Ashes and Tears
Interviews with Refugees from Burma on Guam
8824 SE 9th Ave
Portland OR 97213 USA
"We live in fear with tears and sadness."
-- a Chin refugee on Guam
During the past year, nearly a thousand refugees from Burma have arrived on the island of Guam, a United States territory in the Pacific Ocean. They are seeking asylum in the US, having fled extraordinary levels of persecution in their homeland. Most are from northern Burma, especially the Chin State. Forced repatriation of Chin refugees back from India, and lack of even the begrudging "welcome" provided by Thailand, from the countries bordering northern Burma, had apparently led these northerners to take the creative escape route of flying to Guam, which until recently allowed people from Burma to visit (for tourism) without a visa. Once there they applied for asylum in hopes of reaching the mainland US.
The Guam escape route, now shut down, was an expensive and risky option, and it appealed to a particularly desperate population, but those with access to the financial resources needed for passports, plane tickets, and other arrangements. The result is a refugee population on Guam which is not only skewed towards those from especially remote and isolated regions of Burma, but which is weighed towards what would ordinarily be the elite in those areas. The education level of the Guam asylum-seekers is conspicuously high (despite the damage done to the educational system by Burma's regime.) Doctors, pastors, student activists, academics, and NGO workers are now found stranded on the island, as well as at least one elected Member of Parliament and a former Army/Police Lt. Colonel. Most can be characterized as political activists, who not only were targetted for mistreatment by Burma's military because of their ethnicity, religion, or political views, but were actively engaged in a variety of ways of resisting that regime. They are risk-takers who fled only when they were one step away from arrest or worse. We are privileged that they have taken the time to share their experiences and knowledge with us in these pages.
This report consists of interviews with a small cross section of the Guam asylum seekers. It is to some extent representative of their demographics, in terms of ethnicity and gender. The interviewees have given us a great bounty of significant new information and details about recent conditions in Burma. Their interviews are presented here verbatim and in their entirety, aside from minor editing for clarity and to protect interviewees' families and associates back in Burma. Sections where the transcripts were edited are indicated by brackets. Some of the interviewees' names have been changed or omitted for security purposes; others have been included, particularly if their cases have already been publicized. The interviews were all conducted on Guam, from March 14 to 18, by Project Maje's director, Edith T. Mirante. Some were conducted in English, others with translation. The word "government" was often used to specify the military regime ruling Burma, in the questions and answers; it is used for clarity only and is in no way meant to imply legitimacy for that utterly illegal dictatorship.
Numerous topics are covered in these 17 interviews. There is front-line information about the AIDS epidemic which is making its grim progress into the remote mountains of Burma, and the efforts to evade the regime's denial about it. There is also news regarding promotion of alcohol and drugs to the indigenous people of the northwest, which is reminiscent of the tactics employed in the genocide of the Native Americans. The interviewees consistently describe the continuation of forced labor throughout the year 2000, when most of them had left Burma, in obvious contradiction of the regime's claims to have stopped the practice. This includes the forced plantation of tea for the military's commercial purposes, which was reportedly going on in the Chin State at the very time the International Labor Organization was sanctioning the regime for using forced labor (and the regime was insisting that it had ceased doing so.)
The regime's attempts to humiliate the largely Christian indigenous peoples of the north are well described by the Chin and Kachin interviewees. In a campaign not unlike that waged by the Chinese occupiers against the Buddhists of Tibet, the military overlords of Burma go to great lengths to suppress the Christian faith prevalent among those northern people. The regime also desecrate cultural remnants of Animism, as in their destruction of cemeteries and confiscation of the totemic mithun cattle (for fascinating background on the mithun and Chin traditions, see "A Ceremonial Ox of India" by Frederick Simoons, University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.) All the while, the ruling military promulgates its own travesty of the real Buddhism (to which forced conversion is a perversion and violence is anathema.) One hopes that in the future the Christians of the north will learn that Buddhism is in actuality a tolerant faith and that the two great traditions have much in common and much to share.
Since the ceasefire arrangement between the Kachin Independence Organization and the regime of Burma in the mid-1990s, little has been heard about the human rights violations ongoing in the Kachin State. This has led some to conclude that "happy days are here again" in that formerly war torn area. The Kachin interviewees, however, describe conditions which are little better than in the rest of Burma's frontier regions. While forced porterage has decreased with the down-scaling of army maneuvers, other types of infrastructure forced labor have continued, and apparently widened in scope. According to interviewees, former Kachin rebel territory was inexorably ceded to the regime's troops, and corruption and violent purges took place within the KIO. The recent change in leadership may have important implications for the balance of power in the Kachin State, which has certainly tilted far away from the KIO during the ceasefire period.
The other ethnic army often mentioned in these pages is the Chin National Front, a small group which joined the revolution late (post 1988) and remains in the fight without a ceasefire. Its significance has long been as much as an underground information distribution and intelligence gathering organization as in its guerrilla raids. The widespread network of "secret agents" of the CNF and volunteer civilian groups has done much in recent years to expose the plight of the previously little known Chin people to the outside world (for background on the Chins, see
A Chin Compendium,
a 1996 Project Maje report on this website, and "All Quiet on the Western Front," a 1997 report by Images Asia email@example.com.)
Some observers feel that if the CNF was not in operation, the regime would not be harassing the population in the Chin State so severely. Nonetheless, a less than benign interest by the ruling military was probably inevitable, given the State's natural resources. While some interviewees criticize the neglect of development in the Chin State in the past, it should be emphasized that development now in progress, including foreign extractive industries, is even more dangerous, in terms of environmental havoc, forced labor, and other exploitation, under present conditions. The past lack of roads and railways was objectionable; roads and railways built by abused slaves are worse.
Burma's appalling destruction of forests and other natural resources is covered in several interviews. There is also commentary on mineral extraction in northern Burma, a topic which should be receiving increasing scrutiny, particularly with possible foreign investment in the Chin State's Mwe Taung mining area (for background on mining in Burma please see "Grave Diggers" by Roger Moody:
Given the environmental devastation and the pattern of human rights abuse in the Chin State, particular attention should be paid to apparent plans by Unocal Corp., in association with US Vice President Dick Cheney's Halliburton, for a possible gas pipeline from the Andaman Sea through western Burma to India. As has been seen with Unocal's Yadana Pipeline in southern Burma, much of the damage to the northwest may be done well before the pipe dream becomes a reality, as security work and land clearing are done far in advance, with masses of troops and massive forced labor.
In addition to the Chin and Kachin interviews, there is one with a Karen from the beleaguered Pa'an area (for detailed reports about genocide in Pa'an, see the
Karen Human Rights Group
http://www.khrg.org) and one with a Burmese (Burman) who spent a harrowing seven+ years incarcerated in Burma's medieval prison system. His story, compelling in itself, can also serve as a reminder of exactly what the others faced, had they not made it to Guam. It brings this report in something of a circle, as one of the first interviewees had been in charge of surveillance of those who visited democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and that very scrutiny had prevented the jail survivor from going to see her before he fled the country.
The interviews are presented in the order in which they were conducted. Project Maje is very grateful to Zo T. Hmung and Rev. Joan Maruskin, and to all those who assisted with and participated in this report on Guam. After the refugees there escaped the horrors of Burma, many have met with a less than warm reception by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. Several have spent time in detention facilities on Guam, and some have been denied asylum during their initial interviews. This appears to be due to communications problems, including the refugees' ingrained intimidation when facing interrogation by authority figures. While waiting for asylum, the refugees are in a stressful limbo on Guam, which has a depressed economy and high unemployment rate. They are living on church charity and other donations, but making every effort to help themselves and each other.
These are people who can be of benefit to the United States with their skills and resourcefulness, and to the international Free Burma movement as spokespersons and activists. They deserve a safe haven in which to recover from past trauma and prepare to build a sustainable and equitable future for their homeland, once Burma achieves liberation. The suffering they have endured cannot really be expressed in the mere words contained here. As one of the interviewees told about her village being burned to a heap of ashes by the regime's troops, tears began to roll slowly from her eyes. They were the tears of a witness who has seen more than we can ever know.
To learn more about helping the Guam asylum seekers, including sponsoring them for US residence, please contact:
Rev. Joan Maruskin
Church World Service and Witness Immigration and Refugee Program
110 Maryland Ave NE, Suite 108
Washington DC 20002 USA
For more information about the Chins, on Guam and in Chin Land, contact:
Chin Freedom Coalition
3568 Brandywine St. NW
Washington DC 20008 USA
The Chin Human Rights Organization maintains a website and publishes the excellent "Rhododendron" newsletter:
50 Bell St. #2
Ottawa, ON K1R 7C2 Canada
For ongoing action suggestion and updates, join the Free Burma Coalition:
For background on Unocal Corp.'s activities in Burma, see EarthRights International:
Letters urging Unocal Corp. to not build a pipeline through Burma to India should be sent to: Mr. Charles Williamson, CEO, Unocal Corp., 2141 Rosecrans, El Segundo CA 90245 USA.