By: Hay Soe
I started my 2760th Karen New Year with goals and resolutions, with my loved ones, and with excitement for the new semester in school. Others started their Karen New Year with great tragedy. Karen villages all throughout the Karen State in Myanmar are being mortared, burnt, and pillaged and has been that way for the last 70 years. While I set my goals, others lost their hope. While I shared laughter with those I loved, others lost their loved ones to bombs and bullets.
To be born Karen in Myanmar is not fair. It is not fair that from the moment of birth, you are the lesser kind. You are worthless, your culture, your language, your humanity is all less. Your blood needs to be mixed with the blood of Burmese for you to have an equal status on a human level.
A Burmese Army, General Shwe Maung, announced that in twenty years you will only find Karen people in a museum. Though he made that statement in 1997, the rhetoric that Karen people belong in museums has been present since the end of World War II. The ethnic cleansing in Myanmar is gruesome, violent, and dehumanizing. Though the ethnic cleansing officially started after World War II, the Karen people have endured persecution long before. Our books, history, and language were all burned away. Those who wrote in Karen’s native “chicken scratch” had their hands chopped and those who spoke Karen had their tongues cut off. The only source of history of the Karen people we have are from oral traditions such as stories, songs, and poems.
Constant fear and desperation captivate the Karen experience. At any moment, your village may be under attack and burned to the ground. Your children may be killed and tortured, your wife raped and mutilated, and your husband beaten and enslaved in front of you. If you did not die, you will be used as a porter and a human shield. If you were lucky enough to escape the wholesale massacre, you join others whose village endured the same. You become internally displaced. Many will die in the jungle of malaria, flu, cold, and other sicknesses. You are starved and sleep depraved. You will have to flee miles through the mountainous regions. The fortunate few will make it to the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border and have the chance to live.
My family endured that fate. My parent’s villages were burnt to the ground and my family had to run for their lives in the jungle. We were the lucky ones. We made it to Mae La Refugee Camp. We could have a little piece of land and we would get our monthly ration from the UN including some rice, beans, and fish paste.
Though the refugee camps were better than the Karen situations back in Myanmar, the conditions were hardly adequate. In Mae La, 1 in 3 people have PTSD and 1 in 5 commit suicide. Our camp is surrounded by barbed wires. There is no education. There is no opportunity. There is no hope. You are trapped. Those who sneak out of the camp to get food or bamboo are severely punished by the Thai guards. On the road that runs adjacent to the camp, if you are hit by a car, they toss you to the side of the road as they would do an animal because you are powerless, voiceless, and less than human.
The Karen people rejoiced when Aung San Suu Kyi was elected. We thought that we would finally have peace and return to our home, but the attacks did not stop. It did not make any difference for the Karen. The political change was only on the face, not in the heart. The ethnic cleansing continues and people are still running for their lives. The military coup taking place in Myanmar right now is evident that the military had always retained their power and if the international community does not intervene, we can only expect more crimes against humanity.
It is a dark era in Myanmar history, but I hope for the day when I am not less than human for being Karen and when we can live in peace. Others say the Karen are the forest people, the mountain people. We live with the forest, trees, streams, and rivers. That is true, but we also have a heart. We are human like yourself.