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The way the United Nations and most governments act, I sometimes wonder if Karen State is in Burma. Certainly they don’t treat us like we are in Burma. There is considerable irony in this. Often the Karen National Union (KNU) is accused of fighting for an independent separate state. In fact we changed our policy towards federalism as far back as 1956, and now support a federal democratic Burma.
The international community seems to think we are not part of Burma. That is the only reason I can think of for why they make policy on Burma whilst ignoring what happens in Karen State.
Just look at the recent record. In 2006 the Burmese Army launched a major offensive in Karen State. They deliberately targeted Karen villages, walking miles to avoid the bases of our Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), to deliberately target civilians in this way is a war crime. But not one government said so.
They didn’t just attack villages, Burmese Army soldiers raped women, executed and tortured people. Unarmed villagers were thrown alive into their burning homes. People were beheaded and crucified. More than 80,000 people fled their homes, hiding in the jungle. The dictatorship blocked aid, babies died from disease, children went hungry. These are crimes against humanity. We cried out to the United Nations for help. It didn’t come.
Later that year, a new UN Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, went to Burma. We hoped he would persuade the generals to end the attacks and allow aid to reach our people.
But he didn’t even mention what was happening. Instead he gave a press conference praising the regime for promising to make reforms. He talked about how they had turned a new page with the international community. He said not one word about the slaughter of my people.
It was the same before, and it has been the same since. In February, 2010, a petition from 84,000 civilians in Karen State was delivered to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The petition called on Ban Ki-moon to take action to stop the Burmese Army attacking them. It represented a desperate appeal from people who have lived in fear for their whole lives, as have their parents and grandparents before them. Karen communities worldwide also delivered copies of the petition to Presidents and Prime Ministers across the world, calling on them to also take action.
We asked them to use their influence to support Ban Ki-moon to secure a nationwide ceasefire as a top priority, leading to meaningful and inclusive dialogue to achieve genuine national reconciliation and a federal Burma. We also called on them to pressure the regime to enter into dialogue with the Karen National Union, and other ethnic political parties, together with the rest of the democracy movement in Burma.
The response? There wasn’t one. No reply.
For so many decades the Karen and other ethnic civilians of Burma have been suffering from various crimes committed by the ruling Burmese government. Every year, tens of thousands of people are forced to flee their homes simply because of the attacks by the Burmese Army, and tens of thousands more are used as slave labour. All this is ignored by the international community, which focuses on events in Rangoon and Naypyidaw.
The shocking behaviour of the UN Envoy back in 2006 is now being repeated on a greater scale. Attacks have increased in Karen State and Shan State, with the dictatorship breaking ceasefire agreements. Burmese Army attacks have spread to Kachin State, as well. The Burmese Army has unleashed its soldiers against civilians, driving a total of around 100,000 from their homes since November. Soldiers gang-rape and execute ethnic women, and use villagers as slave labour and human minesweepers.
Given this appalling and deteriorating situation, you would expect action to install a ceasefire, to get aid to people, and punish the regime for these horrific abuses. At the very least you would expect a grouping like the European Union to be supporting the recommendation of the UN’s own human rights expert on Burma, that a UN Commission of Inquiry be set up to investigate these abuses.
Not only has the EU not supported an Inquiry, it hasn’t even commented on the serious increase in abuses taking place. EU governments instead focus on a speech made four months ago by Thein Sein, the new President of Burma. This week, the dictatorship even got praised for not attacking Aung San Suu Kyi when she travelled out of Rangoon. The EU and UN seem happy to wait and see what the ‘new’ government does, as if there is no urgency, as if women are being not raped every day, villages burned, people used as slaves.
The Burmese Army can commit war crimes and crimes against humanity in Karen State and other ethnic states, it doesn’t seem to matter. The generals know this, which is why they carry on killing. They know all they need to do is make nice speeches in Naypyidaw, and agree to let diplomats visit now and again, they can literally get away with murder. The UN and EU ignore war crimes and crimes against humanity in Karen State, which is just the way the generals like it.
Nant Bwa Bwa Phan is the representative of the Karen National Union in the United Kingdom.