I am saddened and shocked by the fact that I had been so ignorant of the plight of the Burmese people. Sure, I had read about the country’s new capital Naypyitaw that the military government had started to build in 2005 right in the middle of the jungle, and about the displacement of ethnic minorities the new construction site had caused; I knew about but the detention of pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi. But I hadn’t paid much attention to these news stories; never given them much thought. So, when the “Saffron Revolution” started on September 18, anti-government protests led by thousands of unarmed Buddhist monks wearing nothing but cotton robes and slippers, I was horrified by the escalating brutality the military junta used against the protesters, but I had only vague ideas about the reasons for the uprising.
What I didn’t know:
When Burma gained its independence from Britain in 1948, it was one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia, known as the “rice bowl of Asia” because it was the world’s leading producer of rice. Oil and natural gas, minerals, and gemstones continue to be valuable natural resources, but their profits flow into the pockets of a corrupt and cruel fascist military junta which overpowered the democratic government in 1962. They belong to a new class of well-connected business people or thieving, plundering oligarchs that has grown enormously rich at the expense of the impoverished majority. Since 1988, the country is classified as a “Least Developed Country” by the UN.
Burma’s monks (nearly 500,000) don’t own any personal possessions. It is their custom to walk through the neighborhoods every morning and stand silently in front of each house for a few moments, holding their begging bowls, waiting for a handful of rice or a scoop of vegetables. There is a world of difference between this tradition and a homeless person asking for spare change in New York City. A devout Buddhist will feel grateful to the monks for accepting alms; this allows him or her to obtain merit. It is not the other way around. When the military government raised the price of gasoline to five times of what it had been before (in order to cover a budget deficit that resulted from a salary hike for civil servants), conditions became unbearable. Led by the monks, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated for human rights, freedom, and better living conditions.
What I didn’t know:
With over 500,000 soldiers, Burma’s army ranks as #12 on a list of 165 nations. About 75,000 of those soldiers are under-age children, kidnapped and sold into the army where their superiors treat them with brutality and force them to be brutal to civilians. Their commanders beat them for little or no reason, steal their pay and their rations and then send them out to the villages to steal their own food and round up villagers for forced labor; fire their guns at civilians; burn houses. The punishment for desertion is atrocious and barbaric; the young boys are beaten and tortured so severely that many of them die. Nevertheless, a large number try to escape. Others commit suicide.
What I didn’t know:
After independence from Britain in 1948, the democratic government in Rangoon awarded the country’s dozens of minorities — like the Shan, Kachin, Rohanis and Karen — autonomous status. However, this has long been forgotten. The current military government’s continuous suppression of Burma’s ethnic minorities has caused a refugee disaster in Southeast Asia that’s been called a Burmese Darfur. The Karen in particular have had to endure constant attacks: their villages are frequently pillaged, and people are arbitrarily arrested, beaten and shot without a trial. Girls and women are kidnapped, raped and killed. Schools and hospitals are closed or burned down. Crops are seized by the soldiers, leaving the farmers to starvation. Large areas are being contaminated with land mines, claiming innumerable victims.
The military’s ethnic cleansing resulted in over two million refugees, most of whom live illegally in Thailand under unspeakable conditions. According to human rights organizations, more than 600,000 people have been killed. Those who make it across the border and manage to receive a refugee card, end up in one of Thailand’s refugee camps where they have to live behind barbed wire; but at least they receive basic health care, some food, and their children can go to school. The majority is not so lucky. Living and working illegally along the Thai border, many become easy prey for unscrupulous Thai businessmen, and are vastly underpaid for doing the most degrading jobs. They live in villages where nobody cares for them, without sanitary facilities, no medical care and hardly any schools. Help Without Frontiers is an international non-profit organization which has funded a clinic, schools, and an orphanage on the Thai-Burmese border near the city of Mae Sot.
Even worse is the fate of those known as Internally Displaced Persons, over two million people (mostly women and children) whose villages have been destroyed and who are on a constant run from the threat of rape, killings and starvation. “Since the Burmese Junta moved their capital to Pyinmana [Naypyitaw], the Burma Army have been extensively pushing innocent villagers into forced relocation camps, turning villages into ‘free-fire’ zones, kidnapping people for forced labour, burning and stealing food stocks, shooting and killing indiscriminately, raping, torturing, and laying land mines.” They build makeshift, improvised huts and live without medical care because international NGO’s are not permitted to officially work in Burma. Constantly on their guard to flee deeper into the jungle whenever there are army attacks, upon their return they have to be prepared to find their settlements burned down, their few possessions stolen, their fields contaminated by land mines.
An immediate alleviation of the suffering of the people of Burma doesn’t seem to be in sight.