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Border Stories

Burmese Relief Center--Japan
DATE:September 6, 1995

The following appeared in the Japanese newspaper, Mainichi
Daily News, August 3, 1995


by Richard Humphries

The policy of constructive engagement to change the Burmese
government's ways has its supporters and  detractors, pitting
governments and companies against activists.  Richard
Humphries examines the harsh  effects on the people caught
literally in the middle -- the Karen ethnic group on the Thai-Burmese border.

"After they entered the camp, we couldn't go back to get our
belongings, so they burnt our houses and our belongings too. 
We just ran for our lives without anything.  My sister and I
didn't know where to go.  One shell exploded behind the
monastery.  Many shells exploded inside the camp.  I can't say
exactly how many, but some exploded so close to me, so close
I thought I must have been hit."

This terrifying account was given by Ma Htway (not her real
name), a 20-year-old Muslim Karen woman, on April 29,
1995, to representatives of the Karen Human Rights Group
(KHRG).  Her refugee camp at Baw Noh in Thailand, some
130 kilometers north of the Thai town of Mae Sot, had been
attacked and largely destroyed the day before.  The "they" that
Ma Htway referred to were primarily members of a breakaway
Karen faction, the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Organization
(DKBO), whose defection from the largely Christian-led Karen
National Union and subsequent alliance with the Burmese
Army last December, ostensibly on religious grounds, has
allowed the Burmese government to score significant gains in
its 45-year-old civil war with Burma's Karen minority. Some
of the attackers were probably Burmese Army regulars,
identifiable because they did not speak Karen and reinforced
by the fact that other non-Karen-speaking attackers wearing
Burmese Army insignia had been seen in similar attacks on
camps along the border.  The shells were Burmese, coming
from the nearby army camp on the Moei River, which forms
the border between Burma and Thailand, at a point opposite
the Thai village of Mae Ta Waw.  Ironically, the small Karen
security complement in Baw Noh had been disarme by Thai
forces the day before, in an attempt to appease Burmese
government sentiment.

The attacks on the refugee camps are among the many human
rights violations investigated since 1992 by the KHRG, a
small but active monitoring and advocacy organization which
was based at the Karen resistance stronghold of Manerplaw
until that base fell on Jan. 27, 1995.  Founded by a young
Canadian, the group continues to operate along the Thai -
Burma border, conducting interviews, collecting information
and translating Burmese documents.  It provides raw material
for use by other advocacy groups and journalists who report on
Burmese human rights violations.

Refugee camps are not normally happy places.  Especially
when located in unsympathetic countries, they are more of a
dead end, uncertain refuges where victims of war and
oppression find limited sanctuary and try to piece together a
semblance of their past lives and perhaps dream about either
going back or moving on.  "Could you please sponsor my
daughter to America?" one of the camp leaders at Baw Noh
would inquire of American visitors.  Still, the camp at Baw
Noh, home to roughly 7,000 Karen refugees, was not without
its attractions.  The area was lush and fertile, the visual
atmosphere comprised of a highland tropical preserve sur-
rounded by small hills.  Karen women in their lonygi and
colorfully decorated white (if unmarried) and red (if married)
homespun blouses could be seen doing the wash in the stream
that ran through the camp.  Children laughed and sang in the
schoolyard at the entrance to the site.  The bamboo houses
were basic but adequate, constructed in rows with signs on
each residence listing by sex the number of refugees living

All this is gone now.  Both the school and the camp's hospital
were destroyed in the attack, and the refugees have been
moved to a larger camp some 50 kilometers away, supposedly
for their protection but just as likely as a first step toward the
forced repatriation of the refugees, of whom there are over
90,000, back to Burma.

One might ask why should people who had fled their country
because of oppression, and were not even safe in their present
sanctuary, be subjected to the threat of forced repatriation. 
The answer could be that they are at the cutting edge - in the
true sense of the word cut - of the policy of "constructive
engagement"practiced by many Southeast Asian countries
toward Rangoon.  The threat of repatriation is real.  In the
April 20 edition of the Bangkok Post, the Thai Army chief,
Gen. Wimol Wongwanich, was quoted as saying, "If we were
not afraid of being criticized by the world community on
humanitarian grounds and if it would not give the country
problems, then this army chief would take only one week to
push them all out, regardless of how many hundreds of
thousands of Karen were now in the country.  I used to do this
with over 40,000 Cambodian refugees, If we were able to do
the same with Karens, I would finish the task in just one
week," The repatriation of the Karen refugees holds
advantages for all parties concerned except for the refugees
themselves: Thailand does not want them, the DKBO needs
people to control, and Burma does not like this inconvenient
and internationally accessible reminder of its brutal policies.

Supporters of constructive engagement are now pointing to the
release, on July 10, of the Burmese pro-democracy leader and
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi as fruit of their
policies.  It is still too early to tell why she was freed after six
years of house arrest, and it is also too early to predict what
course Burmese politics will now take, though attacks on
minorities along the country's borders have continued.  Suu
Kyi herself has injected a strong note of caution to potential
international investors and aid donors, urging at a July 14
news conference that they wait for genuine reconciliation and
real moves toward democracy before proceeding, "I have been
released, that's all. Nothing else has changed," she stated. 
Observers have noted that Nelson Mandela, to whom Suu Kyi
often has been compared, continued to insist on tough eco-
nomic measures against South Africa for two to three years
after his release.  For its part, the Burmese government
reminded its people that it fully intended to retain power,
insisting in the July 15 issue of the government - run
newspaper New Light - of Myanmar that the army "brings
peace of mind, security, and tranquility to the people."

Several countries, particularly in Asia, have, for several years
promoted and engaged in economic ties with Rangoon
whatever the state of human rights in Burma.  Western
companies also have participated in development projects,
including France's Total and America's Unocal on a natural
gas pipeline from the Burmese coast over Three Pagoda Pass
into Thailand, benefiting the generals and, as critics charge
(Toronto Star, June 23), leading to the forcible conscription of
civilians for labor in the border area.  Unocal's outgoing
chairman, Richard Stegemeier, summed up the moral
ambivalence of his company's involvement in a recent
statement: "We are by necessity apolitical.  It's not only smart
business, but it's often required by law and certainly by our
contracts" (Houston Chronicle, May 23).

Indeed, the language used by Unocal and Asian proponents of
constructive engagement has a hollow ring to it.  In Thailand,
Burma is often described publicly as an old friend ("Thailand
and Burma have a long history of close and warm relations" -
Therdpong Chaiyaniat of the Democratic Party) that needs
coddling ("Constructive engament is the only way to win
Rangoon's trust" - former Thai Foreign Minister Krasac
Chanawongse, The Nation newspaper, May 5) despite a
history of disputes and a very real mutual dislike.  The Thai
fear of upsetting Burma's powerful military is matched by
Burmese contempt for Thai prowess.  A common element is
greed, though even here Burma gets the upper hand, raising the
stakes to keep the Thais off balance.  In Mae Sot, the Thai
government is financing the entire 3 million dollar cost of the
building of a "friendship" bridge over the Moei River to the
Burmese town of Myawaddy, a project meant to cement those
supposedly warm ties and to promote economic development
of the type that backers of constructive engagement assert will
ease SLORC's (for State Law and Order Restoration Council,
as the Burmese government is called) transition toward a more
internationally acceptable standard of behavior and
"integration into the region." 

Nonetheless, on June 5, SLORC Construction Minister U Khin
Maung Yin ordered a halt to work on the bridge, suggesting
that the Thai side's dumping of earth into the river as part of
the construction project was encroaching on Burmese
sovereignty (but conveniently ignoring Burmese attacks in
Thailand), and leaflets urging Burmese traders to boycott Thai
products began to appear in the area.  What Rangoon wants is
Thailand's complete cooperation regarding Rangoon's border
policy of suppression.  The tactic of biting the hand that feeds
it will probably work.  The then Thai Defense Minister Gen.
Vijit Sookmark expressed confidence that the bridge dispute
could be resolved (Bangkok Post, June 25, 1995).

Burma's language of justification exhibits a lack of
sophistication, but this is only to be expected.  Other countries
in the region have developed the art of silencing their critics
with such things as censorship laws and lawsuits, but Burma
has used sharper and more lethal instruments to this effect, so
the language it has employed has had a stunted development,
ranging from the blunt to the bizarre in the army-dominated
official media.

Forced labor camps are referred to as "labor contribution
camps" where people happily donate their services to the army
and are reluctant to leave when their work period ends.  The
Mon minority ends its revolt not because of Burma's
overwhelming military might, nor because of intense pressure
from Thailand, but because of "the noble desire and sincere
attitude of the State Law and Order Restoration Council."  Aid
workers helping refugees in Thailand also are subject to the
invective of Rangoon.  An official from one group, the
Burmese Border Consortium, was described by the New Light
of Myanmar as "like some sly tiger" that would grab for the
tail of its victim instead of for the neck.

SLORC Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw was reported by The
Associated Press (June 11) as having stated that the Western
concept of human rights "is not to the requirement of the Asian
perception" and certainly differs from how SLORC thinks it
should be.  While SLORC may have learned this response,
however poorly stated, from its friends and investors in the
region, the language it uses with villagers in the border area is
not couched in the same ambiguity.  Orders signed by Burmese
Army column commanders this year have been smuggled out
of the country.  One issued to newly occupied Karen villages
(names withheld to avoid retaliation) states, "If the army camp
calls you, come.  If the army asks your help, help. ... There is a
patient army; there is an impatient army.  Choose which you
like." Another informs certain villages that they should
"Continuously comply with the following as soon as you have
received this letter to collect people from villages (for labor) ...
" and that if enough people do not go, "responsibility for that
will fall on whoever doesn't go." (KHRG report, May 1,

Elsewhere the same brutal pattern continues.  Some 100
kilometers south of Mae Sot and about a 15-kilometer drive
along dirt roads inside Burma lies the Karen village of
Mawkee.  A quiet place, Mawkee consisted of a number of
scattered houses in the traditional raised - platform style.  Last
Christmas, the villagers were hard at work building a new hos-
pital of bamboo and wood, "We've been working for two days;
in three more we'll be finished," said one villager confidently. 
A five-person team consisting of Burmese and Karen medical
trainees had just arrived from Dr. Cynthia Maung's well-known refugee clinic i
n Mae Sot to bring health care to an area
that until then hadn't seen much fighting.  Following the fall of
the Karen strongholds at Manerplaw and Kawmoora early this
year, the Karen leadership moved to the area and consequently
the Burmese military began to attack these backwaters,
attracted as well by the timber-extraction possibilities nearby. 
Mawkee was captured in April, and many more refugees
crossed the border into Thailand.  Among these new refugees
were some who were not native to the area, but people who
had been seized by the Burmese to serve as forced labor or, if
one wants to use the Burmese Army's term for this, "labor
contributors."  The words of one Min Htoo (not his real name),
a Burman Buddhist and dock worker from Moulmein, are
instructive: "I was arrested in Moulmein on March 9. 1 was
arrested by 104th Battalion soldiers.  We carried supplies like
rice and ammunition to Mawkee. ... They ordered us to dig
bunkers and trenches around their camp. ... My hands were
torn open, so one day I told them I could not do it that day. 
Then a soldier beat me again and again, at least 10 times.  I
saw porters beaten every day...."

The people along the border are not benefiting from the
investment flowing into Burma resulting from constructive en-
gagement policies.  The hotels being built in anticipation of the
1996 Visit Myanmar Year are not for them.  These people
may well be in Burma in 1996, not as tourists but as frightened
villagers, "constructively" compelled to return.  An elderly
Buddhist Karen widow from Baw Noh, whose house was also
burned down in the raid, best expressed the refugees' real
sentiments when interviewed by the KHRG: "I will say the
truth.  While we were staying in Burma, the Burmese were
oppressing us in many ways.  That's why we fled to Thailand. 
And while we are staying in Thailand we thank our (refugee]
leaders very much for the way they try their best to look after
us.  We don't want to go back to Burma to be oppressed and
suffer so much pain.  We want to stay here."

Richard Humphries, a freelance writer who resides in Osaka,
worked for five months at Dr.  Cynthia Maung's refugee clinic
in Mae Sot and has traveled extensively along the
Thai/Burmese border.