Final Refuge

Karen immigrants describe their harrowing journeys from the brutality of Burma to sanctuary in St. Paul

"They gave us very little rice," he continues. "Whenever I saw water, even though it wasn't safe or good, I would drink it. Some of my friends who were forced to porter, when they couldn't carry the things anymore, the Burmese soldiers kicked them down a hill. They died. I couldn't even go and help them because I was tied up. We had to porter for several months. When some porters couldn't take it anymore, they tried to run away. The Burmese soldiers shot them."

After starting their family together, Mu Gay and Ar Say decided to leave her village. "They told us if we left the village, never come back, because if you come back, you and your entire family will be killed." They moved to another, smaller village where KNU soldiers lived. They were there less than a year. "I was sleeping because it was early in the morning," explains Mu Gay. "After the initial gunshots, we stayed inside our house and listened. I was afraid." Mu Gay and Ar Say had four children. The twins, Eh Kaw Say and Eh Kaw Htoo, were eight days old. Burmese soldiers were attacking the Karen soldiers in the village.

"There was a really, really big artillery explosion," Ar Say remembers. "Really big trees were cut down. The explosion shook my chest." The family continued to wait as more heavy artillery rained on the village. Eventually, Karen soldiers told them that they had to leave. "We were carrying our children," Mu Gay recalls. "We couldn't take anything else with us."

Nick Vlcek
Karen villagers forced to carry rations for the Burmese army from Bilin town to Kaw Heh village
courtesy of Karen Human Rights Group
Karen villagers forced to carry rations for the Burmese army from Bilin town to Kaw Heh village

According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, extrajudicial killings, rape, forced relocation, and destruction of villages and rice fields and other food sources are a matter of course for the Burmese military. The Karen have borne the brunt of these atrocities, and those who now live in St. Paul are no exception.

Saw Josiah, the MCC case manager, says that when he was six years old he was put into a detention camp with his mother, who was arrested for working against the military dictatorship. Pya Pu Nay Soe, who volunteered for the armed wing of KNU, was arrested and placed in a Burmese prison for six months. (Soe asked that his name be changed for fear that the Burmese government might retaliate against his family in Burma.) The conditions in the prison "were very bad at that time," he remembers. "We slept on a cement floor and it was really dirty." Wilfred Daniel Tun Baw, who also served with the KNU, hesitates as he suddenly recalls a memory from those days. He furrows his brow; he is reluctant to mention the Karen woman who had been raped by 30 to 40 Burmese soldiers.

Many Karen live in Karen State, but they can be found in all of the cities in Burma. In the cities, they face other forms of discrimination. Baw was rejected from the Military Academy, he believes, because his name easily identified him as Karen. Tension between the Burmese and Karen dates back to the pre-colonial era of Burma. Two hundred years ago, American Baptist missionaries arrived in the region. Many Karen converted quickly and easily from traditional animist and Buddhist systems of belief to the American Baptist church.

Some people, including Pastor Englund, trace the ease with which the Karen converted to Christianity to a legend that states that the Karen had once had a golden book that contained the word of God. They lost the book, but the legend holds that they were promised it would be returned to them. When missionaries arrived in their villages with the Bible, according to Englund, the Karen essentially said, "Thank you for bringing back our book."

The Karen's exposure to Western culture and the English language made them natural allies to British colonizers. "When the British colonized Burma, the Karen were very loyal to the British government," explains Josiah. "More Karen were educated. More Karen were involved in the British government [than Burmese were]. And also more Karen converted to Christianity. During that time, Burma was trying to get its independence. So they started to have conflict with the Karen. After independence, the Karen were more educated, and there was kind of a jealousy from the Burmese people. Also the Burmese are originally Buddhist and the Karen converted to Christianity."

"Since we became Christians," Baw explains, "the Burmese killed our Karen people every day and threw them into the river every day. They accused us of being pro-white because we are Christian."

Some of the Karen who survive flee either into the surrounding jungle or to one of the eight camps in Thailand. "Many people left our village, but one or two families at a time to avoid being found by the Burmese," Ar Say explains. Eventually Mu Gay and Ar Say moved their family to a refugee camp just over the Thai border. At first, they were in a camp, Sho Klo, close to the border. "We were happy there," Mu Gay says, "because we could go out and cut wood and bamboo and sell it. We built our houses out of wood and bamboo and leaves" in the style of traditional Karen houses.

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