Sunday Apr 20

Organizers' Forum: Refugees on the Thai-Burma Border and the Broader Fight for Democracy

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I flew into Yangon from Mae Sot to join the Organizers' Forum visit with a number of Burmese activists and organizers. It was my first visit to Burma after two years working with Burmese refugees on the Thai-Burma border. And it was my first chance to hear directly about the broader struggles for peace and democracy in Burma. I found an old city which had been neglected by the military for its greed, modernizing faster than you could track. ATMs were multiplying where six months before you could only find a few. The internet was ubiquitous, with little sense of censorship or control. English papers seemed to talk freely about problems and challenges in a quite unexpected manner. New construction was everywhere. Even a large demonstration against land confiscation raged on in front of the city hall, in apparent affirmation of reforms and change. But the surface hid seriously troubled waters.

In Yangon, we met with organizers and activists from unions, the media, environmental movements, political parties, and political prisoner support groups. Each person had a story that told of great personal sacrifice in the fight for democracy. Ex-political prisoners spoke proudly of their multiple stays in unthinkable conditions because they refused to stop organizing when they were released the first time. Union organizers talked of workers facing arrests, beatings, killings, blacklisting, and the moving away of factories to avoid a labor union. Environmentalists told of whole communities being swept away to make room for the new gas pipe that will send gas to China. The Chin ethnic organization told a terrifying story of the military forcing young children to give up their Christian values and life-styles for Buddhism in exchange for free schooling. The media activists told us about a report they were about to release about the cost of peace that would reveal what cronies were being enriched by which foreign corporations as the military generals sold Burma lot by lot to the highest bidder. When asked whether he thought he could be arrested for such a report, he just smiled and said “of course we could be arrested...but we have to keep trying.”

Yet all of their narratives had common themes: First, the new “reforms” were either so vague or restrictive that everyone was unsure of their limits. No one knows how far they can push without risking jail. For instance, the press is no longer required to get prior approval to publish a story. But they are instead told if they do not “maintain high journalistic standards” they can be arrested. Second, everyone expressed great admiration and support for Aung Sung Su Kyi, but there was wariness about the NDL’s broader investment in change. Even in our meeting with the NDL, while support of resolving the rights of ethnic minorities was expressed, the issue was also defined as being more difficult because of “rabble rousers.” And finally, the activists viewed the so-called reforms as “limited, more PR for the international community than substantial change on the ground.” And this brought comments of disappointment with the international community’s rush to lift restrictions against the regime, especially the United States.

But the gritty ethnic fights for self-government seemed distant sitting in Yangon. Not that anyone even implied that they were unimportant. I am not sure that many individuals agreed with the NLD spokesperson’s assessment that “rabble rousers” were the
reason ethnic strife continued. But neither was there an acknowledgement that without ethnic self-governing being a central tenant of any new order, even a new constitution would not bring about the changes each group espoused, i.e. freedom of the press, labor rights for workers, the end to jailing people for political activism, etc. As long as a policy demands everyone to live as if there were only one Burmese culture and it is the military that rules, the continued struggle by the ethnic peoples for self-rule will provide the military the excuse to maintain the current status quo. And the various freedoms espoused by our fellow activists and organizers cannot be realized under those circumstances.

It is possible to find examples of this in places like the U.K. where Irish and Scottish demands for self-rule exist within the framework of the United Kingdom. The violence in Ireland did not finally subside until a formula was found that gave political and cultural space for both Catholics and Protestants. Scotland goes to the election booth next year to vote on whether to devolve further from English control. The struggle of the southern Sudanese to gain political freedom from the north was gained only by creating separate countries after years of war. These and many other examples point to real alternatives our activist friends in Yangon may want to consider. Is it possible for the various freedoms espoused by our fellow activist and organizers to be realized under these circumstances? It seems doubtful without a united push for ethnic self-rule and a realistic federal system.

The fighting by the armed ethnic militias for self rule and cultural identity has been going on for over sixty years. While they yearn for peace, they have no incentive to lay down arms when their sacrifices of blood and treasure have not been realized. There has been too
much history of the military charting its own course based on greed and a policy of eliminating ethnic differences in Burma. Even today the President’s declarations of a national peace accord ring hollow when the military continues to expand its bases in ethnic territory and attacks Kachin villages, breaking a cease fire agreement reached seventeen years ago. People are skeptical that the President has any control over the military, and therefore calls for a national cease-fire agreement ring hollow.

The first large wave of ethnic refugees fled the country over twenty years ago when attacked by the Burmese military. Since then more than 200,000 from all of the ethnic groups have been forced across the borders of Burma to Thailand, China, and Bangladesh. They have received a better welcome from the Thai government who created nine camps along their border where over 150,000 live today. The camps are basic bamboo huts and packed cheek to jowl where mud during the rainy season washes things away and people cannot find drinking water during the dry season except what is brought in from the outside. They depend for their survival on the good will of the U.N. and other international organizations. It has always been a precarious relationship. And now it is becoming more difficult as pressure mounts on the refugees to return to Burma because the new reforms are viewed with greater optimism by the international community than the refugees feel or that reality reveals.

Currently land long held and farmed by villagers in numerous ethnic territories continues to be confiscated by the military and sold to foreign interests without any remuneration to the villagers. Traditional farming land is put underwater by the dam projects, denying people a way of caring for their families. No work exists outside the industrial zones around Yangon, much less training for jobs that could replace farming even if people were willing. The military continues to build bases throughout the country on land and territory traditionally settled by ethnic Burmese. And these bases mean that surrounding villages must contribute food, free labor, and land to
sustain the military.

Is there any wonder that a Karen leader when asked “Don’t you want to return to your village?” responded by saying, “I have no village to return to…it was burned down by the military twenty years ago, my family barely escaped and we have no idea what has happened to that land. I want to return to my country but not until it is safe and I can have some control over my life and my way of life.” And that is what armed ethnic groups have been fighting for over the past sixty years.

And that defines the heart of the dilemma: can all of the parties find a form of democracy that allows for the federalism that ethnic Burmese have been demanding and the human rights the activists in Yangon are working toward? Can space be made for all ethnic peoples to have some control over their cultural values and territory without breaking apart the unity of a single country? Without these issues being resolved, it is difficult to imagine lasting peace and democratic reforms becoming a reality. They are inseparable. All over the world people are demanding the right to maintain their culture and identity and to govern themselves by their own values. The need to have control over one’s lives and values, to be able to preserve and pass on that heritage is in the DNA of all communities around the world. Even the near extinction of a society by another does not kill that instinct. The U.S.’s history with the indigenous nations proves that. The military powers have shown to what extent they are willing to go to preserve their dominance and control. It is yet to be seen whether all the forces for democratic reform, some of whom we met, and the international community can now force open the space for human rights, democracy, ethnic diversity, and self-rule that will create conditions for real freedom in Burma.

Jay Hessey is a lifelong community and labor organizer, who retired from the Service Employees International Union, and is now working with refugee groups in Mae Sot along the Thai-Burma border.

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