From Ka Hsaw Wa, July 17, 2008
“For years I have clandestinely interviewed strong and resolute people who have suffered human rights abuses in Burma, mostly documenting the plight of non-Burman ethnic nationalities, which comprise about 40 percent of the population. Cyclone Nargis left an estimated 2.5 million people homeless and dispossessed, and at least 130,000 dead.
The Burmese military junta continues to obstruct emergency relief efforts in the Irrawaddy Delta in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. Most analysts make sense of the madness by pointing to three interrelated, internal factors: the regime’s desire to appear self-sufficient, its xenophobic distrust of foreign intervention, and a desire to keep foreigners out of the country in the lead-up to the May 10 national referendum on a draft constitution (which has come and gone, deeply flawed) intended to secure their grip on power.
These accounts explain a fiasco. The reality is far worse: The junta is obstructing relief to conceal and continue policies of ethnic cleansing, this time in concert with Mother Nature. Although there’s been no official census in Burma since 1931, a large number of Delta inhabitants are ethnic Karen, like me, belonging to one of the largest ethnic minorities in Burma. While Burma’s military regime is despised by all for its abuses, the Karen have been especially targeted by the predominantly Burman junta, and have provided fierce resistance. Dating back to the early 1990s, I have documented some of the military’s attempts to eliminate the Delta’s Karen population, abuses that began in the 1970s. The stories I gathered were horrific. Rape of Karen women was systematic, even expected in some villages. Young Karen children were murdered in terrifying nighttime raids. Entire Karen villages were burnt to ashes and in some places, like Aung Kone and Poe Kone, all the men were murdered one by one, often in front of their family members. At the time, one Delta villager told us simply, “we are being exterminated.” Some of these abuses were orchestrated by the same man now obstructing the relief effort, Burma’s current leader, Senior General Than Shwe, who at the time was Deputy Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. In a 1991 offensive led in part by Than Shwe, ironically called “Operation Storm”, the junta had no trouble summoning jets, naval vessels, helicopters, and other resources to the Delta, except they were meant to kill, not to save. The village of Ka Tha Min, the ancestral home of some of my family members, was bombed by junta jets numerous times, killing hundreds of innocent people. There were point-blank executions and longer, slower, crueler deaths at the hands of the soldiers. In this operation alone we estimated at least 3,000 Karen people were imprisoned, including youth and elderly, many of whom were never heard from again, their crime being their ethnicity. Targeted abuses and general discrimination have continued in the Delta ever since. As Cyclone Nargis approached, it is clear the junta knew the threat in advance, downplayed it over national radio, and quietly warned their inner circle to take cover. In some areas, 135 mile-per-hour winds and 12-foot tidal waves flattened all indications of previous society. Six weeks after Nargis made landfall, survivors in some places were still left in a vast wasteland of debris and rotting human and animal corpses, their food supplies virtually gone, each night seeking makeshift refuge from heavy monsoon rains. Survivors in Bogalay—the site of a gruesome extermination campaign in the 1990s—did not see U.N. aid helicopters until June 9, over one month after the cyclone hit.
While the “relief” effort continues, elsewhere in Burma it’s business as usual. Since February 2006 the junta has forced at least 30,000 ethnic Karen into the jungles of eastern Burma, where they face uncertain futures of disease and death, hunted like animals. The Army’s orders in these areas, to this day, are to destroy villages, disrupt food supplies, and shoot on sight. Since 1996, at least 3,000 Karen villages have been razed by the Burmese military, replaced by more and more barracks.
Call it what you will. I call it ethnic cleansing.”
Ka Hsaw Wa is Executive Director of EarthRights International, a non-governmental organization that documents human rights abuses in Burma. He is the recipient of the Reebok Human Rights Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Read a dispatch about visiting a Thai aid mission with Ka Hsaw Wa