Burma's secret Karen genocide

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Secret Genocide: Voices of the Karen of Burma
Daniel Pedersen
Maverick House, 272pp

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's national League for Democracy (NLD), might be relatively free, for now. There are many others in Burma, however, who are anything but free of the continual repression and brutality that is still being enacted by the nation’s military regime.

For the people of the country’s various ethnic minorities, such as the Shan and the Karen, life is little more than the day-to-day endurance of a seemingly endless civil war.

Daniel Pedersen is an Australian journalist who lives in the western Thailand border town of Mae Sot. On the other side of the Moei River (and the absurdly-named Orwellian “Friendship Bridge”) is the showcase tourist town of Myawaddy.

There, travellers must surrender their passports during a strict one-day visit that is almost entirely devoted to shopping.

Most of the proceeds from these outings do not remain with the traders, but are passed on to officials who oversee the operation.

Beyond this twilight zone lies Burma and the homeland of the Karen, one of the largest of the ethnic groups offering any resistance to the country’s bloody-minded military rule.

Mae Sot, in Pedersen’s words, is “a Thai-Burma frontier town and full of spies, employees of non-governmental organisations, fugitives, Christian volunteers, journalists, photographers, English teachers, activists and more spies”.

As the meeting-point between a repressive Myanmar (Burma) and a shining South-East Asia, Mae Sot is the focus of the Karen people’s plight and the gateway to the several refugee camps dotted along the border.

In tandem with the illegal trades in opium, people, gems and guns is a vital playing-out of the long struggle for identity and decency in the region’s political hothouse.

Secret Genocide: Voices of the Karen of Burma is the product of Pedersen’s decade of reporting on the plight of the Karen people under the boot of the Burmese military government.

The Karen have been fighting for independence since 1949, making their battle with Burma one of the longest-running armed conflict of modern times.

The occasional outbreaks of hope for the country, such as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from another term of arbitrary house arrest after last November’s farcical national election (which she and many other NLD members were not allowed to contest), are fleeting consolations for the millions who suffer continual persecution, violence and involuntary displacement at the will and whim of the regime.

Most of the refugees who live in the border camps, or who somehow find their way into Thailand, are Karen. Some are eventually resettled in other countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States.

The book's title is not a provocation, or an overreaction. Pedersen opens the book with the definition of genocide as determined by the four articles listed in Resolution 260 of the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 after the revelation of the Holocaust during World War II.

As his account makes clear, many of the conditions outlined in the resolution can be found in the experiences of the Karen, and in the behaviour of the Burmese authorities.

Pedersen is an old-school journalist who learned his craft on regional newspapers in Victoria and Queensland before reporting in East Timor during the lead-up to the troubled ballot for independence from Indonesia a bloody but suitable training ground for his later work in Thailand and Burma.

He brings to Secret Genocide a long-range view of his subject. He reaches back and forth across the history of various events and developments, seeking the meaning that they provide for the bigger issue.

Always, however, he stays with the people: their efforts and experiences and hopes and hardships and persistence, and this is the measured strength of the book.

His relates the defection to the Burmese junta of a close family friend, which must have been painful to write; in this, however, as in the rest of the book, Pedersen’s narrative is patient and clear-eyed.

The account serves as a startling example of how the larger political and ideological issue pervades the lives of those who are caught up in its actuality, and its immediacy.

Pedersen details the make-up of the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Karen National Liberation Army, their united campaign for an autonomous Karen state, and the history of the modern Burmese military government’s efforts to suppress any resistance and disregard the concerns of the wider world.

He provides convincing evidence of the Burmese government's development of a nuclear program unknown to the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as of a huge dam-building project that will render much of Karen territory unusable.

The hydro-electric power supply that will result from this scheme has already been sold to Thailand, Burma’s greatest supporter in South-East Asia.

It is the various international trade and commerce links, including with the West, that sustain the monstrous regime against the many calls for human rights and democratic change often from the very same countries.

The work of NGOs such as the Free Burma Rangers is carried out in the mix of connivance and corruption that perpetuates the despair of ordinary people who survive on the fringes of humanitarian awareness.

Land mines and malaria add to the constant harassment, and worse, that is inflicted upon the Karen, whose women are raped and men are beaten and villages are burned out in an unmistakeable policy of oppression.

Those who make it to the border camps, where they might wait for 20 years for a chance to be resettled by the UNHCR, are hardly any better off: frequent raids by the Burmese army sit alongside the crippling poverty and the barely liveable conditions that become unbearable during the wet season.

As many as 140,000 people are forced to live in this no-man’s land. Any attempt to venture beyond the fence is met by arrest by the Thai police, who send anyone unable to pay a hefty bribe back into Burma.

Pedersen’s case is not only for the ongoing tragedy of the Karen and their claim for independence, but for the urgency of the humanitarian crisis in Burma as a whole. His access to key figures in the KNU, and the obvious trust they place in his ability to convey their concerns, lend an underlying authenticity to the book and an undeniable significance to its subject.





Black-and-white photographs by Steve Sandford symbolise the morality that must be brought to any resolution of a plainly immoral situation.

The Burmese government’s initial refusal to accept international aid after the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 is only one of the better-known instances of the regime’s determination to resist any possible interference and to impose its twisted will on the country.

The lack of an index (and a map) is disappointing, but this is not a scholarly book. It is a seasoned and passionate reporter’s personal plea for the recognition of a besieged sovereign people and their territory.

It is also a broader account of a geopolitical travesty that is being legitimised by the broken virtue of international indifference, if not outright support.

In giving voice to the lives and concerns of the Karen in Burma, a Pedersen is asking why, and for how much longer, the world is prepared to allow this slow-motion genocide to continue.

From GLW issue 882