Photo: Umpiam Mai refugee camp in Umphang.

Helping the Karen of Burma

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It was a frigid winter day in the US state of Vermont when I first met with a recently resettled refugee family back in 2008. The resettlement program had told me they were Burmese, so I was confused when only one 17-year old family member could understand what was written in an English-Burmese phrasebook. I soon learned how they were part of the ethnic Karen minority, displaced by the world’s longest-running civil war.





The family of five fled their home village in the mountainous Burma-Thailand border region 10 years earlier when it was attacked and torched by the Burmese military. With a two-year-old in tow, they escaped to Thailand by way of a dangerous path through the jungle, travelling only under the cover of darkness. If the Burmese army had caught them, they would have likely been put to forced labour, possibly as landmine detectors, or shot on sight.

Thousands of Karen have met tragic ends like these after grievances with Burma’s central military government unravelled into an all-out armed struggle following the Second World War. The conflict has persisted in some form to this day, and despite recent positive reforms in Burma, human rights abuses by the military continue against several of the country’s many ethnic minorities.

After reaching Thai soil, the family were placed in a refugee camp in the far western reaches of Umphang district. They were among the thousands of refugees who have sought safety in Thailand after the Burmese government launched increasingly brutal military offensives against the Karen beginning in the late 1980s. These attacks toppled much of the Karen State, a border area and home to the Karen that had been precariously controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), since the 1950s.

Today, some 160,000 refugees from Burma -- Karen but also the Karenni, Mon and Kachin, among others -- live crowded into 10 camps along Thailand’s northwestern border. After a 10-year wait, the family in Vermont were among the lucky few to be resettled to the West ... please log in to read the rest of this story.


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