More Karen refugees from Burma live in Minnesota than in any other state. On Sunday, 300 Karen and supporters gathered at the Minnesota Capitol to protest continuing repression in Burma.
The name of their homeland means “Land Without Evil,” yet for its citizens, Burma is anything but. A military dictatorship has ruled the country since 1962. Last month, demonstrators marched in the streets to protest rising fuel prices and call for democracy, led by scarlet-clad monks. Soldiers soon raided monasteries, arrested monks, beat demonstrators and fired into crowds, killing at least thirteen people. The military junta acknowledges detaining more than 3,000 people, though it claims only 500 remain in custody. Diplomats and opponents of the regime believe more people are being held, and that they face torture.
On Saturday, October 13, more than 300 people gathered on the lawn of the Minnesota state capitol to raise awareness about the situation in Burma. Demonstrators carried signs and banners promoting democracy, chanted “Free Burma,” and waved flags displaying a fighting peacock, the Burmese symbol of revolution. Many wore red and white t-shirts declaring “save Burma.”
Many of those gathered were Karen refugees, driven from their homeland by dictator Than Shwe and his military junta. An indigenous tribe native to the hilly eastern region of Burma, the Karen are traditionally farmers, known for their colorful dress and jubilant festival dances. For them, the latest crackdown is just another atrocity in a relentless pattern of oppression that has terrorized them for decades.
After Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, the Karen sought self-determination from the new Burmese government. “Their peaceful negotiations were met with a genocidal war,” said Wilfred Tun Baw, a St. Paul resident who was born in Burma. As a young man, Tun Baw joined a revolutionary movement in hopes of overthrowing the government.
“I spent 18 years fighting in the jungle,” he said. “Eventually, I had to leave for the safety of my family.” He moved to St. Paul in 2000 and is currently a leader in the local Karen community. More Karen refugees have settled in Minnesota than in any other U.S. state; more than 600 currently reside in the Twin Cities.
In an open letter to supporters, Robert Zan, an Executive Committee member of the Karen Community of Minnesota (KCM) writes, “We were rendered refugees from the rabid ethnic cleansing policies of the chauvinist Burmese government. It is their goal to make Burma into a Burmese empire, where indigenous ethnic nationals submit to ‘Burmanization.’ Karens are not Burmese. We are still fighting for independence, especially from the illegitimate military regime.”
Addressing rally participants, Oscar Ba Aye explained that Karens who have settled in the Twin Cities are contributing to the local economy, and many are homeowners. Some have children currently attending high school or college. Yet they remain burdened by the tragedy in their homeland.
“Recently, over 3,000 Karen villages were torched and their cultivated fields confiscated,” said Ba Aye. “This has happened before. Men who don’t escape are forced into hard labor. Women are systematically raped and turned into ‘comfort women’ for the invading Burmese soldiers. Karens who do manage to escape languish in refugee camps or forage in the jungle just to survive. We call on world leaders to put pressure on the Burmese government to stop the repression.”
Several speakers at the rally invoked the name Aung San Suu Kyi, national hero and symbol of the pro-democracy movement in Burma. She is also Karen. After founding the National League for Democracy in 1988 and leading thousands in acts of non-violent civil disobedience, she was imprisoned. In 1990, the military junta called for a general election. While under house arrest, Suu Kyi received 82% of the vote for Prime Minister. The junta refused to recognize the results, and has confined Suu Kyi to house arrest for 13 of the last 18 years. In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Zaw Win-Maung urged rally participants to exercise their freedom to speak out against injustice and advocate for others. “We all look up to Aung San Suu Kyi and love our brothers and sisters in Burma. We must use our freedom and democracy to promote theirs,” he said.
Pastor Bill Englund of the First Baptist Church of St. Paul also spoke at the rally. “The Lord requires that we do justice and love kindness,” he said. “The Bible tells us that righteousness will prevail. God’s purpose is that we live in peace.” Every Sunday at 8:30, First Baptist Church holds a prayer service in the Karen language attended by more than fifty people from the Karen community. “They are a wonderful part of our congregation,” said Englund.
“We’re here to show solidarity with those who struggle for democracy in Burma,” said Tim Harlan-Marks, master of ceremonies at the rally. “Any time someone suffers injustice, it should affect us. But beyond that, there are people right here, friends and neighbors who are being affected. We need to show that their suffering and their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.”
Harlan-Marks helped organize “Bikers for a Free Burma,” a seven-mile ride from the West Bank in Minneapolis to the capitol for Saturday’s rally. About 20 people participated. It was the first action by a new collective called “Movers and Shakers” (MaS). Their kick-off gathering is scheduled for November 8, 6:00 p.m. at the Common Roots Café in Minneapolis.
Over 500 new Karen refugees are expected to arrive in the Twin Cities by the end of next summer. The Karen Community of Minnesota is asking the larger community for support in assisting the new arrivals. Individuals or organizations willing to sponsor Karen refugees, transport them to appointments, or donate clothing, furniture, or vehicles should contact Robert Zan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katrina Plotz is a substitute teacher, free-lance writer and anti-war activist from Bloomington.