Saturday, August 30, 2008

Philanthropic genocide

Admitting Karen refugees from the overcrowded refugee camps in Thailand by the ten thousands the U.S. is committing cultural genocide, said a Karen Burmese political asylee and a volunteer Karen translator from New York.

She says so because she believes that many of the newly arrived refugees will lose their Karen identity over the generations. That the language of this small ethnic minority, whose population is estimated to be between three and six million, will die out as refugee children and parents adapt to their new surroundings in the U.S. That the Karen will not be able to sustain, breed and evolve their cultural heritage in exile. That the Karen culture and heritage might be extinct if there is no political intervention in Burma. 

The Karen are an ethnic minority mostly living in the slim Karen state that is nestled between Thailand and the Southern tip of Myanmar. They are also an ethnic minority that has been purged by the Burmese military junta for fighting for independence since 1948. The Karen National Union, a group of ethnically Karen rebel troops, is considered a terrorist group by both the military junta and the United States.

In the past years, thousands of Karen refugees are now finding new homes in places like New York City, Fort Wayne, Indiana or Elizabeth, New Jersey. Many of them had been living in refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border for up to 20 years. They fled persecution in their homeland; rape, murder, arbitrary taxation, displacement. For up to 20 years they have been waiting to return to their home country but, alas, the junta is as stubborn as it was twenty years ago during the student protests that were crushed with gun fire and tanks.

To a certain extent U.S. has accepted this sad fact. They have accepted that the 150,000 refugees living along the Thai-Burmese border might not be able to go back to Myanmar in the foreseeable future. And so, one year ago, the Bush administration committed to taking in up to 20,000 Burmese refugees per year from Thai refugee camps.

And that, to the asylee, is cultural genocide.

She echoes a sentiment often expressed by several Myanmar refugees. Many lament that thousands, both well-educated activists and poor farmers, are leaving the country, shifting a successful coup against the junta out of reach by exporting any potential opposition leaders or cultivators of ethnic cultures.

She also hints at the dissatisfaction that many in and from Myanmar feel with the international community. In a recent article in the New Yorker about Myanmar, one interviewee said:
"The only solution is for the U.S, to drop a bomb on Naypyidaw [a city in the heart of Myanmar]. That's the only way!"

What has been done after more than 45 years of a Myanmar under military regime is that the U.N. moved Myanmar onto the top of their agenda in recent years. Yet, as the restricted access for aid to reach Myanmar during the Cyclone has shown, this administrative move has done little to change the situation.

But what can be done? Economic embargos on the country by Western countries seem ineffective when other Asian countries are still doing business with Myanmar. And placing the burden of a(nother) military mission to bring democracy to a dictatorship on the U.S. might be a lot to ask, considering the current economic crisis and the political struggles that come with that.

And though the asylee's comment is extreme she poses an interesting question:
How do you continue to foster and develop a culture that has been exiled from its breeding ground?

Can you resuscitate a language, an ethnic identity, a way of life that is more and more solely existing in the past?

And to come back to those people that the Burmese Karen asylee was speaking about:
How can those, who are beginning a new life somewhere else, carry on traditions, manners and beliefs on foreign soil without a critical mass of their own people and without access to the homeland that provides exposure to their ethnic group?

Fashion video

A fashion video I recently edited.