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We really can do better than this! The Karen People and Cyclone Nargis

Knowing that I have a little connection with the Karen people, today James sent me a link to an article about David Everett, who is about to publish a book of his years fighting with the Karen National Liberation Army in Burma.

Very interestingly, the article says,

The spectacle of Burma's military rulers withholding aid from their stricken people after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta region has strengthened his sense of righteousness... The Karen were among those worst affected by the cyclone. Everett says it was one of the reasons the military was in no hurry to provide relief. "What aid's going in is going straight to the military," he says. "They're reselling it to the people. A lot of the things journos haven't picked up on is the Irrawaddy Delta: (there are) five million Karen there. They're the majority of the population in the delta."

Yes, I had also heard this from a Karen friend a few weeks after the cyclone hit Burma in early May this year, and although we've all heard about the obstructiveness of the Burmese (sorry, 'Myanmar') government in being apparently extremely reluctant to allow aid workers into the country, it was never made explicitly clear in the mainstream media why this was.

If you do not know very much about the history of Burma since WWII, it still may not be very clear to you. In a nutshell, the military rulers of that country have not really been prepared to share power with anyone despite that fact that this is a country of great ethnic diversity, and that autonomy for each of the ethnic regions was supposed to have been guaranteed under the Union of Burma, set up following the defeat of Japan at the end of the war. Things went off the rails at 10:37 a.m. on 19th June 1947, when General Aung San was assassinated in Rangoon. Ring some bells? The result has been decades of war and suffering as the Burmese military have fought against almost all of the ethnic groups for total domination of the country.

If you have time, I very much recommend you read:

  • Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt
  • Claudio O. Delang, Suffering in Silence: The Human Rights Nightmare of the Karen People of Burma

Even if you reckon yourself to be pretty tough and thick-skinned, don't read this second book in any place where you don't want people to see you cry.

There are also some photos (Adobe Flash Player required) on the Internet taken by the husband, himself a Karen, of a friend of mine. This is also not very nice, so don't look if you do not want to see something that may be offensive to you.

Humanity really can do better than this, can't we?


Yuki Otako,

Those photographs (Adobe Flash Player required) are journalism in its highest state. Who took them? They made me cry - of course - and, still more poignantly, because I feel that I have come to know the Karen from a distance, over the past year. One of the contributors to Sheila Newman (ed.) The Final Energy Crisis, Pluto, 2nd edition (due out September 2008) A. Boys, who writes about Japan and North Korea, in relation to peak oil and agriculture, knows a lot about swidden agriculture as practised by the Karen. He put me onto a book by Francis Ferguson - a novel with very close anthropological detail - about a musician who travels into the jungle of North Thailand and meets with the Karen practitioners of swidden agriculture (which seems to be a truly sustainable way of living with forests.) Ferguson describes the matriarchal culture of the Karen, where the women manage the land and the incomes. He opens up an exotic, self-sufficient and happy world, which is being destroyed by the privatisation and commercialisation of land, and the institution of money in its place (always a very poor bargain.) The story tells of how the Thai Army is attempting to colonise for capitalist trade purposes, the forest and forcing the Karen to become Thais and lose their land, so that the Thai government may engage in short term profit. The treatment of the forest by the Thais is nothing short of totally stupid and destructive, very similar to the treatment of forests in Australia. I can well believe that the Thai army would allow the Karen to die, because Thailand wants their land. The title of the book, Look down, see the women cry, evokes the situation of the Karen women, totally in charge, very learned, of high status and authority, who are fighting to retain their position vis a vis the land, because the entire future of the tribes depend on them. As a land-use planning sociologist I see the Karen as an example of the best practise in land-use and the truest kind of land-tenure. I intend to write a review of this book when I have finished reading it, but am moved to point people to it now, where it is available via these pages:

Sheila Newman, population sociologist.
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Copyright to the author. Please contact sheila [AT] candobetter org or the editor if you wish to make substantial reproduction or republish.

Tony Boys's picture

"Hundreds of thousands of people in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta still need assistance - a year after a deadly cyclone, the UN and aid agencies warn."

The BBC does not mention the Karen. I do not believe they do not know of the existence of the Karen in that area since Britain is LARGELY responsible, historically, for the horrors that have taken place there since WWII and anyone who has any connection at all with Burma/Myanmar or any of the ethnic peoples knows the basic history. We lack objective evidence (how convenient) but one has a right, given the circumstances, to be suspicious about who the aid is not reaching... I will try to follow up on this.