Photo of Karen farmers by Jack Chance
Radio producers Stephanie Guyer-Stevens and Lu Olkowski are covering the election in Burma from the vantage point of several Karen women in Thailand, who are anxiously awaiting election results in their home country. Guyer-Stevens has reported from the Thai/Burma before; her Outer Voices story Kawthoolei, demystifies the complicated history of Burma’s ethnic groups, while focusing on Karen women activists working for non-violent solutions. Olkowski is producer of Women of Troy and other radio stories that have been heard on All Things Considered, Day to Day, Radiolab, Studio 360, This American Life and Weekend America.
Olkowski and Guyer-Stevens arrived to the Thai/Burma border region on October 18th, 2010. They are reporting as election day draws near, and as tensions escalate.
Olkowski has been keeping us updated via email. Here are her notes:
September 17, 2010:
Burma has elections scheduled for November 7. The majority of Burmese have been waiting for the opportunity to again vote for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize winning democratically elected leader of Burma, who has been under house arrest for most of the last 15 years. The military has implemented election regulations that make it impossible for her to be a candidate (by making it illegal to run for office while under house arrest) and has disbanded her party which refused to comply with the military’s restrictions on being an active political party.
Additionally, this election will not have any international monitors. Foreigners are already being banned from entering the country in anticipation of the election. Several borders are already sealed. Internet access has been cut off. Core international NGO’s have been removed from their operations, especially in the regions where ethnic people live.
All of the women we’ve met have amazing personal stories. They’re all from an ethnic group (called Karen) which has been under attack by the Burmese government ever since Burma got its independence from the British 62 years ago. Many of the women we met have stories about growing up without a home. Not living in towns or villages… living in the jungle, constantly running from the Burmese military.
October 23, 2010:
It’s the first day since we got here that there hasn’t been any rain. It’s late afternoon. There’s slight breeze carrying the smell of freshly cooked rice, which is making me hungry, so I’ll keep this a brief as possible. Not surprising, things are a bit different on the ground. We hoped to do something about recent Burmese refugees – people fleeing because they feared that they would be forced to vote for one of the parties controlled by the current regime.
Right now, there are NOT a large number of people coming into the refugee camps in Thailand (close to where we are and where they would normally go). This seems to be because the Thai have stepped up border security fearing an influx of refugees. Another factor is that a Thai government official announced (then recanted) that after the elections they would repatriate Burmese refugees. Instead, people who are fleeing the election are fleeing from their villages into the Burmese jungle, but not crossing the border.
We have an interview scheduled for Monday with a family who fled Burma recently. Their story is slightly more complex in that they left as a result of one of the tactics that the SPDC (Burmese military) is using in the lead up to the election. The military is basically forcing ethnic people to become “border guards” a euphemism for being conscripted into the Burmese army, at which point they would be under the direct control of the military and required to vote for the current regime.
When we were in the US, we heard that there would be an increase in violence (leading to in increase in refugees) in ADVANCE of the election. The scuttle on the ground is that the violence will happen AFTER the election. People seem to be bracing for it. The military is doing exercises in the ethnic areas. Meanwhile, the 6 of the ethnic groups have banded together in solidarity saying that if one is attacked, all will retaliate against the military immediately, each from their own area. This is the first time the ethnic groups have united in 17 years.
I thought it was worth sharing this article about how people in the ethnic regions of Burma are preparing for war.
October 25, 2010:
Nan Paw Gay is the editor of a newsletter that’s distributed into the refugee camps and into the border areas of Burma. She’s very serious about her work and very sweet. Lovely voice. We did an interview today that was largely background on the situation here. (It is rather complicated.) We’re planning to meet again on Weds/Thursday to do a more personal interview. We’ll also spend some time at her home recording her with her kids. She’s a single mom of two kids, 6 and 8 and so in addition to her job as a journalist, she is trying to take care of them.
Another woman we will be working closely with is Hsa Moo. She runs a student group for Karen refugees. She also runs a tiny radio station that produces a news program for the refugee camps. As I said, all of the women have amazing stories about their childhood. Hsa Moo told us one story about when she was 11 years old. The military was coming and her family had to run. She was tired of running, so her mother asked her to stay with the house. Her mother’s idea was that if someone was there, maybe the soldiers wouldn’t burn it down. So there she was 11 years old, alone, waiting to stop armed men from burning down her house. Another time when she was running while carrying a 35-pound bag of rice. She joked, it’s heavy, but when you are afraid, it’s amazing how easy it is.
They all have a very strong sense of purpose, of trying to help other Karen people who are still facing abuse inside Burma.
October 27, 2010:
In the heat of the afternoon, we drove to a compound on the outskirts of town to interview two families who recently fled Burma. It was quite a scene. Stephanie and I with Hsa Moo as our translator. Plus, the man who arranged the interview for us. Plus, Stephanie’s daughter, Malia, who took photographs. Plus, the families we were there to see: two men and their wives and children. A lot of people. A hot room. Too much noise. Someone in the neighborhood was running a table saw during a good part of our interview. One of the kids, about 3 or 4, was running around and rolling on the floor. And their baby had a croupy cough and was fussing. Less than ideal recording conditions for sure.
The first family we spoke with left Burma a month ago, the other in August. Both families are now living very close to the border area on the Thai side. The men were soldiers in the DKBA (a militia of ethnic Karen people) who were asked by the Burmese government to be come “border guards.” As I mentioned earlier, it’s a euphemism for being conscripted into the Burmese army.
The group of us sat in a circle on the floor in a dark wood paneled room. The first man we spoke with was La Moo, wearing a purple sarong and a rumpled short-sleeve shirt that revealed arms covered in tattoos. One read “Born to Die” in Karen and another, “I Love You,” the Y covering a deep scar.
La Moo, who was a Second Lieutenant in the DKBA, said very clearly that he learned that after the election on Nov 7, he would have to fight his own ethnic group. He and his family left because he didn’t want to do it. Voting isn’t on the table as a possibility for him. He said, “We don’t want to vote, we want to live in peace.” It seems to me that he doesn’t want to vote because in Burma, voting doesn’t mean a choice. There is only one option, the Burmese government, and that, is trouble.
The second family we interviewed doesn’t want to use their names for reasons that will become clearer as I write.
As the wife speaks to us, she holds her 2 month-old baby in a red bright red sling. She says her husband left for the same reason as La Moo: he didn’t want to fight his own people. Her husband crossed into Thailand before she did so he could find a safe place to live. The day after he left, she was put in a detention center, not a regular jail, but close enough. She was locked up and guarded by other DKBA soldiers. She and her four children (ages 3 to 9) were held for a month. She believes she was let go because 1.) It was too expensive to feed her whole family, 2.) Kids can be kind of annoying, they were playing and making a lot of noise and 3.) Her parents lobbied with the DKBA to release her. Once she was free, she took her three oldest children into Thailand where she met her husband. Her youngest is still in Burma with his grandmother. She doesn’t want to go back — even to get her son. Instead, she’s waiting for her mother to finish the harvest. Then her mother will bring the baby to the Thai border.
She says quite plainly that she doesn’t want to go back to Burma because she hates Burmese soldiers. She explained that her family has always had to run from them. In the past she has been forced to work for them as a porter, carrying bullets.
October 28, 2010:
A few nights ago there was a full moon. It marked the end of the Buddhist Lent, so now there are regular processions through the streets with singing and dancing. Apparently, once a year, after this particular full moon, each temple stages a parade through town to raise money. There are several temples here in Mae Sot, so we’ve seen quite a few of them. A Burmese man at our guesthouse told me these parades drive him crazy. When he spoke, it reminded me of how I avoid answering the door when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints come to share the good word – although I think if they came singing and dancing I might feel differently.
Later, I went to Hsa Moo’s house for an interview. As part of her job with the radio station, she sometimes gets calls and emails with news from inside Burma. She told me that the worst call she ever got was about a mother, her daughter and her 5 month-old son who were shot when their village was attacked by the SPDC (the Burmese military). When Hsa Moo got photos of their bodies, she said, “I cried a lot because he was only 5 months old — and a 5 month old child is very cute. If I were that mother, I would want to die with my children. I wouldn’t want to live anymore.”
She told me that sometimes, when she gets sad about things like this, she plays her guitar. She played one song that I absolutely loved. I’ve been singing it all day. It’s a lullaby that Hsa Moo says every Karen person knows. In it, a kid sings to its mother, “Mama, come back, it’s dark already. Come back and hug me and sing me to sleep. Come back and tell me a story to help me sleep. If you don’t tell me a story, I will get angry and cry.”
Hsa Moo also mentioned that her favorite band was Iron Cross, which reminded me of this piece that Scott Carrier did a few years ago.
October 29, 2010:
Today we’re headed to one of the refugee camps on the Thai side of the border called Mae La to see what people are saying. We hear that there are a lot of new checkpoints on the roads and in one case a group of Karen leaders weren’t allowed to continue their trip from Mae Sariang to Mae Sot. The border between Burma and Thailand is officially closed. We also heard rumors that a lot of cars are being smuggled into Burma right now. We’re not sure if that’s related to the election and the expectation of war or if it happens all the time.
Read an article today about what may be the first public demonstrations in Burma, not from the capital Rangoon, but from the Karen ethnic area, just across the border from where we are. 700 people came from 155 different villages. 700 people may not sound like a lot, until you remember that in Burma people have been arrested for notifying people that they have the right not to vote. We’re going to see if we can find any eyewitnesses or anyone with documentation of the protests. Paw Gay from the Karen Information Center may be able to help.
Tonight on my way to dinner, I can across a young Thai man, playing guitar. Thought you might enjoy it:
October 30, 2009:
Yesterday we got on a songtaew (kind of like an open-air bus, basically a pick-up truck with bench seats) and rode to a refugee camp called Mae La. With almost 50,000 people it’s the largest of the nine refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma border and the oldest. It’s been there for 25 years. Many of its residents were born there and have never lived anywhere else.
We only had a short time at Mae La. We came to meet some Hsa Moo’s students who gave us a tour of the KSNG radio station in the camp.
October 31, 2010:
Just got back from an interview with Paw Gay. It was so nice to see her in her own home. I also met her six-year-old daughter who, like little girls everywhere, wants to be a princess. Paw Gay says that not too long ago her daughter started introducing herself as Cinderella. We sat in the kitchen on low stools while Paw Gay’s daughter watched Cinderella in the next room. At some point, her daughter came in and announced that she wanted toast, so our interview was interrupted by the tick tick ticking of the toaster. While we were waiting, Paw Gay and her daughter sang a Karen song for me.
After, her daughter grabbed a cold can of sweetened condensed milk and an alarmingly large knife to open the can. (Paw Gay took it away from her.) As Paw Gay dribbled some of the milk onto the toast, her daughter asked her to write LOVE on it. Paw Gay drew a heart.
During the interview we spoke bout how hard it was for her to be a single mom with what she considers three time consuming jobs: editor of the Karen Information Center, volunteer at the Karen Women’s Organization and of course, mom. She sacrifices a lot for her work. It’s one reason that her son, who is eight years of age, is living in Burma with his grandmother. As Paw Gay explains it, when she got divorced, she needed help. Plus, Paw Gay’s father had died, her mother was getting older and she was alone — no one to keep her company except for a dog and a cat. Paw Gay wants them to come to Thailand, but Paw Gay’s mother doesn’t want to live here, so Paw Gay only sees her son in the summer.
Paw Gay remarked how different life was for her son and daughter. Her daughter is exposed to a lot — growing up in Thailand, often accompanying her mother to work, meeting a lot of people. Her son lives a much more sheltered existence, living in a country with a tremendous amount of restrictions. A small example: over the course of our interview, Paw Gay’s daughter played a game on her cell phone, watched a DVD of Cinderella and played another video game on her mom’s computer. Paw Gay says that it’s different for her son — he doesn’t know how to use any technology. But she’s sure his little sister will teach him.
November 2, 2010:
Our piece about the families who fled Burma aired on The World today.
A few days ago, I mentioned that there were some protests in Mon State and Karen State in Burma. They may be the first public demonstrations of this election. The banners say, “We Make Democracy,” “We Don‘t Want a Military Govt” and “Cancel the Election.”
November 3, 2010:
Last night we met our Karen friends, Hsa Moo, Naw Htoo Paw and Wah Khu Shi, for drinks at a place called Aiya. Aiya is kind of like Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca. It’s where most of the foreign NGO workers and the Burmese resistance hang out. We’ve been told that Anug San Suu Kyi’s bodyguard is a regular.
When we arrived, the owner and several former political prisoners from the 1988 student uprising were sitting in the back, more than half way through a bottle of scotch. One had been in prison for 18 years, another put together the network that collected the footage seen in Burma VJ, which chronicled the Saffron Revolution.
We ordered beers, gin & tonics and Burmese tealeaf salad, and started to talk about food. Jack Chance, an American friend and radio producer who has spent a lot of time here, said that most Karen he’s met are very proud of their ability to walk into the jungle and eat like kings. Wah Khu Shi, said she could catch and eat anything: crickets, snakes, squirrels, deer. If it’s possible, we’ll try to get in the jungle and collect sound for Hidden Kitchens.
November 4, 2010:
A very busy day here, but I wanted to share a link. Jack Chance is a friend and radio producer who – over the last five years — has recorded the traditional music of the Karen people. He’s traveled to refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border and visited Karen refugees in their American homes. Some absolutely beautiful stuff here!
And here’s a piece “Blues for the Karen” that Jack produced for NPR in 2008.
November 5, 2010:
Stephanie’s second post is up at Center for Investigative Reporting.
November 6, 2010:
Tomorrow is Election Day. The current regime is, of course, expected to win. The BBC reported, “The government has, however, cancelled elections entirely in five key ethnic areas … disenfranchising an estimated 1.5 million voters.” They went on to say, “nearly 50% of Karen state will have no elections.” Karen state is right across the border from where we are and where most of our contacts are from.
Meanwhile, according to the Irrawaddy, “Five ethnic armed groups have this week set up what they have named as a “federal army” with the aim of defeating the Burmese army and toppling the military regime.”
Below is Stephanie Guyer-Stevens’ first story from Burma, written for the Center for Investigative Reporting:
Watching Burma: Dispatches from a Turbulent Election Season
BY STEPHANIE GUYER-STEVENS | NOVEMBER 2, 2010
Here in Mae Sot, on the Thai/Burma border, it’s late at night, the air is beginning to cool down, sultry from the late rains that have left much of the rest of Thailand swirling under floods. I’ve arrived here in time for the forthcoming election in Burma, scheduled for November 7. The Burmese military regime’s goal of holding elections in Burma is to create the appearance of a “fair democratic election.” Its almost certain that the results will be to elect the existing governments’ military leaders, who have stepped down from military office in order to run for election as civilians.
This election will be the first that Burma has held in 20 years, a time span marked by large-scale human rights abuses—there are 2,250 political prisoners according to Human Rights Watch—and by an extraordinary economic decline. The country has dropped from having one of the strongest economies in Southeast Asia, and highest literacy rate, to the bottom of the rung on both counts. Expenditures by the Burmese military (named the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC) now account for between one-third and one-half of the country’s gross domestic product.
Aung San Suu Kyi
The last election resulted in a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still considered by much of the world to be the democratically elected leader of Burma. The military refused to permit Aung San Suu Kyi to take office; instead she has remained under house arrest for 15 of the past 20 years.
For this election, the military has drawn up regulations that make it impossible for Aung San Suu Kyi to be a candidate—by making it illegal to run for office while under house arrest. In doing so, they officially annulled the results of the vote that first elected her to office as the political leader of the country.
An Election Behind Sealed Boarders
The military has rebuffed all efforts at international monitoring; has banned foreign journalists from reporting on the election from within the country; and has largely sealed its borders. Earlier this week the Thai Prime Minister’s offer to the military government to provide assistance in executing a free and fair election was rebuffed.
Thirty-seven political parties are competing for over 1000 seats in the two houses of the Burmese legislature, which in turn select the President. Of these parties, none of them are Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party. The NLD, along with four other political parties, have been dissolved by the government for a wide array of infractions, chief among them being their criticism of the military dictatorship.
Two of the parties are actually supported and aggressively promoted by the military regime —the Union Solidarity Development Party and the National Union Party. These two parties alone are fielding over 2000 candidates, many of which are military leaders who have stepped down from their positions to run as civilians.
In addition, twenty-five percent of the seats in the lower house have been explicitly set aside for active members of the military—which means that the military leaders who have exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothes will be serving alongside those still in uniform who have been guaranteed a significant legislative presence. In this way, the current regime has created rules designed to ensure their continued dominance of the country.
Rule by Violence and Terror
There are numerous and widespread reports of antagonism and violence towards smaller parties, as well as other forms of pre-election manipulation. Candidates ostensibly representing the Karen ethnic minority party, for example, have been personally selected by the military, not by the Karen themselves—who have been in a long-running, and sometimes violent, struggle with the regime.
But if the election goes as planned, this will seal the deal for the military dictatorship, allowing them to claim democratic legitimacy, providing a line of defense against multiple accusations of human rights abuses, and permanently deleting Aung San Suu Kyi’s claim to leadership.
According to Burmese law, citizens are not required to vote. However, individuals who have been informing Burmese citizens of their right to boycott the election are being jailed. On the other hand the junta has refused to allow the populace to vote in areas where there is the greatest resistance to the military leadership: seven major townships in the Karen state alone will not be allowed to go to the polls.
Burma before Colonization
Prior to British rule, Burma was really a constellation of different ethnic groupings, all of which now are struggling to maintain their own languages and culture. One of the largest of these groups, the Karen, has been offering the greatest resistance to the military regime. The Karen state borders Thailand, and over 100,000 Karen refugees now live in refugee camps along the Thai/Burma border. These are practically the oldest refugee camps in the world, second only to those in the Palestinian territories. The camps are now bracing for a new influx of refugees from across the border as the military intensifies enforcement and plans for post-election violence in the Karen and other ethnic areas.
All of these factors add up to an extremely volatile moment in Burma’s history. We will be posting over the coming weeks in the border area to monitor developments relating to the election on November 7, particularly as it affects ethnic groups.
This story was supported by the Dick Goldensohn Fund at the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Additional funding was provided by Urgent Action Fund, Herb Leventhal, Terry Causey, and anonymous donors. Outer Voices is grateful for their support.