In one of the most dramatic human encounters in recent memory, thousands of red saronged Buddhist monks and civilians marching in peaceful protest of the Burmese dictatorship were confronted by Burma’s military. The result was perhaps inevitable: the monks and other Burmese citizens were beaten and killed by the military in a show of force. Ninety citizens were killed, two thousand were wounded.
The violence was broadcast around the world in graphic detail. The United States, the European Union, and the United Nations leveled sanctions against the Burmese dictatorship. American celebrities like Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Jackson Browne, and Cheryl Crow called for a new regime of democracy. Angelina Jolie visited refugee camps to hand out soccer balls to the children. In Burma itself, the Buddhist monks maintained their nonviolent presence. The violence of the Burmese military provoked dozens of insurgent Burmese militias committed to fighting force with force.
The violence in Burma did not begin with the killing and beating of monks and civilians in 2010. The Karen have been a persecuted minority for six decades. Violence, be it from Mongols, the Japanese, or the British Empire, is as old as the region itself, and as young as the children of Karen.
“Even though we are civilians, the military treats us like we are enemies,” said a Karen (pronounced Kuh-REN) refugee in 1999. A teenage boy forced to join the Burmese military remembered, “I was afraid and just wished I could be with my parents. The first day I was beaten seven times, thirty times in my whole time there. Then I agreed to join, and they stopped beating me.”
Others were less fortunate. An eight year old Karen girl “heard my mother crying out. I saw one of the Burmese soldiers dragging her. In her hands she was holding my little sister. I did not dare go and help my mother…I stayed hidden under that big tree. I saw my father go try to help my mother. The soldier shot him, and he fell down. I heard my mother cry out about two more times and then I never saw her again.”
The Karen live in eastern Burma, a nation roughly the size of Texas bordered on the west by India, on the north by China, on the south by the Indian Ocean, and on the east by Thailand. (Although the present government has officially changed the name of their country from Burma to Myanmar, most still refer to Myanmar as Burma).
The Karen live on the eastern border of Burma in a region they call Kawthoolei (“a land without evil”). In the past twenty years some 700,000 thousand Karen have been driven out of Burma into refugee camps in Thailand. The United Nations and independent human rights groups have documented military atrocities against the Karen that range from murder to gang rape to crucifixion. “Villagers were arrested whilst working on their farms, they were tied up, crucified, and finally had their throats cut,” according to village chief Naw Pee Sit. Other Karen are used as “mine sweepers” by the military, forced to walk ahead of soldiers in areas where land mines have been planted by insurgent forces.
The Karen are not the only persecuted group in Burma. Included in its population of 48 million people there are eight major ethnic groups, and over one hundred subgroups. The Karen are about 6 per cent of the total population. Most Karen are Buddhists, but a significant minority are Christian, courtesy of nineteenth century American Baptist missionaries, and Catholic mission work from Italy.
Independent observers claim the Karen are not only being persecuted for their ethnicity, but for their religion as well. Whatever the causes of the persecution, it is systematic and ruthless. Children are forced into slave labor, into the military, suffer beatings, brainwashing, starvation, and are left for dead if they can’t keep up with the army. Others are tortured and killed like their parents.
Many Karen have lived in refugee camps in neighboring Thailand for twenty years. The children born there have no nationality. Burmese military cross the border to attack refugee camps, and the overburdened Thai government looks the other way. A Burmese official has predicted that “In ten years all Karen will be dead.” A military officer patrolling a refugee camp shrugs: “Every day people are dying. It’s a normal thing.”
The Obama administration estimates there are 117,000 Karen living in refugee camps in Thailand. Over half are children. When the world’s spotlight turned to the Burmese military, Burma’s rulers pledged a more democratic government, and an end to “shoot on sight” orders to the military regarding the Karen.
Four years later there is talk about Karen refugees returning to Burma.
President Obama made his second visit to Burma in November 2014. Human rights groups gave reports and briefings on the state of Burma and the Karen people to the media. There has been some modest progress. Burma’s leaders are now talking to the Karen National Union (KNU) about conditions of return, and to Thailand’s government about improving conditions in the refugee camps.
On the other hand, in the past two years the Burmese military has twelve times violated ceasefires agreed upon by Burma and the KNU. There has been no attempt to disarm the hundreds of landmines along the Burma/Thailand border, making any sort of return perilous.
Moreover, the “shoot on sight” policy regarding Karen citizens seems to still be in force. There are recent reports of Burmese soldiers shooting at unarmed Karen civilians, and occasionally crossing the Thai border to attack refugee camps.
Burma’s current president, Thein Sein, is a career military man who was identified by name by the United Nations in 1998 for ordering his soldiers to rape and murder Karen civilians. Soldiers under his command were reportedly trafficking methamphetamines and opium. Sein is no friend of the Karen, but he seems to be playing it smart while the spotlight is on him and his allegedly democratic government.
Most Karen in refugee camps do not want to return to Burma. There is great mistrust of the Burmese government and military. In recent years many Karen have immigrated to the United States. State Department records indicate about 17,000 Karen have immigrated to America in each of the last three years. A hub of sorts appears to be developing in Minnesota, home of meat processing centers and above average translation and language services. Far away from the threat of Burmese rifles, some Karen children are reinventing their lives in a brand new country.
The children of Karen are nothing if not resilient. Mu Pa was two when she saw government troops of Myanmar (Burma) attack the jungle village she lived in. “They shoot my father,” she remembers. “I don’t know why. They had power. They had guns.”
The troops also burned down Mu Pa’s village. She grew up in a refugee camp in the eastern border country of Thailand. She remembers the camp as “a prison where you can’t go out anywhere.” As a teenager Mu Pa came to America to live with a Karen family she is not related to by blood. She knew no English and had never seen snow before; much less experience a long, cold Minnesota winter after growing up in subtropical Thailand.
She is one of tens of thousands of Karen who have immigrated to the United States from refugee camps in Thailand since 2005. The largest concentration of Karen in our country (7,000) live in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mu Pa attends public high school. She and other Karen teenagers participate in a special theater production that expresses their stories: their violent childhoods, being uprooted, living in refugee camps, coming to a new country, being bewildered, not knowing English or American customs, and slowly finding their way as young adults and young Americans .
The Karen Organization of Minnesota has combined with Dangerous Productions Theater Company to help Karen teens tell their new community what life was like for them in Southeast Asia, and how life is now in Minnesota. Teenagers from several high schools in St. Paul form their own plays and scenes to inform their community, and perhaps the larger world, about who the Karen are, their struggles, and their triumphs. Tyler Olsen is the Dangerous Productions director who has organized many of the high school performances. He says:
“I haven’t had a performance where at least five people didn’t come up and say, ‘I didn’t even know these people were here.’ Public exposure to these stories is really important. I am floored by the experiences of these young people. Their resilience is mind blowing.”
Many of the Karen teenagers are translators and interpreters for their parents who don’t speak English. They pay bills and read mail. Other teens work part time after school so they can send money back to their families in Burma and Thailand. Perhaps adjusting to America is easier than adjusting to having your town burned down, seeing your father killed in front of you, and growing up in a refugee camp. These are remarkable human beings, with an excellent chance of becoming remarkable Karen/American adults.
From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe, HarperCollins Publishers, 2002
Than Shwe’s Burma, by Diane Zahler, Twenty-First Century Books, 2010.
The Seattle Times, “Report: Myanmar troops commit atrocities”, February 24, 2010.
Persecution.org. International Christian Concern, Persecuted countries:Myanmar.http://www.persecution.org/suffering/countryinfodetail.php?countrycode=12
St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 2015, Karen youth's life journeys, on stage, by Maja Beckstrom