War has raged in Burma for a half century. The central government has long sought to exert its control over several disparate ethnic groups; fighting has been particularly brutal under the long-lived junta in Rangoon.
The result is a human catastrophe: hundreds of thousands of refugees in surrounding nations and millions of Burmese displaced within their own country. Burmese soldiers kill and rape civilians, and impress many into service as porters. The army routinely destroys villages within rebel-held territory and sows landmines when they leave. A clinic in Maesot, Thailand, is filled with those unlucky enough to step in the wrong place.
Many of the Karen, who fill sprawling Tham Hin refugee camp in the rolling hills north of Maesot, are Christians. Their ancestors were converted by Anglican and Baptist missionaries in the 19th century.
Alas, the camps are quasi-prisons — the Thai government prevents residents from working or even moving freely. Many children have spent their entire lives in crowded idleness. Although the Karen people’s faith gives them hope for the next life, today they see little good in the future.
On-and-off peace negotiations between the Karen and the so-called State Peace and Development Council have proved no more successful than similar discussions between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi’s democracy movement. The regime is renowned for its brutality and cupidity, and is unlikely ever to relinquish power voluntarily.
Moreover, Bangkok is understandably tiring of the burden of indefinitely caring for so many refugees. It is seeking to push the Karen back into Burma, but no guarantees from Rangoon can be trusted.
Unfortunately, Washington has little leverage to force the SPDC to either step down or change course. Sanctions have yielded no evident benefit and military action is inconceivable.
But the U.S. could ease the burden on Karen and Thais alike by accepting some of the refugees who wish to come to America. The decision should be easy: these are not economic migrants seeking opportunity, but endangered peoples seeking safety.
The group Christian Freedom International has been working to bring in a handful of orphans for adoption, but has run into the usual bureaucratic resistance from both the UN and the State Department. State did, however, approve the admission of about 9,300 other Karen for resettlement.
Then, however, the Patriot Act came into play. It defined as a terrorist anyone who had promoted (provided “material support” for) armed rebellion. And, of course, terrorists are not allowed to come to the U.S.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, giving clothing, food, medicine, or shelter to guerrillas makes one ineligible for resettlement. Contributing to the de facto rebel government (the Karen National Union controls a diminishing but nevertheless important section of eastern Burma) also provides grounds for sanction.
Although not present in the case of the Karen, even aid provided under duress disqualifies refugees. Just one slip of the tongue — “I gave food to a KNU soldier” — is fatal to one’s hopes. As of March barely 700 refugees had passed the non-terrorist test.
Moreover, a hundred ethnic Chin refugees from Burma are being held in Malaysia after they were denied entry to America on these grounds. One ethnic Chin was denied refugee status because he allowed three unarmed members of the Chin National Front to stay for two nights at the school where he taught.
Thus, people being murdered by an oppressive regime are being denied entry by the U.S. government if they had defended themselves, even though Washington is promoting democracy worldwide and has the offending government under sanction. What’s wrong with this picture?
Thankfully, under pressure (and after some embarrassment) the State Department has waived the provision in this case. The remaining 8,600 refugees will now go on a waiting list for resettlement. But thousands more Karen would like to come and remain technically ineligible because of the Patriot Act restriction.
Nor is it only Burmese who are affected. Smaller numbers of refugees from Colombia, Cuba, Liberia, Sudan, and Vietnam also have been blocked from resettling in America. In the main, Washington is punishing those who most appreciate its basic values and best advance its international goals.
The State Department could and should more liberally grant waivers. However, bureaucrats are naturally cautious — make a mistake and keep someone innocent out, nothing happens. Make a mistake and let in a terrorist, and your career will be over.
Thus, the law should be changed: terrorist should really mean terrorist, not pro-American freedom-fighter resisting a tyrannical anti-American government. Pending legislation sponsored by Senators Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would more carefully define terrorist group and deserves passage.
Despite persistent hardship, Karen refugees long for the day they can live in peace in their own country. But that day may never come, at least in their lifetimes.
Washington may not be able to end tyranny in Burma. But the U.S. can help a few of these desperate peoples escape to freedom.
Doug Bandow is Vice President of Policy for Citizen Outreach. He is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (forthcoming from Allegiance Press).
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