Standing Up for Burma

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A photo essay in this issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly exposes in graphic detail the horrors that have been imposed on Burma’s indigenous peoples by that country’s military junta and armed forces.

Burma is one of those human rights disasters that attracts far too little attention. The media pay attention when the military rulers order the arrest of protesting Buddhist monks or find a new way to torment opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But there is little coverage for the daily slog of crimes against humanity, such as the government’s routine recruitment of child soldiers—some as young as 10. Or the fact that the junta fuels its economy with mining operations that are characterized by rampant land confiscation, forced labor, and extremely dangerous working conditions. Or the government’s absolute prohibition of freedom of expression and association, its choke-hold on the press, or its routine use of torture and prolonged detention without trial to punish those who demand protection for their basic human rights.

But those who suffer most are Burma’s indigenous minorities, which make up around one-third of the country’s total population of 50 million. Most reside along the country’s mountainous frontiers. For generations they have struggled for recognition, autonomy, and dignity. Instead they have been met with scorched-earth policies that have left uncounted thousands dead, 600,000 internally displaced, and another 150,000 as refugees in Thailand.

The stuggles of the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, and some 20 or so other distinct indigenous groups predate Burma’s independence in 1948. During World War II many ethnic Burmans allied themselves with Japanese forces in the hope of breaking free from their British colonizers. But in a pattern reminiscent of Native Americans during the American Revolution, most of Burma’s indigenous minorities remained loyal to Britain out of fear of even worse treatment by the Burmese majority if it ever came to power. Sadly, history has proved the indigenous minorities’ fears to have been well-founded.

The government persists in a wide range of discriminatory policies aimed at undermining the country’s multicultural diversity. Indigenous minority Burmans are not offered education in their languages in state-run schools, and there are few publications in their languages. Government jobs in ethnic minority regions, including those as teachers, are increasingly reserved for ethnic Burmans. In addition, the government continues to resettle groups of ethnic Burmans into indigenous minority areas through the establishment of “model villages.”

Over the decades, some indigenous minorities have formed insurgent forces to fight for their autonomy, independence, or respect for their rights as distinct indigenous groups. While some of these insurgencies have been quashed and others have entered into uneasy truces with the government, those still fighting for the rights of their people - however modest in scale - face brutal consequences. The U.S. State Department’s most recent human rights country report confirms the findings of the photojournalist whose photo essay on Karen refugees appears in these pages. According to the State Department, “Karen refugees who fled to Thailand reported that … government soldiers…shelled their villages and regularly made them carry heavy loads—including artillery shells—forcing them to flee…. [A]fter they fled, they learned that the soldiers burned their houses and granaries and confiscated their farm animals. They [also] reported that after burning and pillaging the villages, the soldiers often planted landmines to prevent the villagers from returning. The soldiers sometimes shot and killed Karen villagers who attempted to return to their villages to retrieve personal property.” The State Department noted that while some armed ethnic groups “may have committed abuses, [they were] on a much smaller scale than the government army.”

Ongoing violations of indigenous peoples’ rights have a hard time competing for media attention with those high drama atrocities such as the recent events in Kenya or the renewed assaults in Darfur that have captured the world’s attention. Yet we must not allow them to drop off the global agenda. Those of us who continue to speak out are the only hope remaining for indigenous minorities in places like Burma, whose homes, lands, livelihoods, and fighting spirit have been shattered by repressive regimes. Those indigenous peoples are the reason that Cultural Survival is here. We will not let them down.

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