Overview: The Situation in Burma

For over fifty years, the dictators of Burma (now known as Myanmar) have waged war against their own civilian population. It is a war backed by a military of over 400,000 soldiers and is supported by 50% of the nation’s budget. The dictatorship of Burma is in an ongoing and brutal program – one of domination, assimilation and exploitation of their country’s ethnic minority population. Burma’s military leaders view these villagers’ unwillingness to abandon their homelands as a form of dissent which they seek to crush. Absolute intolerance of the ethnic population’s desire for peace and self-determination is the primary motivation behind the continued attacks.

Under attack is a people’s way of life and their ability to stay in their homes and farms. These are peaceful people who want nothing more than to tend their farms and raise their families. Yet troops regularly attack these civilians – loot, beat, rape and torture indiscriminately and burn homes or entire villages, laying land-mines to keep villagers from returning home.

It is common for the Burma Army to use captured civilians as human shields and human minesweepers or to require them to work for the army as forced labor. The army extends their control over the ethnic minority population, which make up 32% of the population of Burma, by building roads and camps in their ethnic homelands. When their villages are burned and villagers attacked, raped or murdered, these people have no other choice than to relocate or flee into the jungles. Many have to continue on in hiding, living at the very edge of survival or dying from exposure or untreated illness.

The disruption of their food production, burning of their homes and the shoot-on-sight orders of the Burma Army have made staying in their homeland untenable for hundreds of thousands of people. It is estimated that there are over one million internally displaced people and over one million refugees who have fled the country. Many of those who have made it into neighboring countries such as Thailand continue to have IDP status (Internally Displaced People) which entitles them to little, if any, aid. People in these camps and villages are living and farming at a bare subsistence level with little opportunity of receiving adequate health care or an education except for what they provide for themselves or what the few humanitarian groups serving this population can offer.

The internally displaced people’s unwillingness to give up their homelands is considered to be an ultimate act of civil disobedience by the ruling junta in Burma. The pro-democracy movement is still active in Burma and in the war zones the ethnic resistance attempts to protect their people. They help villagers escape pending attacks, clear land-mines and help people cross army-controlled roads while trying to lead them to safety. There are also several non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations that work together to help provide basic services such temporary shelter, food and medical care.

In spite of this oppression, the people of Burma have not given up. In one Karenni village where the Burma Army had burned 25 of the villagers’ homes to the ground but left the church standing, the people still gather to sing and pray every Sunday. As villagers walk back from each of the five services, they continue singing hymns in groups of three and four. They will insist on sharing even the last of their food saying, “Are you not our guest? We always take care of our guest. It is our way, and it makes us happy.” The cheerfulness and generosity of these villagers is typical and is a testimony to their culture and faith. They try to take care of each other and the many children orphaned by the ongoing war. When forced to flee a village under attack, they will always make sure no one is left behind, often carrying the children, the elderly and the sick on their backs.

These civilians under attack need immediate protection, humanitarian assistance and support for their pro-democracy organizations by the international community. To survive, these people rely on each other, their ability to organize and help themselves and, for many, their faith. These are not helpless victims. They have not given up. They run and hide when they have to, and if and when they can, continue to return to rebuild their homes, restart their schools and tend to their families, their farms and one another. They continue to hope that the outside world, the international community will no longer turn a blind eye.

“We have a right to stay in our own homes and farms, as we always have. We don’t need the dictators’ army to control us. We want to be free.” – A Karenni grandmother whose village has been attacked four times in the last six years but who refuses to leave her land.

“While the scale of displacement and destruction is large, people die individually, each death an irreplaceable loss.” –Free Burma Rangers Report and Analysis of Burma Army Offensive 2006- 2007