Refugee Women on the Thai-Burma border

Mary is a statistic. She is a Karen, one of the largest minority groups in Burma. She is also a refugee, forced to flee her home near the rebel capital of Manerplaw when it fell in late January. The 46-year old civil war in Burma has created at least 100,000 refugees along the Thai-Burma border; the recent fighting has increased that number by 10,000 people. Mary belongs in this latter number.

Mary does not see herself as a statistic, nor does her community. She fled in the middle of the night with very little except her five children. Despite the urgentcy, she also found time to make plans for the safe evacuation of a large loom. She and a few other Karen women had been using their skills in traditional weaving to earn money for their families with that loom. The Indigenous Women's Development Center (IWDC), set up two years ago by another Karen woman refugee, had made arrangements with Oxfam, the British development agency, to sell the pillow cases and sofa coverings they wove. The loom represented much needed cash for Mary's family, but also something more: a link with the outside world.

In the new camp at Mah Rah Mu Klo, on the Thai side of the jungle, Mary helped to organize the Karen Women's Development Organization (KWDO). They were tired of not being heard by the camp's male leadership, and decided to initiate projects that the men were ignoring. They surveyed the 5,000 or so inhabitants in the camp, to find out how many women were pregnant and how many traditional midwives were among them. They tried to make sure that every family had at least two blankets and one cooking pot. Worried about the children, who have been unable to go to school since November 1994, the women of KWDO organized a summer school, where children between the ages of six to 14 were given classes in hygiene, singing, drawing and sewing.

Mary and the other women of KWDO were trying to do something for themselves. They were fixing the precious loom, excited because another order from Oxfam had come. An IWDC staff person had travelled four miles by bus, then three hours in a borrowed jeep up the mountain, in order to tell them that Oxfam wanted to buy 50 pairs of trousers. Despite the uncertainty of not knowing how long they would be in the camp, the women accepted the order.

They didn't know how long they would be in the camp because State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) troops had been coming over the border, to kill or kidnap Karen refugees. "We asked the Thai soldiers (who operated a check point, which kept out journalists, at the entrance to the camp) if they would protect us against SLORC," said one older woman. "They told us to run if SLORC came."

SLORC is the military dictatorship which rules Burma. SLORC has been provoking religious conflict among the Karen. While the majority of Karen are Buddhist, most of the Karen rebel leadership is Christian. SLORC has exploited tensions between these two groups, and given financial and military support to a breakaway group of Buddhist soldiers called the Democratic Kayin (Karen) Buddhist Organization (DKBO). After Manerplaw's destruction, SLORC declared the DKBO the governing authority in Karen State.

As it turns out, the women were wise to be uncertain. On the afternoon of 25 April, 200 SLORC soldiers entered Mah Rah Mu Klo and burnt down 170 houses, leaving over a quarter of the camp homeless. They also burnt a rice storage hut. The rainy season is coming soon, turning the logging trail that is the only way into the camp into a muddy sea. There will be no way to get food in or out of the camp during the rainy season, so the loss of the rice means people are going to go hungry.

Two refugees died fighting the soldiers, who left after about 40 minutes. The soldiers took with them almost 100 hostages, using tham as a human shield. The hostages included a woman who had given birth four days before. They left a message that they would return in a few days and burn the rest of the camp down.

That message has been repeated. Not just at Mah Rah Mu Klo, but at other Karen camps inside Thailand, that have been attacked by both SLORC and DKBO troops. Refugees are kidnapped and brought back to Burma. The refugees who stay in Thailand are told that the soldiers will come back, to burn the rest of the camp and kill anyone who stays behind. Kamaw Lay Ko was attacked the same day as Mah Rah Mu Klo. Three days later Baw Nah was attacked with mortar shells and machine guns. Homes were again set fire to. An 18-year old woman, who had been wounded by shrapnel, tried to hid under her house. The DKBO set fire to her house, which collapsed, burning her to death.

News reports never gave the name of this woman. She was just another statistic.

ACTION: Please write to the Thai Prime Minister, Chuan Leekpai, Office of the Prime Minister, Government House, Nakhon Pathom Road, Bangkok 10300, Thailand. Express your concern for Burmese excursions into Thai territory. Ask him to reconsider Thailand's policy of constructive engagement with SLORC, and instead to facilitate a substantial dialogue between SLORC, ethnic leaders and the democratic movement led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in order to find a political solution to Burma's problems. Appeal to him and to UNHCR representative Ruprecht V. Armin not to promote a strategy of relocating Burmese refugees into concentration camps, but rather to extend more humanitarian aid and protection to them. Lastly, ask him to guarantee independent bodies access to the camps so that they can monitor the situation.

Veröffentlicht in WRI Women, June 1995, No. 19