Over the past 12 months, relations between Burma and Britain have improved dramatically, as the latter tries to secure new economic opportunities in this previously isolated part of the world. British tourists have also begun to flock to Burma, as it is fast becoming a new tourism hotspot in South-East Asia. But for one Burmese refugee, the thawing of relations between Burma and the rest of the world is not what she wants.
‘The UK government policy on Burma is soft,’ says Zoya Phan with a hint of anger in her voice. ‘They are promoting their own trade and business interests. I want to see a more robust policy from [British Prime Minister] David Cameron that challenges the government in Burma and tackles their impunity.’
A member of Burma’s Karen ethnic minority, Zoya was named after Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, a Russian partisan who died fighting against the Nazis at the age of 18. Unlike her namesake, Zoya, now 33 and living in England, managed to escape the clutches of a despotic invasion and has become the global voice for the Karen community. While she was able to escape a cycle of suffering, hundreds of thousands of her people are still trapped and at the mercy of the military junta.
The war between the Burmese military and the country’s various ethnic groups, including the Karen, is the world’s longest-running civil war.
The Karen people have been at the heart of this six-decade-long struggle, and aid agencies estimate that approximately 200,000 of them have been ethnically cleansed during the conflict. Although a ceasefire was reached between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Burmese military government in January 2012, thousands of Karen are still facing persecution from the military.
The Karen trace their ancestry back thousands of years. Their legends tell that they once travelled from what is now Mongolia and settled mainly in the mountainous jungles of southeast Burma. Decades of embittered guerrilla conflict following the end of World War Two have forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Today, they represent roughly a third of the 160,000 refugees in makeshift camps on the Thai-Burma border. Those who have stayed in their villages in Burma live in the shadow of taxation, slavery and landmines placed by the Burmese military.
Zoya, whose autobiography, Little Daughter, explains how she was forced to flee attacks by the Burmese army, speaks of her joy at making it to Britain. ‘I am very touched to be living in this country, this society of tolerance. It is very inspiring – this freedom is something that the people in Burma are looking for,’ she says.
‘Both my mother and father always wanted to see this kind of society, but didn’t get to.’ Her father, a leader of the Karen resistance, was assassinated by the junta, and her mother fell ill and died before Zoya came to Britain.
Despite her effusiveness, she is dismayed at the ‘soft UK government policy’ on Burma. ‘Instead of supporting victims and promoting human rights and democracy in Burma, the British government is promoting its own interests. British policy it still very much focused on what is going on in Yangon [Rangoon] and Naypyidaw [Burma’s new capital] – but not what is happening to the Karen people.’
She is also critical of British immigration controls which have prevented any more Karen refugees from entering the country. There are roughly 500 Karen refugees here, despite the fact that tens of thousands are still trapped in refugee camps. ‘The British government should take more refugees from Burma; this would make the Karen community a lot happier,’ Zoya says.
Common history, shared responsibilities
Zoya is right to be indignant towards British foreign policy – the current situation for the Karen is an ugly scar of British colonialism.
When Burma was a colony, the British gave the Karen preferential treatment over other ethnicities, as part of their ‘divide and rule’ strategy. The Karen then fought alongside the British during World War Two, while Aung San, the leader of the Burmese independence movement, sided with the Japanese, who marched into Burma in 1942 as part of their advance on British-held India. Aung San later switched sides and fought the Japanese, but many saw the Karen as having betrayed the Burmese people. British promises that they would enjoy an independent state came to nothing, and they were left at the mercy of the Burmese military.
Zoya, like so many of her people, has lived a life in the shadow of the Burmese military. She describes her childhood in a small Karen jungle village as a ‘paradise’. But when she was 14, her village was attacked by the Burmese army, and she was forced to flee to one of the refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border.
Life there, she says, was ‘without hope. We were helpless, and totally reliant upon the charity of others. I hated being a refugee and the stigma that came with it.’ But the camps were to be her home on and off for the next four years. She admits she was lucky to get out.
‘Some people are born in the camps, and some have been there for as long as 25 years. It is very difficult for them to call a refugee camp home but there are no guarantees for their security if they go back to Burma. Many of my friends are still living in these refugee camps,’ she explains.
The camps, filled with tens of thousands of people, remain a ‘nowhere world’. They are rife with disease and overcrowded. In January 2014, refugees had their rations of rice cut from 12 to 8 kilograms per month, resulting in widespread food shortages and malnutrition.
It was Zoya’s desire for education that allowed her to escape. First, she won a scholarship to study at Bangkok University in 2000; then she was awarded a scholarship to study for an MA in Politics and Development at the University of East Anglia in England.
‘People are being shot every day in the jungles of the Karen state – I am angry because governments have known for so long what is going on but have done almost nothing to help us,’
On reaching Britain in 2005, Zoya did not forget the people she had left behind. Inspired by her father’s political leadership, she set about telling the world the story of the Karen, and began volunteering at Burma Campaign UK.
Interviewed by the BBC following a ‘free Burma’ march, the broadcast launched her onto the political landscape, and she went on to speak with the then-Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and later at the 2007 Conservative Party conference.
There, she delivered a defiant speech which expressed her anger at the UN’s failure to impose an arms embargo on Burma (China and Russia having previously blocked a Security Council motion).
‘People are being shot every day in the jungles of the Karen state – I am angry because governments have known for so long what is going on but have done almost nothing to help us,’ she told her audience.
Though the ceasefire led to a temporary end to the bloodshed, Zoya’s request for more international pressure on the Burmese government and recognition of the rights of the Karen has been largely ignored.
A new beginning?
Relations between Britain and Burma in the past few years have improved significantly following a series of democratic reforms by the Burmese president Thein Sein. In 2013, Sein met with David Cameron and agreed to free all Burma’s remaining political prisoners (a promise he has yet to fulfil), in exchange for which Cameron lifted economic sanctions against Burma.
Zoya is sceptical that real change is reaching the Karen, however. She says that the constitution is designed by the military, and while it is still in place, the generals will not give up their power. ‘I want a federal constitution that guarantees rights and protection for ethnic and religious minorities. I can’t be optimistic about political change until this constitution changes.’
Peace agreements between the Karen and the Burmese military have also been hampered by the memories of years of bloody jungle warfare and the massacres of Karen villagers. According to Zoya, any hopes for the future have also been threatened by the continuous human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese military. ‘These are still going on and include taxation, forced labour and the main concern for our people – land confiscation.’
As recently as 2010, there have been reports of the Burmese military burning Karen villages. Villagers who have chosen to stay in their homes are now living in a place with one of the highest concentrations of landmines in the world.
Since the ceasefire, there has actually been an increase in the military presence of the Burmese government in the Karen state, which bodes ominously if the peace agreements break down again.
As the global community begins to welcome Burma onto the political and economic scene, perhaps people should remember the Karen, tens of thousands of whom are still living in squalid refugee camps.
The stringent tourism regulation, which prevents visitors from deviating from the traditional tourist sites, means that the holidaymakers and gap-year travellers will not see the Karen refugee camps. Nor will they see the Karen villages, scattered with landmines and reeling from years of war and economic hardship.
While democratic reform is happening in Burma, the Karen villages in the southeastern periphery are still denied a political voice. In July, a flare-up between the military and Shan villagers showed how ethnic hostilities have not ended.
Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, believes that international pressure is essential for Burma to build a democracy without human rights abuses. ‘International pressure is what triggered the reforms and since pressure has been released, we have seen backsliding on the reform process,’ he says.
Zoya dreams of a free Burma: ‘I want Burma to be a place where, regardless of your race, gender, religion or ethnicity, you are covered and treated equally by the law.’ Without more sustained pressure from Britain and the international community, it remains unlikely that her dreams for the Karen people will come to fruition.