From Resistance to Refugees and Resettlement: The Karen Struggle for Self-determination and Survival
By – Saw Kapi
The Karens began their national struggle for self-determination in 1949 with the Karen National Union (KNU) being the spearheading organization. Relatively, through out the 1980s and in the early 1990s the movement was economically self-sufficient, militarily strong and politically hopeful. But those good old days are long gone and the situation on the ground today is increasingly inauspicious both politically and militarily. The number of displaced Karen villagers has consistently increased over the past decade. More and more refugees – often by the hundreds – are leaving the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border to resettle in a third country. What do all these mean to the Karen resistance movement and the future of Karen people in general?
There have been tens of thousands of Karen and other ethnic refugees along the Thailand-Burma border since the 1980’s. Why only now are the U.S. and other European countries willing to allow these refugees to resettle in their countries is an interesting but highly political question. The U.S. and other European countries, as a matter of fact, are well aware that “there are often good reasons not to resettle particular populations, or at least to defer any resettlement until other possible responses to the situation have been fully explored and allowed to develop.” But they have made a conscious policy decision to resettle the refugees from Burma. To date, according to the Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) in Bangkok, approximately 12, 800 Karen refugees have been resettled in the different cities in the U.S, with some notable concentrations in Utica (New York), St. Paul (Minnesota) and Chapel Hill (North Carolina). Several thousands more are also scattered in countries such as Australia, Canada, Norway and Sweden.
The resettlement of Karen refuges by the thousands has both negative and positive consequences on the Karen resistance movement. One notable and immediate impact, as a result of mass resettlement of Karen refugees, is on the refugee camps and the remaining population itself. Usually, the first ones to leave the refugee camps as part of the resettlement program are those with some types of skills and educational background, who often play critical roles in the operation of schools and medical clinic in the camps. As a result, the refugee camps are experiencing increasing shortages of teachers, medics and skilled workers. It is quite obvious that the refugee camps inside Thailand and further opportunities to resettle in a third country have become a significant "pull factor" for the population inside the country in their decision making – whether or not to completely abandon their villages, which are often vulnerable to attacks by the Burmese troops. Forced relocation of Karen villages by the Burmese authorities has made it difficult for the mobility of Karen resistance forces in the area, but the complete abandonment of the area – by the Karen villagers in hope of coming to the refugee camps across the Thai-Burma border – makes the situation even worse. Without Karen villages and villagers, for example, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) may find it difficult to maneuver its forces in the areas.
In general, resettling refugees in the developed countries is a necessary humanitarian response to Burma's decades long political deadlock. It resolves immediate security issue the refugees have to face at the Thai-Burma border: they are able to escape from fear, especially of attacks, persecution and abuses by the Burmese, Thai, and in some cases, Karen military splinter groups. Not only are they able to escape from the confinement of small makeshift camps, but these Karen refugees will be able to develop a sense of permanent residence in their new respective host countries. And, if carefully pursued, there are greater economic and educational opportunities in countries such as the United States and Canada than in current refugee camps in Thailand.
On one hand, it is undeniably true that resettling in a more developed third country gives the Karen refugees an unprecedented access to economic and educational opportunities that they would otherwise never get. But, on the other hand, those who lack some foundational language skills or basic education may find themselves in a very difficult situation upon their arrival. Free social services that are available to newly arrived refugees are limited to only a few months from the date of their arrival. It may be very difficult for families – especially with elderly persons or young children in the family – to transition from government-assisted to self-supported resettlement. It is expected that the refugees may not be able to start pursuing any education during their first year. But if properly advised, those with some form of formal education background may continue to pursue their education in their new host countries. In the United States, after one year of their arrival, those of the Karen refugees who are older than 18 year old can start their education at a local community college. It may be difficult to go to school full time while supporting yourself or your family, but certainly, it will be a good idea to pursue a part time education, while working full time.
In fact, as we continue to face an ongoing military oppression by the Burmese military regime, the right of Karen people to defend themselves must and should always be exercised. We have defended and we will always defend ourselves. But, those in exile should take advantage of their position and help raise the profile of their struggle. Young Karens in exile should explore laws, international relations, political science, etc. so that we can read, write and present the case of the Karen people to the world. A good Karen lawyer, for example, can present a case of genocide against the Karen people before an international criminal court. Also, Karens in exile can seek formal education, professional skills - such as computer science, law, business administration, economics, accounting, and etc. and help their own people in the areas they are skilled and knowledgeable.
At the very least, one can work hard, save money, and send a portion of what he or she earned to the needy Karen IDPs, families of Karen soldiers, or refugees. Most Karens are already doing this, I believe. While each individual effort cannot be underestimated, Karens in exile can be more effective by making a collective effort to organize fundraising campaigns and developing a systematic distribution mechanism with accountability.
On the part of KNU, as a leading political entity that has been representing Karen people’s interest, it can initiate some critical measures that politically prepare those who are leaving for a third country. While it is difficult, if not impossible, for the KNU to stop the refugees from leaving the camps in Thailand, it can encourage the departing refugees to continue engaging in the affairs of Karen people while living abroad. It is very easy for young Karen in exile to lose touch with the reality of their people back home, if they are not continually reminded of their roots and what is going on. Perhaps, the KNU can establish a department - of Refugee and Overseas Karen Affairs - to communicate, reach out to, and work with the Karen constituents abroad.
The aforementioned effort is not necessarily a new thing in the world's history of political exiles and refugees. In the early 1950s, the Israeli dealt with their refugee problem and turned their exile communities into remarkable political forces by passing the Law of Return soon after the state of Israel was established. The law of return guarantees the right of any individual of Jewish decent in exile to return to the State of Israel and resettle in their "homeland." The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), for example, established the Department of Refugees Affairs to sort out the Palestinian refugee question and to give the Palestinian refugees a more structured political voice. The right of Palestinian refugees to return to the land they were vacated from is always an integral issue in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation process. In fact, as much as the Karen refugees are products of the Burmese regime’s military operation against the Karen resistance movement, they must also become an inevitable part of any political solution Burma seeks to find. The refugees themselves may not have any significant role to play in the making of policies that impact their lives, but they surely are crucial in the implementation process of any policy impacting them: directly or indirectly.
The struggle for the right to self-determination that has started sixty years ago is now fighting for its survival as the exodus of refugees continues. In the early 1960s and 70s, the Karen National Union was regarded as the main body that brought to the fore the Karen struggle as – more than a mere question of a humanitarian issue that needed redress – a national fight for freedom and rights. And yet it must also be acknowledged, as uncomfortable as this may be to many of us, that the Karen struggle for self-determination has been reduced to an endeavor for national survival.
Karens in the rural parts of Burma, especially in areas that are frequently penetrated by the imposing Burmese troops – mostly in the eastern side of Salween river, and increasingly everywhere else – are losing their land, their rights, their freedoms, and their livelihood at an alarming speed, unprecedented in their turbulent history with the Burmese military occupation. Many of these rural folks that have loyally served as the backbone of Karen resistance movement have been forced to become refugees within self-confined, isolated camps in Thailand, while some of the more fortunate ones are now scattered around the world, and thus demoting the status of our national resistance to a mere humanitarian struggle rather than a national political fight.
September 15, 2007
From Resistance to Refugees and Resettlement: The Karen Struggle for Self-determination and Survival