More From Alder's Ledge

June 23, 2013

A Legacy Of Mere Existence

The Fate Of A Displaced Generation
(The Darkness Visible series)

Scars of the previous generation are the building blocks for the next...

Thirty plus years have passed since the last massive wave of Karen refugees crossed the border to find safety in Thailand. Those who made the journey faced landmines, mortar bombardment, militias and brutal soldiers on both sides, starvation, thirst, and the reality of being homeless and without a homeland. These Karen would be the one of the first generations to raise their children in foreign lands. These Karen would be the some of the first to sacrifice their youth for the hope that one day they might return home. It was these Karen that had watched their homes being burnt as they ran for their lives. It was these Karen that had seen their fathers, husbands, and sons being slaughtered so that the junta could satisfy it's blood lust. 

Thirty years have passed without much recognition by the outside world. Nobody seemed to care when the Karen were driven off their lands under military bombardment. Nobody seemed to be willing to seek peace with the reclusive regime in Myanmar. Instead the world wrote off the suffering of the Karen. We failed to recognize their needs then just as we now seek to satisfy our wants at their expense today. 

Sixty years of civil war have left many Karen internally displaced in Myanmar. For the first half of the erratic war the Karen were largely able to stay within their own homeland. Slowly they lost ground as the Burmese central government pushed it's forces into the Karen villages. Over the years the Burmese military increasingly became more brutal in it's tactics of ethic cleansing. Deploying landmines around villages, the Burmese assured their forces that the Karen civilians would not return. By attacking refugee camps the Burmese forces assured their government that the Karen would have no choice but to flee the country all together. For sixty years the Karen civilians have bore the brunt of Burma's aggression. 

The Border Consortium, “by the age of five, nearly half of all children were found to be stunted,” due to poor nutrition.

For over thirty years life in refugee camps has left the Karen in a constant state of fear and repression. They can't get the food they need to keep their children strong an healthy. They can't get the education that Burmese or Thai children get. The health care available to children in Bangkok isn't available to the Karen children. For over thirty years the life of a refugee has been all that many Karen children have known. It is the life that their parents were likely born into. It is the life that the previous generation was forced into and the legacy that they now pass on to the next generation.

Karen children grow up with parents and grandparents (if they are lucky) that bare the scars that war has placed upon their rail thin frames. People without a leg or a foot are not unusual. The war takes a little from some and everything from all. A life of constant fear of deportation. A life of persistent fear of hunger. A life where the littlest change in luck can spell disaster. Karen children grow up with all these things.

In the 80's the Burmese government stepped up it's campaign to purge the Karen from it's borders. It shelled areas where Karen civilians believed that they were at peace. Targeting the weak and vulnerable, the Burmese attempted to push the death toll upward at a rate that would crush the Karen peoples' will to fight. This blitz was meant to cripple the rebel militias. It was meant to make the civilians suffer. And by the end of the 80's both of these objectives were achieved.

For the next thirty years the Karen militias lost land at a steady rate. Civilians who had avoided the war for the first thirty years had suddenly found themselves evicted from native lands. Their homes were burnt, their land laid with landmines, and their fields laid to waste. These new victims would add to the refugees crossing into Thailand. By 2009 there would be 120,000 plus Karen refugees in camps dotted all along the border with Burma.

In 2009 the Burmese watched as Sri Lanka launched a genocidal effort to drive the Tamils out. Learning from the lack of international response, Myanmar stepped up their attacks on the Karen. By January of 2013 there would be 20 to 30 thousand more Karen pushed across the border into Thailand. Thus bringing the current estimate of Karen refugees in Thailand to 150,000 plus.

In 2011 there were 381 documented casualties from land mines, the majority of those maimed – around 200 – were civilians, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

Today the Karen can only boast the longest running modern day civil war, the longest running modern refugee crisis, and the largest rate of landmine deaths among civilians annually. It is at this point in time that the world should ask if this is the legacy that the Karen should be forced to pass onto their children? It is now that the world should take a look at the plight of one of the largest refugee communities (given refugee ratio to total ethnic population) on the planet and ask ourselves if this is tolerable in the modern era? Are we to accept the crippling of an entire generation due to the war crimes of government that claims to be moving toward democracy? Are we to forget the past transgressions of a regime simply because they appease our desire for liberty for all while at the same time they oppress minorities? 

President Obama once said of child soldiers

"It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world. Now, as a nation, we’ve long rejected such cruelty.”

And yet President Obama has done little to discuss or condemn Myanmar for it's failure to end the use of child soldiers in the Karen state. This is in spite of the fact that Burma signed an agreement with the UN in June of 2012 to end all forms of child exploitation by the military by December of 2013. We are now in June of that very year and Myanmar has failed to reach any of the initial goals or show any effort to end the practice.

Is this the legacy we want the children of the Karen people to be inheriting? Exploited by a government that has attempted for sixty years to expel their ancestors from their native lands. Used as weapons of war by a regime that seeks to cleanse it's borders of their own people. Is this the legacy that Karen children should be given while the world sets idly by?

We are investing as a nation into a regime that has committed the same atrocities we fought against in World War Two. Our government has lifted the sanctions that kept Burma from gaining meaningful income as a nation. This means that a government (which shows no change from the military junta) that targeted the Karen people for extermination and expulsion has more money to purchase weapons an equipment to complete it's end goal. This means that Thein Sein's masters in the military have more resources to draw upon as they wage war against a crippled people. Our government (and those of the EU also) have made possible the completion of the Karen peoples' holocaust. Yet we cling to promises by the Burmese government that they want to repatriate refugees from Thailand?

Where are these refugees to return to? Their villages are still pot-marked with landmines and artillery craters. Their fields still bare the scars that jet fighters left behind, not to mention any unexploded bombs or shells (live ammunition from both world wars are still found by farmers all across the world). The places they called home have often been sold off to foreign investors and local land grabbers. Resettlement only brings fear and angst to the refugees in Thailand due to a deep-seeded distrust of Myanmar's so called democratic regime.

If the next generation of Karen are to be spared the wounds of the previous generation then the history they share with Burma must be set straight. The aggressors that issued atrocities to be carried out against Karen civilians must be brought to justice. The government that oversaw the war and created the crimes it produced must be reformed till the previous leaders are no longer present. Men like Thein Sein must be made to leave the realm of relevance in Burma before the ethnic minorities have any chance at peace. Generals who profited from Karen suffering cannot be left to in a position from which they can propagate more.

This is the nature of war torn legacies. The chance for peace is only increased when the monsters who created the strife are removed. Once their legacy is removed from the forefront of the society the next generation can begin to create their own. It is only through the absence of divisive figureheads and old tyrants that the victims of tyranny can restore themselves and the world in which they once thrived.

There can be little doubt that the children of the Karen would rather live in a place they can call home. A place where their families' histories are embedded in every acre, every house, every village, and along every well worn rode. There can be little doubt that the children of the Karen would rather not live in a place where the only well worn path is that which has been formed by desperate feet of a refugee. The difference between the two worlds is the difference between a legacy and mere existence.

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Source Documents 
(note: not all sources listed) 

Irrawaddy News


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