Karen and Chin Burmese Refugees
Burma is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Its citizens practice Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism; and speak over ten “mutually unintelligible” dialects. Around 35% of the country’s 52 million citizens are members of an ethnic minority.
The story of the Burmese refugees begins in 1947 when the British imperialists left Burma, a move that put an end to almost a century of oppressive authority during which a “divide and rule” policy led to exaggerated ethnic differences and intensified distrust among the Burmese natives. With the imperialists gone, the region became a power vacuum which tribal militia groups that ranged from democracy supporters to separatists, fought to fill.
In 1962, after almost two decades of intermittent violence, a socialist military junta overthrew the existing leadership in a surprise coup d’état. The new rulers were members of a “Burmese officer class,” an elite branch of the Burmese ethnic majority. They labeled all ‘other’ ethnicities as threats to their authority and enemies of the state and promptly launched a period of “Burmanization” in which citizens were stripped of their basic freedoms, such as freedom of movement, expression and religion. Though all citizens were subject to the junta’s tyrannical rules, the country’s minority groups suffered disproportionately. Both minority-rights activists and citizens of the majority were and are subject to extra-judicial killings, torture, rape, disappearances, forced labor and even outright extermination efforts. As recently as 2011 the NGO Freedom House wrote that the military junta continues to “suppress nearly all basic rights; and commit human rights abuses with impunity.”
Almost 1.5 million refugees have fled Burma since the 1962 military coup-d’etat. The vast majority of them belong to two large and heterogeneous ethnic groups called the Karen and Chin. Most refugees escaped to Thailand where camp conditions have caused high disease and fatality rates. A 1987 report conducted by the UNHCR recorded a 30% rate of chronic malnourishment in one of the largest camps along the Thai-Burmese border.
Negotiations between Thailand, the UNHCR and Burma were complicated by the fact that Thailand never ratified the UN’s 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, (the main international treaty for the protection of refugees), nor to its 1967 legally binding protocol. The country is subject to the standards of international law, which they have violated on several occasions by forcing refugees to return to Burma. In many cases, Thailand has refused refugees the freedom of movement and denied them the right to a state-issued ID. As of 2014, no refugees have been granted Thai citizenship or locally integrated.
Since 2005, the United States, Canada and others have resettled large numbers of Burmese refugees. Though not all have arrived yet, the UNHCR announced in January 2014, that more than 73,000 refugees from Burma have been resettled since 2005 and that the program in Thailand is coming to an end as the UN receives its “final expressions of interest from eligible refugees.” Many of these refugees have experienced things most Americans cannot even fathom. But with a fresh start in a new country, they are given an opportunity to reach their full potential.