Banner
Qnote 17/Enote 96
May 26, 2013

Dear Friends,

Obama and Thein SeinAfter decades of tyrannical, corrupt, despotic and inept rule, Burma finally got its new constitution written and elected Thein Sein as the new Prime Minister of a democratic(?) Burma in November of 2010. The world and the US in particular has been more than ready to embrace the process of democratic reform articulated in Thein Sein's inaugural address. Secretary of State Clinton visited the new Prime Minister, and the iconic leader of democracy Aung San Suu Kyi in December of 2011, and President Obama himself visited last November.

Political developments will have huge and lasting consequences in the lives of our refugee friends, and in our own work with them. So I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss at least some aspects of this rapidly changing situation and how it might affect our work in the future. The two issues which have come most forcefully to my mind in the last year are: the mood and opinions of the refugees, and ethnic strife.

Are the refugees ready to return?In Burma
I have discussed elsewhere the refugee's view of home see enote 23. Just let me note here that home is so important to some that they will do anything in their power to avoid having to leave home. So, of course, many want desperately to go back. But after two or three decades --people began to leave Burma in the 80's-- it is reasonable to ask is home still there? Some land will surely have been used for agricultural or industrial projects, other land will have been used by the military. And even if the land is not currently being used, will it still be available to its former owners? After all they did originally abandon it. None of these issues has been addressed by the government. Furthermore in the intervening years many refugees have died or resettled in another country. Some people have lived all their lives in refugee camps. They have never seen what was their parent's home, and they have no interest in going back. Furthermore we should understand that for years the people have lived under a despised and deceitful regime they are not about to trust it now without a year or two in which it shows that it can keep to its promises of peace and security. Finally the people know that Thein Sein is not in full control of his army. Even though he may be completely sincere in his desire to bring peace and stability to the country, it is not at all clear that his army is willing to suffer the loss of power which peace and stability will require.

In fact some young people are still coming across the border in search of better education either at Dr. Cynthia's CDC, at one of the migrant worker's schools, or in a refugee camp. Though somewhat slower than in the past, outflow from Burma continues.

Ethnic conflict has increased.Violence against Rohingya
Burma has been a land of strife and ethnic conflict for centuries. It first established a democratic government in 1948 upon receiving independence from Britain. As the first Prime Minister of Burma, U Nu had to deal with armed rebellion from various ethnic groups. General Ne Win seized power in 1962 and established a military dictatorship, in part to bring some measure of order and control to the country. By using brutal force against many demonstrations the military dictatorship has survived almost 50 years until the election of Thein Sein in 2010.

Tragically as the people of Burma have become more free to carry out their desires racial and ethnic conflict have re-asserted themselves in the actions of the people. The violence against the Muslims in June and October 2012 alone has left 167 people dead, hundreds injured, 140,000 people (95% of them Muslim) displaced, and thousands of businesses and homes destroyed. The picture on the left shows Buddhist Arakans leaving a destroyed Muslim village.

So what does all of this mean for BREF?Abstract Waves
We have talked many times with refugees about democracy in Burma. All of them desire it, but most refugees don't fully recognize the demands democracy makes on them to seek understanding and compromise, and crucially, a willingness to set aside their personal interests for a greater good. In my view democracy will not come soon or easily to Burma. Also the refugees will not willingly return to Burma until real peace and prosperity are clear to everyone.

Obviously we cannot decide what is best for the refugees, but we can continue to be there with them, lending our presence, encouragement and aid to their efforts at achieving a better life, whether that be finally in their current host country, resettled in a third country or back home in Burma. I do look forward to a time when peace is restored and the people of Burma may return and begin to rebuild their lives.

I leave you with,

THE GIFT OF EDUCATION

CAN'T BE STOLEN,

FOLLOWS YOU WHEREVER YOU GO,

GIVES YOU CONTROL OVER YOUR LIFE,

GROWS WHEN SHARED WITH OTHERS,

AND PROMOTES PROSPERITY AND PEACE.

Best Wishes to all,

Tom