Who are the Karen people?
The Karen are the largest ethnic minority in Burma with a population estimated at around seven million. About 30% are Christians. They are currently facing genocide at the hands of the Burmese army with widespread rape, killing, torture, systematic destruction of Karen villages and crops, and forced labour.
How does the Christian faith relate to the oppression?
Religion is a large part of the reason why the Karen people are being oppressed. In the Burmese mindset, if you are Burman you are Buddhist, if you are Buddhist you are Burman. The government want to create one nation with one people and so the army use every means possible to stop us from believing in God. They try to ‘Burmanise’ us. In one incident the military said they were taking Christian children away to a school but they actually took them to a monastery and forced them to become Buddhists. The parents didn’t see them again. The military often force Karen people to build Buddhist places of worship and will give more rations to the Buddhists than the Christians. This is part of the Burmanisation programme. The Burmese government will never say they are persecuting people because they are Christians, but when they go to villages they do persecute because of religion. They hate the Christian people because they think Christianity came from the foreigners, from the whites, which is intolerable for the government. We do not have permission to print Bibles in Karen language so we smuggle them from the boarder.
Where is the Church in all of this?
The Church plays a very important role in Karen life and the military understand that very well. They will often come in the middle of a Church service and force people to go and clear the roads. If they force villages to leave their land they will make them destroy their Church before they go. Even though only 30% of Karen are Christians, the Church has a role for many non-Christians because it is also a social and community centre where they can learn their language and find space away from the military regime. I recently heard about a pastor and a deacon who were arrested and their hands were tied behind their back. The troops said ‘You are Christians, you pray to your God’. They prayed and after a few minutes the troops said ‘your God could not help you’, and they shot them.
How has the situation changed during the last year?
The genocide has got worse in the last year. Over 400 Karen were shot by Burmese troops during 1999 but that doesn’t include all those who died of illness while living in the jungle. Over one million ethnic people are internally displaced at the moment. About 600,000 of these are Karen, 200,000 of whom are in forced relocation sites and the other 400,000 are hiding in the jungle. The dictatorship continues to intensify their operations in ethnic areas. Before the 90s, they targeted the armed resistance groups but during the 90s they have targeted the civilians. Since 1993 over 30,000 Karen civilians have died as a result of Burmese military action. There is a kind of explosion among the people. They can no longer stand the oppression. When they are attacked by Burmese troops they do not know what to do. They become more vulnerable, so people don’t know what to do and they hold on to any glimmer of hope.
What has been the effect of James Maudsley’s action?
James’ imprisonment does not have any direct impact on any particular group, but his action indicates the solidarity that the British people have with the oppressed people in Burma. It also makes it known to the world that the Burmese regime will not hesitate to do anything to any person if they feel threatened.
In what areas is action most needed?
Countries within the European Union need to call on the Burmese military regime to stop the genocide and to lobby the UN for global economic sanctions and a global arms embargo against Burma. With about two million internally displaced people in Burma there is also a need for extensive humanitarian assistance to be channelled through NGOs such as the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People.
What is the best form of protest?
For the citizens of the UK and in countries that exercise democracy, people can use their relationships with their MP. For governments to take action it is important that constituents push. Make contact with your MP and ask them to talk to the government for you. That is what individuals in the UK can do. This helps us to reach our goal.
For further information contact: Wilfred Wong, Jubilee Campaign, c/o Ian Bruce MP, Room 201, Norman Shaw South, Victoria Embankment, London SW1A 2HZ