolei means “land without evil,” and is the name of a mythical homeland in eastern Burma (Myanmar). Produced along the Thai-Burma border in the refugee camps, medical clinics, and rebel military bases, “Kawthoolei” attempts to demystify the complicated history of Burma’s ethnic groups, while focusing on Karen women activists working for non-violent solutions. This documentary features interviews with Nobel nominees Zipporah Sein and Dr. Cynthia Maung, as well as several other women activists, observers, humanitarian workers, and refugees.
A History of Conflict
Burma, a country with a population of nearly 50 million, is one of the largest countries in South East Asia. Since it’s independence from the British in 1948, it has endured the longest running civil war in history. This war has been waged by the military rulers of the country, who first took over the country in a 1962 coup, led by General Ne Win. The country was turned into a socialist one-party state, and nationalization, led by corrupt and superstitious leaders soon resulted in poverty for the masses. This, combined with the repression faced by Burma’s many ethnic groups, led to strikes and demonstrations, which came to a head on August 8, 1988 (often referred to as the 8888 Uprising). In order to restore order, General Saw Maung staged a coup the following September – the armed forces put a stop to what they saw as an impending revolution, and thousands were killed. The constitution was annulled and martial law, under the newly formed State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), was put in place. General Saw Maung was declared Chairman and Prime Minister.
In 1989, a Constituent Assembly was gathered to revise the 1974 Constitution, and in May 1990, multi party elections were held. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s most well known citizen, won the overwhelming majority of seats, but the results were overturned by the military, and U Tin U and Aung San Suu Kyi, the leaders of the NLD, were placed under house arrest.
In 1992, General Maung was replaced with General Than Shwe, who relaxed some of the restrictions placed on democracy activists. He also allowed the National Convention to assemble, but insisted that the military maintain a prominent role in any future government. The NLD and other parties, fed up with these restrictions, quit the Convention, and in 1996 it was disassembled without producing a constitution. In 1997, SLORC was disassembled and replaced with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – though the change was merely cosmetic. International pressure and sanctions mounted as human rights abuses continued, and political leaders faced continuous repression and imprisonment. In 2003, a “Road Map to Democracy” was announced by the government, but little has been done, and despite the National Convention being reconvened, pro-democracy organisations and parties, including the NLD, were barred from participating. This was again cancelled in 2007, with little to show.
The Saffron Revolution
In 2005 the military leaders moved the capital – to Naypyidaw Myodaw, 200 miles north of Yangon (Rangoon) in order to avoid further large scale protests. This, however, did not prevent the events of 2007, which saw anti-government demonstrations (caused initially by the removal of fuel subsidies in August, causing inflation) – these protests were quickly stopped, but were continued by thousands of Buddhist monks (often called the Saffron Revolution). Violence broke out, many monks were killed and many more imprisoned – and despite repeated requests by the monks for the government to apologize for their actions, none came. Because monks had not traditionally taken part in these visible demonstrations, this represented a significant turning point. This increased these non-violent demonstrations, civilians joined and international condemnation quickly followed. ASEAN and the UN expressed their condemnation, and individual governments tightened sanctions.
A Referendum for Nothing
In 2008, the SPDC announced that a referendum on the constitution would be held; the constitution took years to write and included no input from any opposition – members were handpicked by military, ignoring allies, and locking up or exiling dissenters. They also announced that elections would take place by 2010. Despite a massive cyclone which swept through the country just days before the referendum, it went ahead. The contents of the constitution were not subject to public discussion and according to law, those who expressed opposition to its contents could be arrested or jailed. Bans on opposition activities or meetings, as well as negative media attention were put in place. The constitution reserves over a quarter of parliamentary seats for serving military officers, as well as for key government ministries. Immunity from prosecution as well as broad emergency powers were also included. Another roadblock to democracy in the draft included a ban on presidential candidates with foreign spouses or children (aimed at Suu Kyi, whose husband, Michael Aris, was a British citizen), as well as banning candidates who were serving time in prison (also aimed at Suu Kyi and other NLD activists). The referendum went ahead, and results from the military junta reporting that with a 99% turn out, 92.4% of voters had approved the new constitution.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s most visible representation of the ongoing conflict, has been under house arrest for much of the last 20 years. For many of these years she was not allowed any contact with the diplomatic community, UN officials, non-governmental organization and other NLD leaders, but in recent years met with the UN Special Envoy to Burma and many foreign delegations. On 3 May, 2009, an unvited visitor swam up to Suu Kyi’s home, and she was charged with violating the terms of her probation and sentenced to an additional 18 months of house arrest. She has been barred from seeking office, and other members of her political party, the NLD, have been banned.
Burma’s Many Ethnic Groups
In addition to ongoing political repression, Burma’s many ethnic groups continue to face particular violence as the military junta struggles to keep control over them (the military dictatorship of Burma is thought to allocate around one-third of the country’s GDP to military spending). No reliable census has been carried out for years, so it is impossible to know how many people belong to these groups. Buddhist ethnic groups include the Shans, a Tai people related to those of Thailand and Laos; the Mons, coastal people related to the Khmers of Cambodia; hill-dwelling Palaungs; and the Rakhine people of Arakan, on Burma’s west coast. Arakan’s Moslem people, the Rohingyas, are descended from traders on the Indian Ocean and speak a Bengali dialect. The Chins and Nagas are predominantly Christian groups with clans in Burma and northeast India. Found along the western edge of Burma, the Karenni are said to have migrated from Central Asia. Other tribal groups with populations that overlap Burma, Thailand, China, and Laos include the Wa, Akhas, and Lahus. The Irrawaddy Delta and a spine of mountains along the Thai border are home to the Karen, who are said to be the largest ethnic group after the Burmans and number between 7 and 10% of the population of the country (around 5 million people).
The Karen have been engaged in the struggle for self-determination and equality with the central Burmese authorities since the country’s independence. In the 1960s, Burma’s dictator, General Ne Win, launched a new counter-insurgency strategy called the Four Cuts, designed to cut the four main links (food, funds, intelligence, and recruits) between insurgents, their families and local villagers. This campaign has increased in severity over time and today most of the formerly autonomous ethnic regions are controlled by the military regime. The Karen have customarily lived in eastern Burma, where the military junta has waged war against them for years. Those who remain in the Karen State are generally assumed to be members of the opposition group, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), who work towards autonomy and to protect their region from the military dictatorship. Whether or not the Karen State residents do actually support y support the KNLA is often disregarded by the army, and anyone and everyone is a potential target for interrogation into information about their whereabouts or activities. This means that those Karen who have remained in Burma live in constant fear of the Burmese army, and furthermore, live in conditions of absolute poverty. Burmese men are often forced to work as porters, carrying heavy objects long distances with little food and no pay. Gang rape of women is reported in high numbers, and the forced relocation of families and entire communities is common, as the military dictatorship struggles to maintain control over the population.
Karen resistance also comes in the form of the Karen National Union (KNU), which is the political party that has been fighting for their freedom from the Burmese military dictatorship for over 50 years (the Karen National Liberation Army is the military arm of that party). When Outer Voices visited Mae Sot in 2003, there was talk of a ceasefire in an attempt to start creating a peace agreement. In January of 2004 the KNU and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) declared a verbal ceasefire, as a first step toward securing peace. Both military units were ordered to cease offensive operations, but no agreements were made regarding the return of Karen people to their villagers, delineation of territory or the ending of forced labor and other human rights abuses. Indeed, many argued that the SPDC took advantage of this lapse in fighting to take over more areas and strengthen both their reserves and their military bases. For the Karen people, access to food and health care has deteriorated and forced relocation as well as human rights abuses have continued. On February 1st of 2005, the day after the commemoration of the 56th Anniversary of the Karen Revolutionary Day, the KNU announced that it planned to resume peace talks with the SPDC, but these broke down after only a short meeting. Nothing concrete came of these meetings, and some argue that the SPDC wanted only for the KNU to hand over their weapons – to surrender. Over the years, discussions of cease fire have continued, but these have been fragile, and both sides have accused one another of violating the terms. In 2010, attacks against the military by the KNLA, including assassination attempts against senior junta officials have increased. In July of 2010, a Karen group, the Democractic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), who had long been an ally of the military junta fighting against the KNLA, refused to join the Border Guard Force (which would then become a part of the state security apparatus), and five battalions defected and joined the KNLA.
While Aung San Suu Kyi has made incredible inroads in the fight for peace and democracy in Burma, her political party has been criticized for ignoring the many competing needs of Burma’s numerous ethnic groups, including the Karen. The Karen Women’s Organization believes that the only way to overcome the on-going conflict is tripartite discussions – with Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, with the government, and with representatives of the major ethnic groups.
Within the Burmese borders, 125,000 Karen are considered Internally Displaced People (IDPs), and thousands more have fled across the border – as many as 150,000 people are living in refugee camps along the Thai Burma border, and of these, over 60% are Karen.
Politics Along the Thai Burma Border
While the official stance of the Royal Thai Government is to provide temporary asylum to these refugees, Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) an alliance of international NGOs, has been providing for the basic needs of the refugees, many of whom have been living in the camps for over 20 years. Resettlement to a third country has increased over the last several years, with over 50,000 refugees having been resettled. The majority of these people (over 70%) have been sent to the US, which has at various times authorized a waiver of the resettlement restrictions for potentially eligible Karen refugees, given their particular humanitarian concerns. However, the threat to those remaining of being evicted from Thailand and forced back into Burma is constant. Thai relations with the military junta have in fact deteriorated over the past several years; while previous governments have engaged with the military over economic and bilateral trade issues, the relationship has also been a tense one, as the junta has accused the RTG of harboring political figures wanted by the military. While Thailand has often claimed that the military regime was an obstacle in meaningful engagement, steps towards democracy, no matter how shallow, may no longer have any excuse to avoid deeper discussions.
Should a Karen refugee choose to leave the camp, they generally do so in order to find work. The entire country relies heavily on their labor; at least 80% of Thailand’s migrant labor is provided by the Burmese, and the Karen people make up a large proportion of this number. But they require permits to leave the refugee camps for work, and these cost money. Under the old laws, should a worker lose their job and not find employment again within seven days, their permit would be revoked, thus making them vulnerable to arrest, being fined or deportation.
These rules have changed with the Memorandum of Understanding regarding Burmese migrant workers. Signed by the Royal Thai Government and the State Peace and Development Council of Burma in June of 2004, Amnesty International played a large part in this MOU, and is pleased with the changes that have been made to the policy. Under this agreement, migrant workers are accorded by law the same labor rights as Thai nationals, provided they are registered workers. Family members of workers are allowed temporary residency upon their registration. Workers are also allowed to change employers legally. However, Burmese laborers are not paid the minimum wage, nor are they allowed to organize in unions or enter into collective bargaining. Furthermore, this registration costs money and official verification, which puts those seeking asylum from human rights or other abuses at a risk, as well as a medical examination and fees for health insurance; this is a major impediment for many.
The Women of Burma
The women of Burma have not sat back and watched this conflict continue. Despite the fact that few women are active in the official government of the country, women are well represented in an array of capacities, both within the country and in the diaspora. Women activists from opposition parties are amongst the many political prisoners held by the junta, and are active as journalists, doctors and in other capacities in the fight for peace. An increasing number of women are taking on the role of village head, as men become more and more afraid of these positions, due to the extreme violence that faces them for standing up against the military.
The Karen Women’s Organization
The Karen women, both inside and outside the country, are no exception – their participation in the struggle for independence and a life without violence is strong. Outer Voices met with members of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) in the camps along the Thai Burma border. Their organization supports a number of initiatives involving empowerment and training. Started over 50 years ago in order to support the soldiers and families of members of the Karen National Liberation Army, KWO today has four main focus areas – community care and relief, education and training, income generation and networking and information. The organization also trains women to counsel survivors of violence, and supports schools both within the refugee camps and also in areas of Burma where Karen people are internally displaced. The KWO also collects information about violence against women, including rape, as a means of documenting human rights abuses in efforts to lobby the UN and other international human rights organizations to take action against the military. Working from international grants and funds from membership fees, the organization provides a network of support for the Karen forced to live in the refugee camps. Their members regularly risk their own safety to help their communities. They state that they are preparing the women for democracy – so that when the time comes, they will be ready to lead Kawthoolei, their peaceful homeland.
Dr. Cynthia and the Mae Tao Clinic
While visiting Mae Sot, Outer Voices also had the honor of meeting Dr. Cynthia who runs a clinic in Mae Sot, providing medical services to over 150 000 people both in the Karen refugee camps in Mae Sot and in areas where internally displaced persons live within the nearby borders of Burma. Her clinic has become well known in recent years, and Dr. Cynthia has been honored for her work by many organizations. As a refugee herself, Dr. Cynthia has seen the effects of politics in the region, both through the people to whom her clinic provides services, and through the continual threat to the very existence of the clinic. The Thai government, in a 2003 effort to crack down on illegal migrant workers in that country, threatened to deport Dr. Cynthia and her staff members back to Burma because of a new policy that did not allow registered workers to renew their permits. Fortunately, through local and international lobbying, the Thai government has allowed the clinic to continue to operate. Had they followed through on this threat and sent Dr. Cynthia and her staff back into Burma, they would have potentially faced torture and imprisonment. Those who seek out the clinic’s services would have been left with no access to crucial medical services.
The problems facing the Karen people of Burma continue. The human rights abuses, lack of food, poor access to education and health care – all are reality. But so too is the work being done to counter the effects of devastating war. And this work is being honored: in June of 2005 four Burmese women were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as a part of the 1000 Women for Peace movement. Among these are Dr. Cynthia of the Mae Tao Clinic and Naw Zipporah Sein, coordinator and executive secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization. By honoring the work that these women are doing, perhaps the world can be shown the potential that Burma holds for peace, and support the country in this endeavor.
What the Future Holds
On 13 August, 2010, the junta announced that Burma’s first general election in two decades would be held on 7 November. Amidst criticism that the electoral laws support the military authorities, and reports that opposition party members are being intimidated, there are fears that the polls will be neither free nor fair. The constitution reserves 25% of seats in parliament for the military, more than 75% approval is required for changes to the constitution and members of religious orders (monks, for example) are not eligible to take part; the election commission has been handpicked from the junta. Despite these concerns, there are others that still believe that however flawed, the upcoming election could be the start of a process which could lead to real democracy.
Women’s League of Burma – http://www.womenofburma.org/index.html
Karen Women’s Organization – http://www.karenwomen.org/
Mae Tao Clinic (Dr. Cynthia’s Clinic) – http://maetaoclinic.org
The Irrawaddy News – www.irrawaddy.org
Burma Project – http://www.burmaproject.org/
Free Burma Coalition – http://www.freeburmacoalition.org/
Democratic Voice of Burma – http://www.dvb.no/
Karen National League – http://www.karen.org/knl/home.html
Burma Border Projects: http://www.burmaborderprojects.org
Burma Issues: http://www.burmaissues.org
National League for Democracy (Liberated Area): http://www.nldburma.org/political-activity/ethnic-affairs.html
Burma Project (Soros): http://www3.soros.org/burma/CRISIS/index.html
Burma Net: http://www.burmanet.org
Amnesty International (Burma): http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/myanmarTransnational Institute (Burma in 2010: A Critical Year in Ethnic Politics): http://www.tni.org/briefing/burma-2010-critical-year-ethnic-politics
Nobel Peace Prize (Aung San Suu Kyi) http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1991/kyi-bio.html
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: http://dassk.org/index.php/topic,709.msg755.html#msg755
Thai Burma Border Consortium: http://www.tbbc.org
Burma Campaign UK: http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk
Cultural Survival: http://www.culturalsurvival.org
Burma Net: http://www.burmanet.org
Karen Human Rights Group: http://www.khrg.org
Human Rights Watch (Burma): http://www.hrw.org/asia/burma