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We Are Karen!

by Eh Nay Thaw


February 25, 2014

We Are Karen!

Friends, to tell you my story, the story of the Karen people, is not what I love to do, but it’s my responsibility and every Karen person’s responsibility. Why? Let me ask you a question.

How many of you know the Karen people before you came to Centre?

See? Not many people in the world know, or has ever heard of, who the Karen people are. Maybe you don’t either, but don’t worry, don’t feel bad, you are not alone. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a reality and that’s exactly why we are here.

This evening, I want to tell you about the Karen people through one personal experience out of a hundred thousand. My story is not as dangerous as others but it is the story that many went through; From Burma, to Thailand, and to United States.

Why do I feel like it’s my responsibility to share my story, my Karen people’s story? I’ll tell you why. Because once we all had lives, homes, churches, and schools in Burma. However, we were forced to leave it all behind and flee for our lives because of a brutal dictatorship in Burma.

A former Vice Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council in Burma known as (SPDC), General Maung Aye, once said “One day, if you want to see the Karen people, you’ll have to go and watch at the museum.” (Texas International Law Journal.) I don’t know what this means to you, or to the rest of the world, but to me it means the deliberate destruction of a racial, political, and cultural group that we all know is genocide. But guess what? In my personal belief, it was a failure because here I am, a Karen person standing in front of you, telling the story of an ethnic nationality who have been persecuted for over half a century.

The Karen people of Burma are egalitarian. We never had a feudal society because we are mainly a rural people, living in river valleys, plains and mountains, and were engaged in hunting, gathering and subsistence agriculture.

I remember the story my mother told me about our life inside Burma before we became refugees. We lived in a peaceful village call “LayKaBlah” which basically mean flat rocks. At that time, I had four family members -my older brother, my parents and me. Life for our family was simple. My mother was a local clinic nurse and my father was a sailor for fishermen. They never had to worry about earning an income. My mother said the village had a community place or a common house where everyone was welcome. Because villagers farmed, we had good supply of farm produce for everyone in the village to enjoy. Everyone felt safe. We slept well in our home at night with the doors left open or unlocked. There was nothing to fear, because there was no war, no thieves, and everyone trusted everyone else.

But that village life didn’t last.

In the summer of 1997, the Burmese soldiers launched an offensive against the Karen people. Everyone fled the village when the Burmese soldiers got nearby. At the time when we fled, my father wasn’t with us because he was working on the sea and didn’t expect this would happen. So my mother had to carry me along with extra rice, a cooking pot and other necessities.

My older brother was only four years old at the time. He had to walk. We left our home with everything that we had and only carried what we could. A couple days after we left our village, the Burmese military arrived. They burned down all the houses and killed the animals that were left. My mom said over a hundred villagers all fled together including small children like me, the elderly, pregnant and nursing women, and sick people. My mom said that we could not walk slow and take a rest. If we walked slow and stopped for a rest, the Burmese military could reach us anytime. So we had to hurry as much as we could. My mom said I was really sick with serious diarrhea. There was no medicine to take and even worse was that clean water was impossible to get. Malaria was the most common sickness because nobody had mosquito nets. We hid in the jungle for days and nights. We couldn’t even have fire at night because we could have been spotted by the Burmese soldiers at anytime.

After a long week of running through the death shadow valley, we finally arrived in Thailand at what they called “temporary camp.” When we arrived, my mother said it was a huge relief although there is sorrow and fear deep inside the heart. There were no more Burmese military following our footsteps. Finally my father came back from the sea and we found each other.

My mother told me this story when I was a kid and it is a similar story that I shared with most of the Karen people. However, I never felt upset about this story and the experience that other Karen and I went through until my early teenage years. All we all hoped for was to be able to stay in the camp until it was safe for us to return home, hopefully before too long.

7-The refugee camp where we went and lived is called Tham Hin. The camp is only about one-tenth of square kilometer with a population of over 9,000. The camp lies in a steep sided valley covered with lacy bamboo. A small river winds its way through the valley and the camp and provides the water to the people. It was extremely overcrowded and unsanitary. The conditions were severely cramped with houses being only six feet apart. The only house roofing allowed was a plastic sheet. Food, water, and medical care for us, was rudimentary. The camp was heavily guarded by Thai military and security guards. None of us were permitted to leave the camps but many people risk arrest or deportation by going in search of work outside of the camp.

One story I remember is of a father of a family that lived next door to our house. The father was seeking a job outside of the refugee camp. He worked on the sea just like my father for many years. When his family heard he was coming back, it brought them happiness and hope. They looked forward to enjoying the little money he had earned. But on his way home, he was caught and arrested by the Thai authorities. He was considered  an illegal immigrant. However, instead of being returned to the Burmese authorities, he faced eight years in Thailand’s jail. The family knew he was arrested but they never knew what happen to him or if he would ever return home. So without knowing if he still existed or not, his wife married another man and had a child. But after eight years, he came back… unexpected to the “temporary camp.” When he came back, his children were all grown up. His return did not only bring joy to his wife and the children, but to the whole community who thought he would never return.

One of the factors that concerned people the most was health care. Many refugees faced severe illnesses such as respiratory, tubercular, skin disease, and mosquito transmission of malaria.

Here are some facts about inside refugee camps from UN Refugee Agency. Education in the camp is generally limited to grades 1-10. Most of adult populations of 54 percent have engaged in some sort of farming. Other common occupations include teacher (4 percent), weavers and  knitters (2 percent), Vendors (2 percent). Medical professionals and religious professionals (only 1 percent). Some 26% of adult population indicates that they have not had an occupation. This is not surprising as many adults arrived in the camp as children, and have had limited opportunities to develop skills or to work legally.

In 1997 when our family became refugees, I was a little boy who knew nothing about war and politics. I remember my best friend and I walked about half a mile every morning to go to school. As a preschooler, school was pleasurable because we got snack and noodles every Friday. Occasionally, we would get to go outside to the playground and you know, as a kid, being able to do such a thing was a privilege. We always had the motivation to go to school because we got to learn how to read and write, and the same time, the school provided us food. What’s even better was that they taught us the English alphabet. They told us that if you know how to speak English, you are like king of the hill. In such a place, it was true and I promise you that many kids worked really hard for it.

The refugee camp is where I spent my childhood. Even though I went to school there for a decade, I learned nothing about the outside world except adversity and life without hope. But as I grew up, I begin to mature. I began to understand the rules of civilization and…I began to understand that my life was missing something, something that every person dreams of.

I had been thinking about it for a long time. I asked myself, what have I missed? Travel around the world? Having a huge house? Driving an expensive car? …. NO!!!! IT’s simple. I missed my freedom.

Everyone missed their freedom, their rights to act, speak, or even think as one wants without restraint. I thought to myself, if I live here in this refugee camp for the rest of my life, I would end up nowhere but in the cage I was in. The longer I lived, the more I felt depressed and that life was almost meaningless.

For Karen refugees as a whole, Freedom takes on many forms.

It’s not only about being able to practice our religious belief or political platform, but being able to travel places we want to go and to have the opportunity to work for living. Furthermore, Freedom involves having the capacity to control our lives as individuals, as families, and as the community like being able to celebrate special events such as Christmas Eve.

The lack of Freedom in this confinement also involved the issue of restriction in terms of observing Karen National Holidays. These are perceived by The Thai government as political in nature and so would not allow us to form political assembly in order to express grievances as a collective and were considered to be illegal. Last but not least, the most important element of freedom is to experience joy in everyday of life. We were unable to have these experiences. We were never given the right to do so.

If you ask a lot of people about their lives inside refugee camps, they would describe it as a bird in the cage because we get fed regularly by the United Nations but we are not able to fly. When the owner comes and release us, chances are we don’t know how to fly because we did not have to opportunity to learn or practice how to fly for a long time and sometime we don’t even know what it means to fly.

I was like one of a hundred thousand birds inside the cage. In the camp I was never taught the value of labor or hard work. I depended on outside help. What’s even worse is the fact that there was no real education system that would teach me knowledge and prepare me how to work for a living. There was no land to cultivate inside the camp. Many of the young people and I lacked everyday skills and didn’t know how to live a life of our own. Many of us did not know anything about some of the basic skills even in agricultural work. Our parents were concerned about what would happen to us when we returned to Burma. However, our parents continue to hold their values dear in their hearts despite their situation and, thus, our situation.

Many of the young people like me were interested in acquiring knowledge and skills in effective governance. For these reasons, many of us took advantage of whatever training, seminars, workshops, vocational courses and some “Post Ten” education that was being offered inside the camp. But these education programs (Like KaWaw said) that were being offered inside the camp were non-accredited academic programs. They were, and still aren’t, recognized degree programs based on the academic standard of the neighboring countries. Many of other people I know that have even completed “Post Ten” courses receive no promise for employment. So the young people would sneak into neighboring villages or towns in Thailand to seek recognized further education. However, it is a really risky thing to do. Many others ended up getting married at a very young age and started raising families. These activities that once seemed so easy to engage in were becoming more and more complicated as the ideas of restriction when it comes into freedom/focus.

Our dreams and hopes had been vanished and we all felt bleak. We served no purpose in life inside the camp except like tending a bird inside the cage. While living in camp, the international UN decided what they would do with us. In 2006, after living a decade of our desperate lives inside the cage, the countries such as US, Canada, Australia, UK, Sweden, Netherland, and so on, decided to welcome refugees to their homeland. This was a step that really brought back to reality a chance to have hopes and dreams.  These countries offered us a real glimmer of hope that we have not had for many years in our Karen peoples’ history. For me, it was a relief from the hardships that we as refugees had to cope with while in the Thai refugee camp. The designated “temporary” settlement was now no longer our final stage… Of course, our parents would prefer to go back to their home country of Burma….but there was no going back only forward. Resettlement to the third countries for us is the best solution, if not, the most important for our Karen peoples’ step toward entering the real world.

If you ask many parents why they came to United States, they would respond with “I came to America for the sake of my children.” Yes, they don’t what us to go through what they’ve been through. As parents, they want us to live a better life. They what us to practice freedom and, most importantly, they want us to be educated. They believe and know that education is the only way we can truly solve our long struggle.

The 20th President of United States James Garfield once said “Next in importance to freedom and justice is education. Without which neither freedom nor justice can be maintained.” Our struggle is far from resolved, but it is a struggle that will ultimately be fought on a different sort of battlefield. It will take more struggle, but hopefully, bloodless struggle.

Negotiation is bloodless struggle. We can view it as war without bloodshed. This is part of our parents’ vision from generation to generation. It is their greater and wiser vision which anticipates our return to Burma with the most powerful weapon - education.            

My family said goodbye to the refugee camp on December 18th 2007. Coming to the United States was a huge relief, and yet, another struggle. When we arrived in US, everything was so new and different and we felt like a new born baby. We all have difficulties adjusting ourselves to the situation. We felt completely blind due to language barriers, the vastly different culture, all the traveling, and the new technologies. However, our struggle is a struggle that will prove to us that we are not just a bird in a cage, but a worthy human being with hope and a future. We have chosen our own destiny for the first time, a destiny in which we can work for mankind.

The Burmese government would like you to believe that our ”Karen book” is closed and that hope is lost. But this is not the ending! It is a new beginning, a beginning in which we all have knowledge, thoughts, a voice, and most important of all.... we have hope! Where there is hope, there is life. Can we end this war? I don’t know. But there is no going back. We must march forward and decide our own path. If we don’t, then who will? Will you?

We must forward our message, a message of a dying people fighting for love, fighting for freedom, fighting to live another day. Some countries may think we are a people without a name – that we are simply refugees - period. But, what they do not know is that before we became refugees, we had our own form of government, schools, church, traditions, flag, national anthem, a strong culture, and we were a stable community.  Most important of all, we have a name. We are Karen!

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