Question: Could you tell us about your life experiences as a refugee in the camp?
Answer: We are a typical Karen family who originally came from a village called Wai-may-ta in Tavoy Township. Due to oppressions and violence by the military, my family and villagers in that area had to flee to the jungles. We had to live in the jungle within Burma for 10 years before moving to the refugee camp on Thai soil. We have lived in the camp for 20 years before being resettled in this country.
In the Karen state, we saw death everyday. We lived as though we’re waiting for the day of our death, asking ourselves, “When will my turn come?” One after another our leaders and fellow villagers were killed and wounded. The repeated attacks by the Burma army made us run away and hide in fear like wild chickens. We had to live in fear all the time.
In the end, there wasn’t anywhere for us to escape within the country but to flee into Thailand and lived in camp for more than 20 years. Compare to our life in Burma, there was a little peace and goodness there. However, we’re not able to stand up as a people. Although we’re provided with food and shelter by the NGOs, there was no freedom of movement or expression which is the basic right of every human being. Life there was just like a human zoo as we’re surrounded by fences. We’re not allowed to go anywhere; we only had to eat food given to us. We couldn’t speak out about our sufferings and needs. We’re completely restricted by the Thai authorities. In 2005, the UNHCR arranged for us to resettle in a third country. There isn’t any hope at all for the future of our children at these camps; life there is basically dead.
Today, due to the arrangement by the UNHCR, we’ve had the chance to resettle here in this country, although we weren’t given any chance to choose which country we wanted to go to. We’re grateful to the government of this host country for resettling us and taking good care of us. However, one huge problem is the difference in language, weather and culture. It is very hard for us to adjust to life in this developed country, coming straight from the camps. Especially for older people, not able to speak and understand the language at all makes it hard for them to get jobs. Even those of us who are professionals back home, nurses like my husband and I can’t get employment in our field of work. Language is a major barrier for us to go through life here, and this makes us feel very discouraged. But, on the other hand our basic needs are well taken care of. Moreover, we’re able to live without fear, which we’ve always yearned for. No longer do we have to fear soldiers torching our villages and killing us. Our dream in this respect is fulfilled. We’re free to go anywhere we want, express our thoughts frankly, and look for jobs in freedom. There are opportunities for our young sons and daughters to get education hoping that they will be good and smart children. Adults like us can also acquire education. There’s no major hardship for us. These are my experiences I’ve gone through in my life.
Question: Could you tell us about young girls and women abused and raped by the Burmese soldiers?
Answer: I myself haven’t gone through this kind of violation. But I’ve learned about a few instances from my friends, and from those who have been violated. A friend, a nurse who worked together with me, told me about her friend who was a young virgin raped by Burmese soldiers while she was tending her cattle in a field far from her parents’ house. After being raped, she felt so defiled and ashamed to return home, and hid outside the village because all her clothing was ripped off. Her brother and her father had to take her some clothes and brought her back to the village. When she got home, she was too ashamed to show her face. She kept to her room and wanted to kill herself. I don’t know whether she killed herself or not, but my friend told me the girl didn’t want to live anymore and didn’t want to see anyone.
Another woman was a mother age 30 or so years old who was raped by soldiers when forced to go with them as porter. During daytime, she had to carry heavy loads, and at nighttime, she was raped by these soldiers. She got pregnant and after giving birth to that son she came to live in the refugee camp, the same camp I was in. I got to see her for a short time and spoke with her. But sadly, I couldn’t talk with her much as she would only laugh, talk to herself or cry. The atrocities she had experienced affected her mentally that she sometimes would cry and laugh, and she would neither sleep nor eat. Her mind was sorely distressed that she could no longer function as a normal human being. This was what I had witnessed myself back there.
Question: Now, there are Karens who had gone back to make peace with the Burmese military government. What are your views on this matter?
Answer: This is my personal view. From what I’ve seen from video clips and read in the news, among those who went back to make peace, some said that they could not fight or make sacrifices anymore. They have had enough of sufferings and so want to live in peace. That’s why they decided to make peace with the Burmese government believing that it could provide them with their own region to govern and live in peace. If in reality they can genuinely live in peace and the villagers could also do the same, I personally can accept. However, what follow after that makes it hard for me to accept what they have done at all. They say it’s for peace while there’s no peace at all for the Karen people. There is only peace for one particular group. The Burmese army just uses you to go back and kill your own people, bully them by forcefully collecting taxes, and conscript young men to fight as soldiers in DKBA and Burmese Army. These are atrocities committed against the people and I totally can’t accept what they do. If their particular group can live in real peace, which all Karens want, and live well themselves, this is fine by me. I’m not against it.
Once we’ve learned that the peace agreement was just a ploy by the enemy to kill and destroy the Karen people, and have seen the losses of our Karen people, territories and their being used by the Burmese Army to kill their own people, it makes me truly sad and hurt that I shed tears every now and then thinking about this. Our hearts are broken because of this divisiveness.
Question: Could you tell us what the Karen people who are resettled in third countries should do to help our people back home? How could they do it?
Answer: I’m sure those who now live in third countries, young people, adults, and leaders of the communities, would have their own ideas and suggestions. Personally, what I want is for all Karens to be united in working for the development and progress of ourselves and our people back home. But it is sad that we are divided in the love and concern for our people with differing mindset. My advice is for each individual to discard his/her narrow mindedness and be open minded to accept new ideas that would be of benefit to our people. We need to have foresight. Now that we are in the third country, we have absolute freedom to do anything that are within the law of that country, for the development of our people as a whole or as an individual, as well as for the development of the country we now live in.
Of course, there are many of us who have gone through bad, bitter and heartbreaking experiences, for instance, caused by differences in religions, discrimination between Pwo and Sgaw, etc. These are very ugly conflicts that shouldn’t have happened at all. I am Christian but my great-grandfather was a Buddhist monk. Both religions teach us not to kill or destroy each other or anyone. This divisiveness is the result of some religious narrow mindedness and immature conviction. This divisive factor is a big hindrance in our working together. This shortcoming has given the enemy leverage to divide us. In fact, it is the few people’s weaknesses that have brought us against one another. This weakness has opened the way for the enemy to use it as a weapon to divide us.
Therefore, what I want to ask the Karen people to do is change their mindset and attitude by elevating them to a new and higher level. We must begin this first as an individual, and then gradually move on to family, community and nation as a whole. Don’t let our outdated narrow-mindedness hinder our effort to work together for the progress of the Karens but let us be united in love and make good use of the freedom we enjoy in whichever third country we live in by working together with one mind.
Question: What advice would you like to give to our young Karen people?
Answer: I’d like to tell you about a family who are my close friends. Whenever they are asked the reason why they have come to a third country, the father’s answer is
“For my children’s education and future”. This is the dream of all parents who are already in the third countries and those who have sent their children here. We are here with the hope that our children will seek education, set high goals and raise their standard of living, and eventually be of benefit to our people when they are well-equipped to do so in the days to come. Like other people the world over, the young generations are considered as future adults and leaders. They are our hope and strength. That’s why we need you, my dear young people. Now that you get this opportunity to live in the new country, use it to the best of your ability; take what is good from the country you live in, pursue education to upgrade your life. My children, don’t let the freedom you enjoy here destroy your character and your culture because there are many things that can be destructive to your health, your progress and life, and even the name and reputation of our people. Therefore, take what is good from the culture of the new country, and ignore and avoid whatever that would destroy your life.
You are our hope and strength for the advancement of our people. You are our future elders and leaders. Our people look up to you. They place their hope and trust in you. Pursue education and try to gain knowledge as much as you can. Use this chance and the education the new country gives you to help yourself and your people. Whenever you have the opportunity let other people know about the Karen people without any restrictions. Be proud of who you are and where you came from. Take pride in your culture and language, making sure to maintain them for future generations that will grow up in the new countries. Don’t be ashamed of being a Karen. Don’t forget your heritage. Thank you.