No Place to Go

A girl from Karen Refugees Settlement. (Atti-la/Flickr)
A girl from Karen Refugees Settlement. (Atti-la/Flickr)

A Summary

November 16, 2004

Naw Musi, co-founder of the Karen Students Network Group
Veronika Martin, policy analyst at the U.S. Committee for Refugees
Roberta Cohen, Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institute and Co-Director of the Brookings Institution-John Hopkins SAIS Project on Internal Displacement
Sam Gregory, Program Manager for WITNESS
Thomas R. Lansner, Columbia University professor and non-profit consultant

Do Our Lives Matter? (10 mins., 2004, Burma Issues)


The personal stories of Burmese ethnic people, forced by the country's military government to live in relocation camps, brought an urgent human face to an Asia Society panel discussion on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Myanmar (Burma). Through videos taken by human rights workers and the personal story of panelist Naw Musi, herself a Karen refugee, the panel convened by the Society's bellwether Asian Social Issues Program sought to move the discussion of the ethnic Burmese minorities from "being on the public record to being on the public agenda," said moderator Thomas Lansner.

Hand-held video camera interviews of Karen farmers detailed the fear and economic stagnation of those ethnic minorities who, due to ethnic cleansing or fear of uprising or secession in this unsettled country, have been virtually incarcerated in relocation camps along the Thailand border. There is no place to farm in the camps, soldiers often seize raised animals and the Karen are not allowed to go back to their villages, thus relegating them to a life of forced labor for the government or into hiding in the dangerous free-fire zone or conflict area. The video, Do Our Lives Matter?, was produced by human rights workers for Burma Issues, with video training by WITNESS, a US-based human rights organization ( Sam Gregory, WITNESS producer and Program Manager, said videos like these are a powerful tool for the human rights organizations' advocacy work as well as a way to reach a broader audience.

Naw Musi, now a student at Hartwick College in upper state New York, was born in Burma but fled to a refugee camp in Mae Sot, Thailand. Her grandfather was accused of being a rebel by the Myanmar military, was tortured and his body cut into three parts. Her aunt was stabbed in the heart until she died. Naw Musi graduated high school in the camp and was an early human rights advocate, building political, cultural and social awareness in her school. In 1998 she was picked as an intern by EarthRights International. She has organized workshops for Karen women in the camps as well as testified to the international community. In the camps, Naw Musi said, disease is common, water is not safe and nutrition is lacking. Rape is a common terror tactic. Outside the camps, the military uses landmines on pathways between villages and near food storage facilities to terrorize the ethnic minorities along the eastern border of the country. International efforts to bring democracy to Burma are not the answer, she said. It was during the 1950's democratic period in Burma that ethnic suppression began.

Veronika Martin has done fieldwork for human rights in Africa, Central, South and Southeast Asia. She was Director of Southeast Asian Programs at EarthRights International in Thailand, where she documented refugee and women's rights abuses, and directed and expanded WEAVE, a Thailand-based health-care and income generating organization for Burmese refugee women and children. She reported that while there are over a million IDPs in the eastern border and cease-fire areas of the country, there are also 100,000 people living in hiding in free-fire or conflict areas, without homes or steady livelihood. There is a high prevalence of human rights abuses in the camps, health care access is poor, child mortality is three times that of other parts of Burma, and maternal mortality is also high. Only half the children in the relocation camps have access to schools and acute malnutrition of children is twice that of Burma's baseline. Population displacement is sure to continue as the military government seizes more farmland in the ethnic areas for future development of dams, logging facilities, gas pipelines and infrastructure like highways. This unfortunate trend, playing out in several Asian countries, is just now catching the attention of the World Bank and other international organizations.

Roberta Cohen, an internationally known expert on internally displaced persons, is the principal advisor to the UN's Representative on the Human Rights of IDPs. Among her many contributions to the subject is her 1998 collaborative work on the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, acknowledged by the United Nations and other bodies as the international law behind the concept of sovereignty as a responsibility. Many Asian countries, including Burma, reject the Guiding Principles and argue that events taking place within their borders are their own business. But the idea that these events are a legitimate subject of international concern is increasing. "A tension or tug of war plays out daily at the UN between the defense of sovereignty and the emerging international responsibility toward populations at risk," she wrote recently.

Despite this trend towards international intervention, Burma has been "a tough nut to crack" by international human rights activists, seeking to help its ethnic minorities, Ms. Cohen said. Until recently the military government has not even acknowledged the existence of its IDP population and has rejected international involvement. Thailand is economically dependent on Burma for natural resources, thus complicating its role in cross-border aid.

Any new strategy for aiding IDPs in Burma will depend on:

  • Better definition of numbers of IDPs in Burma, thus capturing international attention and priority
  • Greater involvement by international NGOs focusing on Burma in the IDP situation
  • Advocacy by the United Nations, including placement on its agenda
  • Consultation with ethnic minority group leaders in the region
  • Involvement of ASEAN and other regional leadership groups in the IDP problem
  • Among questions from the activist audience, which included a Burmese refugee who arrived in the United States five month ago, were whether tourism should take place in the country (Musi and Martin were against all tourism travel to the country) and why the concept of genocide has not been used to justify intervention (Cohen said the International Criminal Court could be used against forced displacement in the future). Invariably, questions about the role Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) could play surfaced. Moderator Lansner urged the panelists to advance the topic a step: to call for more cross-border action. Roberta Cohen cautioned that now was not the time, given hard-liners in charge. But both she and Veronika Martin saw signs that progress was being made, although at a glacier pace, that is, the UN and NGOs are inching towards playing more role, and the Thai government rhetoric has changed toward its Burmese refugee population.

    As reported by Pamela Simons, Independent Consultant.11/17/2004