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(Personal Testimonies)

“At least ten persons from every village has to work until the reconstruction of the pagoda is finished. Now, at the time of the interview, November 15, 1999, we have been working on the pagoda for two weeks and we have completed about only one fourth of the work. We carry stones from Tio river which is two miles a way from the pagoda. We place the stones in a row around the pagoda and fill it with soil.

The villagers are not paid for their labour. They have to carry their own food and tools. The family who could not work had to pay Kyat 1,500 to the army. Every day we start work at 7:30 AM and stop at 4 PM. The villagers who came late were punished by the soldiers. They had to do a hundred sit ups. …

The army knows very well that we all are farmers and that November is harvest time. They forced us to build the pagoda at the busiest time of the year without allowing us any time to work for ourselves. Because of excessive forced labour and constant military harassment, many people from our area have fled to…”

Status and Non-Status Refugees

There are an estimated two million Burmese refugees living on the Thai, Indian, China, and Bangladeshi borders, most of whom are living in those countries illegally. For most of these illegal refugees, life is full of poverty, uncertainty and risk. In order to survive and/or to support their families still in Burma, many of the refugees must accept the jobs and abominable working conditions that no one else will take. Many women are sexually abused by their employers or, in the absence of jobs, are compelled to join the sex trade. There is no recursive action for Burmese who have no legal status and do not want to “cause trouble” for fear of being deported back to Burma. In Thailand, many non-status refugees live in constant fear of arrest by Thai police who are ready to turn them in for personal gain. Last fall 1999, Thailand deportated tens of thousands of Burmese causing much pain and suffering. (see article about Thailand)

Out of the numerous Burmese refugees, about 150 thousand of them have obtained some sort of status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and are living in refugee camps. The refugee camps are supported by international NGOs, which provide food staples, housing materials, educational tools, etc. While these people are better off than the illegal refugees but they still face many hardships, including the risk of cross-border incursions by the Burmese army.

Who are the refugees?

Most of the refugees in Thailand are comprised of Shan, Karen, Karenni, and Mon ethnic villagers, but there also include Burmese student and other dissidents largely from urban areas. In Bangladesh, there are over 20,000 Rohingyas, a Muslim minority, in refugee camps. In India, most of the roughly 50,000 refugees are from the Chin ethnic nationality.

Many of the refugees are civilians, who come from the ethnic states located along Burma’s borders. Because many ethnic groups have been engaged in armed struggle with the central Burmese authorities since the country’s independence, many of the junta’s abuses against these people is aimed at either cutting off local links to armed opposition groups or seizing their lands for state-run farming, logging, or other business projects (see ethnic groups, campaigns).

Internally Displaced Persons

In addition to the refugees who have fled Burma, there are roughly one million internal refugees (official term is “Internally Displaced Persons – IDPs”) who have been chased from their homes but remain in Burma either because they cannot make it to the country’s borders or are still hoping to return home. IDPs are often the victims of the army’s forced relocation tactics, whereby the villagers are forced to move from their villages into over-crowded military-controlled camps, where they have no access to food or medical care. In these camps, they are also at the mercy of the military’s myriad of abuses (see human rights, ethnic groups, students). Often, hiding in the forests in constant danger of survival and security is a better option than staying in the camps, and so they flee and become IDPs — The numbers of IDPs is also difficult to ascertain because they are always hiding and on the run.

Testimonies of Refugees


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