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, "has 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.
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 "drowned 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, "The 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.
In the four trips he has made to the Karen region, Mr. Lane said he has heard "countless stories" with the same theme: "SLORC troops will enter a village, set fire to homes and churches, rape women, kidnap boys and young men, and force them to assume portage duties in the jungle." He said he's been told of relatives and friends used as slave labor to construct railroads and of pastors and priests forced at gunpoint to bow to Buddhist idols.
General Bo Mya, president of the Karen resistance force Karen National Union, told Mr. Lane: "We are Christian. This Burmese regime, the military, wants the whole nation to become Buddhist. They don't like the Christian."
Saw Thay Ler, a Karen who now goes by the Anglicized name Steve Dun, told the committee SLORC troops have adopted a policy of ethnic cleansing, with the number of deaths and village burnings on the rise. He said SLORC troops burned the Day Daw Khee village in Papun on March 28. Two children, ages 3 and 4, were also thrown into the fire. Their charred bodies were later recovered.
Burma may be half a world away, but American involvement there is real. Construction is about to begin on the 250-mile natural-gas pipeline from natural-gas deposits near Tavoy to Kanchanaburi (site of the River Kwai Bridge) in Thailand. The multi-billion-dollar, 30-year project is a do-or-die venture for California-based Unocal Corp., which has partnered with the French oil firm Total and the state-owned Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise.
By paying SLORC to provide labor and security for the project, Unocal faces scrutiny for reports of forced labor and forced relocations associated with the pipeline. Mr. Dun told the House subcommittee that in one April weekend, 400 people from the Tavoy area tried to cross the border into Thailand.
In what could be a landmark case for both Burma and U.S. trade policy in China, a federal district judge in Los Angeles ruled in March that Unocal could be held liable in American courts for SLORC's abuses of power. Judge Richard Paez said Unocal's payments to the government for labor would be akin to "participation in slave trading" if such abuses were proved in court. He refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by an anti-drug group that accuses Myanmar Oil & Gas of laundering heroin money (Burma is the world's largest producer of opium poppy).
Helping Christians and others in Burma, said Rep. Smith, still requires a many-faced approach. "In the short term," he said, "the Thai government needs to be persuaded to let the Karen refugees rebuild their houses where they are and to allow humanitarian access to the refugee camps."
Then the president needs to go beyond that, he said, to restore democracy to Burma and save lives. To do that, Rep. Smith and others on Capitol Hill contend, will require making sanctions multilateral by pressuring other countries, primarily France. It also means persuading Pacific countries to hold off on a plan to admit the SLORC government into ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, this summer.
Rep. Smith said Congress may consider imposing sanctions on existing American investments, which primarily means the Unocal pipeline and a nature preserve run by the Smithsonian Institute. It, too, has been linked to forced relocation of minorities like the Karens and to the use of forced labor.