Taking Action Against Atrocities

These days, we witness incredible displays of violence – on TV or our internet media feeds. Images of the Islamic State executing innocent civilians. Boko Haram laying waste to villages in Nigeria. Sectarian violence sweeping through Yemen. Thugs and terrorists gunning down tourists and students in Mali and Nigeria.
The first step to counter such violence is to know about it. Action follows awareness and is the best measure to overcome the risk of being desensitized to the constant flood of such atrocities.
Yet similar episodes of violence persist in eastern and northern Burma – but no action is possible as there is no international awareness.
In northern Burma’s Kachin State, the Burma army clashed with militia fighters 73 times in the first 2 months of the year. They’ve conducted five artillery attacks on various positions. Slightly to the south in Shan State, the Burma army launched 62 assaults. In a stunt borrowed from ISIS, the Burma army arrested 4 men headed to work in a coal mine and burned them to death. More horrific than this, between Feb 14-17, Burma army soldiers massacred 100 or more civilians in a village in the Laukai township of Shan State.
Meanwhile, in eastern Burma, the Burma army did offer and sign a ceasefire with the Karen people. Despite this gesture, it routinely violates the ceasefire at will. On February 17th and again on the 22nd, it launched artillery barrages at Karen villagers working in the fields preparing for planting crops. In late February, a Burma army patrol clashed with a Karen militia force, killing one militiaman.
These episodes follow 60 years of violence and oppression by Burma’s military regime against the country’s ethnic minorities. The storyline is complicated by recent faux events aimed to show reform. The junta turned power over to civilian control – but these civilians are nothing more than generals who put on suits. Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and elected to a minority position in Parliament. Burmese media highlights the release select political prisoners, yet the government still arrests more citizens for nothing more than having an inconvenient opinion. Add to this the regime’s continued repression of the Muslim minority in Rhakine State, the Rohingya, and it becomes clear that while recent events are aimed at creating the image of progress, little progress is being made.
The US and other western nations have rewarded the regime with open arms and support. President Obama visited Burma twice since 2012. The US military has opened up to possible exchanges with Burma’s army. The US Government has lifted its ban in investing in Burma. Likewise, the British have begun similar military and economic engagement.
The people who suffer today are the same ones who have suffered from 6 decades of isolation and atrocities: Burma’s ethnic minorities. In June 2011, the regime broke ceasefire in northern Kachin State – aimed at securing land and resources to turn over to the influx of international development opportunists. The army’s violence displaced an additional 120,000 men, women and children into refugee camps or isolated internally displaced person locations. More than 200 villages have been wiped out.
Throughout the north and east of Burma, the regime has systematically seized and turned land over to international developers. Huge swaths of farm land are gone – sometimes to development and sometimes to the aftermath of development, as when a dam flooded a region and forced 1,500 households from 24 villages to move this past October in order for a new hydroelectric plant supporting Burma’s capital.
Meanwhile, in eastern Burma’s Karen state, access to education, health care and economic livelihood remains precarious. The regime’s clinics are expensive and corrupt. It can cost a Karen family a month’s income to pay for a simple visit to a government clinic. Considering that 72% of a family’s income is dedicated to providing food, medical treatments are a luxury.
Health care is in high demand. Without some form of care, one in 10 Karen children will not celebrate their first birthday. One in 12 mothers will die as a result of childbirth. Malaria, dysentery and pneumonia – all curable and treatable – are the leading causes of death.
To fill this void, community based, ethnic medic teams have struggled to care for their people. Dr Cynthia Maung, who fled Burma in the wake of the 1988 student uprising, operates a free clinic across the border in Thailand. Her Mae Tao clinic now sees 350 patients a day – more than 125,000 each year.
To supplement this clinic, backpack health worker teams travel throughout the isolated conflict zones of eastern and northern Burma – the very places where the Burma army attacks, seizes land, rapes and randomly murders unarmed civilians. The presence of such teams is vital to battling child mortality rates that are 10 times higher than in neighboring Thailand and rival that of Somalia. Last year alone, the backpack medics supported more than 210,000 people, to include more than 100,000 children. They treated over 85,000 patients while delivering more than 4,200 babies. The presence of trained medics decreased the newborn mortality rate by 85%.
Despite such successes of the Mae Tao clinic and its mobile backpack medic teams, many international donors are reducing their support, seeking instead to work with the regime. This unfortunately is leaving more than 500,000 internally displaced persons and millions of villagers without any viable medical care. Sadly, such care is not expensive. A typical backpack team subsists on less than $6,000 a year for the medicines and supplies it needs to care for 2,000 people. $1 secures up to 40 doses of medicine while $5 will buy the anti-malarial treatment needed to cure a pregnant woman of malaria.
If only the print, TV and internet news editors found such positive stories worthy of headlines, maybe more people would take action to help. And, compared to inhumanity evident in other countries, positive, meaningful action is within reach of everyone. The media could play a positive role to galvanize action for positive change.