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Karen Refugees Have a White Christmas in Ireland

Simon Roughneen, January 11, 2010

A volunteer from South Africa comforts a crying Karen refugee baby orphan inside a temporary shelter used as a school and dormitory on the Thai-Myanmar border at the Safe Haven orphanage. (Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/ AFP-Getty Images)

After fleeing an army campaign of human rights abuses in eastern Burma, a group of Karen refugees celebrated a white Christmas this year in the snowbound west of Ireland.

"Every now and then, the military comes through our village and asks my mother, 'Where is your son?'" said Po Hta. His mother tells them that he is in Thailand.

But that's no longer true.

As a teenager, Po Hta fled Burma in 1994, spending a couple of years in Bangkok before the Thai authorities moved him to Ban Don Yang refugee camp in the north. He spent 10 years there, before being sent to Ireland in 2007 under a U.N. refugee resettlement program.

Now he calls a friend in Bangkok every few weeks who keeps in touch with his mother; mother and son pass information back and forth through the friend.

Po Hta, who asked that his real name not be used, is part of a group of 100 Karen refugees who resettled in Ireland two years ago. Estimated to number around 7 million of Burma's 56 million people, with another 400,000 Karen native to Thailand, the Karen are both Christians and Buddhists. Of the six Karen who met wit The Irrawaddy in Castlebar, Po Hta was the sole Buddhist.

The Karen army has fought the Burmese army on and off since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, and ordinary Karens have suffered government army counterattacks and reprisals.

Karen refugees are the largest refugee group among the 140,000 Burmese refugees in camps along the Thai-Burma border. Hundreds of thousands are among the more than 3 million Burmese economic migrants in Thailand.

"The army comes to villages looking for the Karen rebels, and anyone who they decide has anything to do with rebels is often tortured or killed," said Po Hta.

Another refugee, Nay Tun, said, "The army comes into a village or region and takes the men away to work as 'porters,' but they are really slaves." Po Hta said his uncle died while working as an army "porter."

"We do not know what happened to him," he said, "but we heard many stories from other refugees who were taken—being beaten, working 16 to 20 hours a day in the jungle, very little food or water."

According to a Harvard University report, "Crimes in Burma," human rights abuses in Burma are widespread, systematic and part of state policy. The report concluded that the abuses justify further investigation and suggested that Burma's military regime may be committing crimes against humanity and war crimes under international law. Karen refugees have fled what the report terms "widespread and systematic sexual violence, torture and summary execution of innocent civilians."

Nay Tun said, "We spent three months hiding in the forest and slowly making our way to the Thai border. Usually it should only take four days walking to reach the frontier, but we had to move carefully and slowly, in case the army saw us."

"After that we spent 10 years in the camp. The Thai authorities would not let us leave the camp, so for 10 years we were totally dependent on the assistance given by agencies and NGOs such as the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium."

Little wonder, perhaps, that refugees jump at the chance to make a new life elsewhere. "I applied for resettlement in 2005, but I joined a long waiting list," said Nay Tun.

It took two years for her turn to come, and when she was told she would be sent to Ireland, she said that she knew little about the country.

"When we arrived in Ireland we spent two months in Ballyhaunis [site of the National Refugee Orientation Center], where we learned about the country's culture, history, law and practical things about everyday life."

Two years on, all say they are happy with life in Ireland—aside from the ubiquitous complaints about the weather.

"Life is different here compared to Burma, so different," said Phaw Kweh, another refugee. "In Burma, there are farms; in Ireland there are farms. But here everything is done by machine; at home we use the buffalo to pull a plow. Here nearly everybody has a car, there is always electricity, people have basic household equipment such as washing machines. This is not so common in our part of Burma."

Most of the group members are enrolled in training programs and English language courses. Five younger members will take their final high school examinations this summer.

The classroom gives the refugees a chance to keep in touch with friends and family elsewhere via the Internet. "I have a sister in Sweden and a brother and sister in New York," said Po Hta.

"In Burma, the army and the government takes from us," said Phaw Kweh. "In Ireland, the government helps to look after us."

The Burmese army lives off the land, requisitioning supplies—and people—at will in ethnic minority areas. The Harvard Report estimated that, since 1996, the military has destroyed more than 3,000 villages in the country's east. An estimated 500,000 Burmese are displaced inside Burma due to government army campaigns, living and hiding in the jungle, according to the most recent analysis used in the Harvard report. All in all, the level of destruction in eastern Burma is on a similar scale to that in Darfur.

Accentuating the difference between state security in Ireland and Burma, Nay Tun said, "In Burma, we hide from the police. Here we can walk down the street and say, 'Hello Garda' [good morning], how are you?' and he will smile back and say hello—no problem."

Still, none of the refugees suggested that Ireland is an idyllic getaway. "The weather is the toughest thing to get used to," said Phaw Kweh, who along with Nay Tun is a senior member of the group. The others nodded in agreement.

Usually this part of Ireland is windswept and rain-soaked most of the year, but generally quite temperate, with relatively small variations in temperature across the four seasons when compared to continental Europe. Much of Ireland had a white Christmas this year. The big freeze persisted for days and sub-zero temperatures rolled into 2010.

"We are just not used to this cold," said Nay Tun, wincing as she pointed outside toward the grey sky, which promised more snow before New Year's Day.

However, the group is happy to be in Ireland, away from persecution at home and the monotony of camp life in northern Thailand. They have formed a Karen-Ireland Association, which coordinates the group's activities—such as the recent Karen New Year celebration—and works with Irish friends and supporting institutions such as the Mayo Vocational Education Committee to foster closer ties with the host country.

Those links have helped the Karen not only hold traditional dance demonstrations and discuss their culture with their Irish hosts, but to get involved in some Irish traditions as well.

"I've climbed Croagh Patrick three times," said Ta Kaw Sui, the youngest of the group. The 800-meter mountain offers a stunning view of the ocean.

And some Karen-Irish links will prove to be long-lasting. Po Hta is the proud father of Oisin, 17 months old, the first Karen baby born in Ireland. The baby is "better able to cope with the Irish weather than me," said Po Hta.

In July 2009, renewed government army attacks in the Karen region displaced around 10,000 more people. Phaw Kweh said this was typical of a regime that tries to impose its will on the country by force.

"The 2010 elections will not change anything," he said. "The military will still control the country."

The ruling junta has long played a divide-and-conquer game with the country's ethnic minority groups. The Karen have not been immune, with junta-allied groups such as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DBKA) attacking their kin at the regime's behest. The DBKA split from the Karen National Union—regarded as the main political organization representing Karen interests—in 1995.

"It is sad to see Karen fight against Karen," said Nay Tun.

Asked if they would like to go home, Phaw Kweh said, "Yes, but we cannot. Many things would have to change before I would return. There has to be real democracy and real peace."

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy: www.irrawaddy.org/. Simon Roughneen writes for the Washington Times, TheIrrawaddy, ISN, Asia Times and others. His website is www.simonroughneen.com.

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