Burma's rain of terror

International | Testimony on Burmese persecution of Christian minorities pushes the White House to act; a separate court ruling may make American multinational company liable for abuses

Issue: "Welfare Reform on Trial," May 3, 1997

When the rains come to Burma even the bamboo shrinks. The wet season, with its daily drenchings and gales of wind, is nearly upon southern Asia. Shrinking from it also will be more than 100,000 Karen refugees huddled along the Thai border with little protection from the elements.

Several months ago, Burma's ruling military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), chased those refugees from their homes. They forced the refugees to set up camps across the border in the craggy jungles of western Thailand. Near midnight Jan. 28, about 100 SLORC troops invaded two of the camps, burning churches, schools, and most of the homes. It was the kind of escapade SLORC has used repeatedly to force minorities-in this case the largest ethnic group, known as the Karens-out of regions they historically controlled.

Nearly half of the Karens are Christians; those are divided evenly between Baptists first evangelized by American missionaries and Roman Catholics first evangelized by the French. The strength of the ethnic minority church in Burma, says missions expert Patrick Johnstone, &quothas been an inspiration to many around the world." Led by the Karens, over 2,000 ethnic minority missionaries have been sent to spread the gospel in the remaining mountain fringes of Indochina.

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Thai authorities, who by some accounts were complicit in the January raids, have prohibited the Karen refugees from rebuilding, forbidding even bamboo huts, which are considered permanent structures in Thailand. One refugee, Saw Kyaw So, sleeps with his 9-year-old son in a teakwood cart each night and told a reporter he and other refugees would be like &quotdrowned rats" once the rainy season arrives.

A longstanding campaign by Burma's ruling military elite to quell dissent is drawing condemnation abroad even as it appears ever more entrenched. SLORC's incursion into Thailand came just as the U.S. State Department released its annual human-rights review and cited Burma for torturing, killing, imprisoning, or enslaving thousands of ethnic minorities and political dissidents. State Department officials hinted then that sanctions might be applied.

Last week President Clinton decided to obey the law that demands investment and trade restrictions when regimes are found to be extremely repressive. He barred future American investment in Burma while allowing previous corporate involvement, chiefly construction of a joint-venture natural gas pipeline, to remain. The president's decision came days after the United Nations Human Rights Commission condemned Burma's record in a unanimous resolution, and nearly a month after the European Union stripped Burma of special trading privileges because of reports that it uses forced labor to boost exports.

After congressional hearings on Burma last week, House human-rights leader Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said, &quotThe administration finally did the right thing, but it is important to notice that this is something that is required by law. When the president found widespread repression, he was obligated to take this action. The real question is why he waited so long."

Popular demands for democratic rule to replace a 30-year military reign led to elections in 1990 in Burma-known more recently as Myanmar. But the junta refused to allow the winning National League for Democracy (NLD) to take power. SLORC placed NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, under virtual house arrest in December. As reports of killings, torture, the forced relocation of as many as one million minorities, and arbitrary imprisonment of political opponents multiply, President Clinton came under pressure to get tough with Burma in a way he has refused to do with the communist leadership in China.

When Rep. Smith, who chairs the House subcommittee on human rights, initially planned to hold hearings on Burma, State Department officials asked him to wait. Negotiations with the Thai government to allow international aid into the border camps could be jeopardized, they said. In March both the State Department and the UN received assurances from Bangkok that relief groups and supplies would reach the Karens. But eyewitness testimony given to the House panel April 16 contradicted that report. Journalist Gary Lane of Christian Broadcasting Network visited those camps in late March. He found that the Thai government was forcing many Karens back into Burma and refusing to allow food and medical aid to refugees.

A woman eight months pregnant traveled three days through the jungle with her family to reach the Thai border; Thai soldiers forced them back into Burma. Under cover of darkness, she told Mr. Lane, she and her family snuck into a camp near Umphang.

At a camp near Mae Sot, Mr. Lane testified, 1,000 Karen children have no school building or homes since those were burned down in January.


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