MAE SOT, THAILAND — Although we often read about Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s fight for democracy in Rangoon, a far bloodier struggle is being carried out in the jungles east of the Dawna mountain range. The brutal Burmese junta, known as the State and Peace Development Council (SPDC), has launched its biggest military offensive in a decade. The human casualties of the conflict are pushed throughout the border region. Many victims of past military actions have ended up in sprawling refugee camps near Mae sot, a small, rural community just over the Thai border.
The SPDC long has been warring against the Karen, Karenni, and other ethnic groups. From a distance the individual victims blur into an indistinguishable mass. Talking to children caught in the violence helps brings the tragedy into clearer focus.
The group Christian Freedom International supports medical clinics, schools, and orphanages in Burmese villages and Thai refugee camps. One of its newest efforts is a small school in Thailand, located about a mile from the border, which serves 31 kids from nearby camps.
The children’s ages range from 11 to 17. Squeals of joy and raucous laughter drifted throughout the building one recent day as they played a form of tag in the common room upstairs.
Yet happiness has been a scarce commodity for many of them. These are not the lives of secure American teenagers, with cell phones, cars, stereos, and tickets to college. Most of these kids have endured far more hardship than the rest of us will see in our lifetimes.
Many of the children have lost at least one parent to war. Most have seen homes and villages ravaged by Burmese military forces.
Several were born in refugee camps. Sickness and death are common. Families often have broken apart, with children distributed among relatives. Almost all have been forced to move, often multiple times.
The experience of 14-year-old Klo P’lan Paw, nick-named Gloria, is distressingly common. She explains: “Sometimes Burmese soldiers come to our village. They also burn our house, destroy our garden and when they ask someone to give them a thing they need when we did not give them they kill our people so every time we afraid and always we have a danger. When they need a person to help them and carry heavy thing for them they came to our village and call a man to go carry things for them.”
One of the more chilling stories is told by 15-year-old Moo Nay Paw (Andrea):
“We met the Burmese soldiers in the distance. We couldn’t run, because they surrounded us. They arrested us and tied all the men. My mother and I went to stay under a big tree to take a short rest. At the moment one man tried to escape and ran behind me and my ma. While he ran, the Burmese army shot him. At that time I saw my mother lay down beside me, because one of the bullets came through my ma, but I didn’t know my ma died. I called her ‘Mother…mother’ and I tried to move her. I called her again and again, but there was no reply.”
A couple years later her father met a similar fate. She says: “He was killed when he came back to his village. Before he was killed, he was beaten like people beat animals. When I received this message I cried.”
Htoo Lar Paw, nick-named Mary, is 14. When she was four her mother died of TB. Then, relates Htoo Lar Paw, “When I was ten years old my father died, because my village is not near the hospital. Also my family do not have enough money to go to buy medicine. After my father died no one help us to send us to school. We become orphans. We can’t feed ourselves.”
She and her four siblings faced another challenge: “Because we do not have parents and always we need to run to the forest, we can’t stay in our village. Because the Burmese soldiers attacked our village and burn our village and take everything that they had saw. So we moved to refugee camp to save our life.”
Min Lay, or Paul, is 15. His village was under the SPDC’s control: “the farmers they give tax for Burmese government and some people had no land to feed their families. Sometimes they had to carry things when Burmese soldiers told them to.” His parents eventually sent Paul and his younger brother to live with their grandparents in a refugee camp in Thailand.
Brownika (Jill), recently turned 14. SPDC soldiers regularly came to her village, arresting some people, killing others, and impressing a number to be porters. Her parents fled to Thailand when her mother was pregnant: “When my family left the village to go to the refugee camp in Mae Hong Son, there were many difficulties along the way.” Her father became a soldier, but returned when her mother grew sick (and eventually died).
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