Thursday, August 20, 2009

Eastern Burma: Another Darfur?

The Irrawaddy News

You could say it runs in the family—45-year-old Saw Lubermoo’s grandmother and grandfather were IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), his parents were IDPs, and now he is an IDP.

The ethnic Karen says he has been constantly on the move and hiding in the jungle since he was four years of age.

He is among hundreds of thousands of ethnic Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan civilians who have been displaced in eastern Burma for decades.

According to a 2008 report by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, an umbrella group of donors and humanitarian organizations, the total number of IDPs in eastern Burma is likely to be well over half a million with at least 451,000 people estimated to have been displaced in rural areas alone. The group also says that many IDP cases in eastern Burma go unreported.

According to Shan and Karen relief groups, there are currently about 20,000 IDPs in hiding in the jungles of central Shan State and northern Karen State.

A separate group of some 4,000 Karen villagers fled during the joint Burmese army– Democratic Karen Buddhist Army offensive against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in June and are presently being sheltered on Thai soil.

Shan community-based rights groups, including the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), reported on August 13 that in the previous two weeks, the Burmese army had burned down more than 500 houses and forced about 40 villages to relocate, mostly in Laikha Township in Shan State.

On Wednesday, a top US administration official expressed anxiety over the displacement of thousands of civilians in northeastern parts of Burma due to the Burmese army’s military activities.

“We have been deeply concerned by very recent reports of large-scale displacement, perhaps as many or more than 10,000 civilians,” the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Eric Schwartz, told reporters on Wednesday at a special briefing at the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the US State Department.

Observers and human rights advocacy groups have said that the conditions under which villagers are forced to become IDPs in eastern Burma is conducive with the criteria regarded by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as “crimes against humanity.”

Aung Htoo, the general-secretary of the exiled Burma Lawyers’ Council (BLC), said, “We can say with certainty that crimes against humanity and war crimes are being committed in Burma.

Charm Tong, a spokesperson for SWAN, said, “The regime brazenly committed these crimes even as the whole world was watching them during the trial of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Several activists have said that crimes committed by soldiers of the Burmese regime include murder, rape, torture, looting, forced relocations and displacement. Many compare the situation in eastern Burma to the Darfur crisis in western Sudan where about 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million have been displaced.

The ICC has issued a warrant for the arrest of President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, accusing him of being responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan.

Since 1997, the Burmese regime has destroyed over 3,000 villages and displaced over half a million civilians in eastern Burma. Karen sources report that there have been many unreported displacements and destroyed villages in Karen State alone since 1949 when the Karen armed revolution began.

International and regional rights groups, such as the International Federation for Human Rights, Altsean-Burma and Burma Lawyers’ Council, have urged the European Union to support the establishment of a UN Security Council Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma.

Regional activist, Debbie Stothard, the coordinator of Altsean-Burma, said, “How can the SPDC’s planned elections be given any credence when war still rages in eastern Burma?”

A Karen rebel commander with the KNLA for more than two decades said he decided to join the fight against the Burmese army after he witnessed the bloodthirsty murder of children by Burmese soldiers.

He could not control his emotions as he told the story. “In one village, I saw the Burmese army kill women and infants. This event motivated me to pick up a gun and protect my Karen people,” he said.

“I have asked myself many times why Burmese soldiers are killing civilians. But, I have never found an answer.”

A Karen girl, Taw Oo Paw, 13, said, “I pray every night before I go to bed that I can be reunited with my mother and my sisters, and return to my village and live in peace.”

Her father was killed by the Burmese army and she has been separated from her mother and sisters for two years. She said that she hopes for a family reunion, one day.

Washington-based The Irrawaddy correspondent Lalit K Jha also contributed into this article.

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