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Still fighting for freedom

Burmese Army offensives against rebels and civilians in Karen State are the largest for nearly ten years, creating more than 11,000 newly displaced people, Karen rebels and medical relief teams say.

Karen refugees fleeing the fighting

This was revealed in a recent story by Clive Parker for ReliefWeb International (, who said that according to reports, the attacks have slowly escalated in the past two months, a period when the Burmese Army traditionally launches offensives against insurgents ahead of the wet season from May until October. However, the Karen National Liberation Army and Free Burma Rangers (FBR) say the current offensive is on a scale not seen since the Burmese Army seized great swathes of Karen state in attacks that prompted thousands of people to flee to Thailand in 1997.

“The situation in western and northern Karen State is now worse than at any time since,” an FBR spokesperson told The Irrawaddy newspaper.

Parker went on to say that a Karen National Union official in Mon Township warned that “the coming rains may not stop these attacks.” The KNLA has received intelligence that the army has continued to send supplies of food and troops to army camps in the area, suggesting the junta may be planning a longer term campaign.

Young girl suffering from malaria in a Thai refugee camp (Photo:

He added, “The attacks have already caused widespread devastation, according to witnesses. Reports say the Burmese Army is deliberately destroying anything it believes will help sustain the Karen resistance. Whole villages have been burned down, including food supplies and cooking equipment — a common tactic by the military, the Karen said.

“Burmese soldiers based at Play Htsa Lo army camp in Mon Township told a local headman that people in the villages of Yu Loe and K’mu Loh would be killed if any were seen in the area after April 20.

“There are also reports that a new force of more than 850 Burmese troops from an army camp in Muthey, Mon Township began moving south in three columns on Sunday in what appeared to be a new part of the offensive. Three battalions of Military Operations Command 16 moved into the southern part of Toungoo Township further north last week, shelling villages and chasing away people, creating 500 new internally displaced people.

“FBR has documented the torture and killing of a number of Karen in recent weeks. One nine year-old girl, Eh Yawh Paw, was shot in Mon Township on April 9 and survived the attack, only to discover that her father, Maw Keh, and 80-year-old grandmother had been killed. Their bodies were found near Ka Ba Hta on April 19 and were believed to have been killed by Burmese troops who swept the area, firing at civilians and destroying rice supplies on March 27. In Mon Township 13 villagers have been killed and three wounded by the Burmese Army since recent attacks began.”

Parker then stated that, meanwhile further reports have documented incidences of decapitation, the extensive laying of landmines in and around villages and the firing of mortar rounds at civilians in Toungoo Township.

The current offensive has been concentrated in a north to south corridor running about 75 miles from Toungoo down to Shwegyin in Karen State where the Burmese Army has established new camps and a more permanent presence.

“Although the fighting is taking place less than 60 miles south of Pyinmana in some cases, the KNU believes the new capital has had little to do with the upsurge in attacks, although the bigger troop presence in the area has made skirmishes more likely,” said Parker.

“The Army instead appears to be cutting off the Karen on the westerly plains from the hills further east in a bid to strangle the Karen insurgency movement, FBR and KNU say. The area is now said to be littered with landmines.”

Karen woman being treated in a makeshift hospital in a refugee camp

The result, he stated, has been the displacement of more than 11,000 people. More than 1,000 have fled east in the direction of the Salween River on the Burmese side of the border with Thailand, the FBR said on April 25. About 400 of these have crossed the frontier and entered Thai refugee camps, the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People said.

The Karen people, with their Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), a vastly outnumbered militia, have been fighting for survival of the Karen people since World War II, which is now 60 years and counting.

Some 500,000 eastern Burmese, including the Karen, have already fled to the dense jungle in the region, because their villages have been destroyed or because of constant attack by state forces.

On hearing about this latest attack on these courageous people, brought back memories of some years ago when I was in the border region “of despair” in Thailand with Doug Sutphen, then known as Brother David, an American ex-marine who had spearhead “Project Pearl” which had smuggled by sea some one million Bibles into China back in June of 1981.

Time magazine called Project Pearl “the largest operation of its kind in the history of China.” The article was titled “Risky Rendezvous in Swatow” and a Time Beijing bureau chief later described it as one of the most unusual and successful smuggling operations of the 20th century.

June 18 1981 was the delivery date for Open Doors’ Project Pearl: one million complete Chinese Bibles transported to Christians in China in one night. That load of Bibles weighed 232 tons.

Very soon, the Bibles began to spread across China and have had a lasting impact in the world’s most populous nation.

I had the privilege of working with Brother David and Australian writer, Sara Bruce in writing David’s life-story in a book called “God’s Smuggler to China” (Hodder & Stoughton) which gives more details on this daring project.

Now we were in Thailand and we had visited a refugee camp close to the Burmese border which housed thousands of Karen’s. These are a group of predominately Christians who had fled for their lives.

Young Karen solder on patrol in
Karen State, Burma

Brother David had suggested that we might try and get into see the Karen’s and so we found some of the leaders who radioed across to a military camp and they sent a boat for us to cross the Salween River which meanders through Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand on its way to emptying in the Andaman Sea by Mawlamyine (Moulmien).

When we got to the river bank, we clambered into the boat and then we were met by a Karen soldier on the other side who then took us into the camp. There, we were surprised to see that the soldiers all had New Testaments tucked into their uniforms and had were clasping their rifles.

Their leader, Gideon, said that he wouldn’t let us interview them until we proved that we were Christians. So we had to give our testimonies and then they told us their story of how they were evangelized by an American missionary and most of them had become Christians.

We learned that the Karen aided the British during World War II, when the Japanese occupied the region.

After the war ended, Burma was granted independence in 1948, and the Karen, led by the Karen National Union (KNU), soon became the largest of 20 minority groups participating in an insurgency against the military dictatorship in Yangon. During the 1980s, the KNU fighting force numbered approximately 20,000; in 2006, that number has shrank to less than 4,000, opposing what’s grown to a 400,000-member army.

The conflict continues as of today, with KNU headquarters in Mu Aye Pu, on the Burmese/Thai border. In 2004, BBC cited aid agencies estimates that up to 200,000 Karen have been driven from their homes during decades of war, with 120,000 more refugees from Burma, mostly Karen, living in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border.

A recent media report has updated that number and says that that now more than 500,000 Burmese have been internally displaced and in recent weeks hundreds more have been fleeing over the border. Many have been killed or maimed by the many landmines planted by the Myanmar regime, while malaria is the biggest killer accounting for about a quarter of all deaths in eastern Myanmar.

Many Karen accuse the government of Myanmar (Burma) of ethnic cleansing. The U.S. State Department has also cited the Burmese government for suppression of religious freedom, a source of particular trouble to the Karen as between thirty and forty percent of them are Christians and among the Burmese religious minority.

Adoniram Judson

We learned that the Gospel was brought to the Karen by American missionary, Adoniram Judson who went to Burma in the early 1800s and was translated the Bible into the Burmese language.

The legacy of this brave man is chronicled in an article by Robert I Bradshaw called “The Life and Work of Adoniram Judson, Missionary To Burma” in which he wrote, “After recovering from the loss of [his wife] Nancy, Judson continued with his translation of the Burmese Bible. It was at this time that he and a colleague George Boardman were instrumental in the conversion of a member of the Karen People, Ko Tha Byu. Ko Tha Byu has come to be known as the Karen Apostle, the virtual founder of Karen Christianity. Recognizing that Christianity was the fulfillment of his people’s own legends his ministry resulted in the conversion of thousands. Within 25 years there were 878 baptized Karen believers.

“Adoniram Judson died on 11th April 1850. He had not seen vast numbers saved directly through his ministry, but he will be remembered for his role in the establishment of US missions, his outstanding translation of the Bible into Burmese and his foundational work among the Burmese people. I do not think that it was merely coincidence that a book called ‘An Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava’ fell into his hands while at Bible College. For Adoniram Judson was indirectly responsible for the fulfillment of the Karen legends and provided for them their lost book, the Bible.”

Today, there are many Christian and secular NGO’s fighting on behalf of the Karen.

One secular group is Amnesty International (, who recently commented on the first general elections that were held last November in Myanmar and yet they say the human rights abuses there continue unabated.

“There has been no appreciable change in the human rights situation in Myanmar since the elections,” Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher, said in Bangkok.

Young Karen worshippers praying in a church

According to Amnesty International, some of the worst abuses include the imprisonment of thousands of political opposition members and the military’s active targeting of civilians in ethnic areas, particularly in the eastern Shan, Karen and Kayah states.

However, ome of the more fortunate Karen have been able to settle in the United States.

In a story called “A home, a community,” by Valarie Schwartz, for the Carrboro Citizen (, a local North Carolina newspaper, she said, “Persecution, destruction, flight, fear, capture, escape, refugee – these words can be used to tell the story of some of our neighbors: the Karen people of Burma (now called Myanmar). It’s a cruel, malicious and little-known history of a growing segment of our population in Orange County (North Carolina).

“But the bright side to their harsh past is that they are building a community here, aided greatly by the benevolence of those whose lives they touch – the churches they attend and the University of North Carolina, where many of them work as housekeepers on campus or at UNC Health Care.

“From these sources, the once impossible dream of a home of their own has come true through partnership with Habitat for Humanity (

“On May 7, 2011, the five members of the Krit Heh Htoo and Say Ray Htoo family stood before their new home and thanked the many new friends who made this dream a reality in the Phoenix Place subdivision off Rogers Road in Chapel Hill. One does not come to live in a Habitat for Humanity home without making new friends.”

“Bringing people and resources together to help families build and own quality affordable homes” is how Habitat for Humanity of Orange County has always operated, said executive director Susan Levy.

Schwartz went on to say that the Htoo family was sponsored by their church, First Baptist of Hillsborough, but three other Karen families moved into homes this year in the same neighborhood through sponsorship of the United Church of Chapel Hill.

Flicka Bateman, a member of United Church and a Habitat board member, has become an ambassador for the Karen community, even learning the difficult language.

“Eleven years ago, a Karen family of five moved in across the street,” Bateman said. “I took them under my wing, taught them how to drive, helped the children get scholarships.” She speaks of the successes of the now college-educated children as though they were her own. The more Karen people she meets, the greater her respect for them. “They are such a deserving group.”

Schwartz added that their stories, however, are harrowing. Bateman has become particularly close to another young family, Star Thi and Pay Yeh, who were delivered to an apartment in Carrboro late one night in 2007. The couple had met in a refugee camp after each had seen their village destroyed and their parents taken into labor camps.

“Pay Yeh’s life began as her parents were fleeing their village; her mother delivered her while running for her life,” she continued. “With childhoods spent hiding and starving in the jungle, before finding each other among the squalid conditions of a refugee camp in which 9,000 people lived together on 15 acres of land, imagine their confusion when left alone in an Estes Park apartment with such strange objects as a stove, refrigerator and toilet.

“More Karen families will move into the neighborhood as the UNC Build-a-Block campaign of building 10 homes this year reaches its goals. This enormous effort will provide homes for 10 families of UNC employees and will be completed later this year.

“Each home requires the support of the Orange County community because each house begins on land that Habitat has been able to acquire – and we all know the high value of land in Orange County. The historical source for land-buying assistance has been the Orange County Affordable Housing Bond Program, which is now depleted. Fortunately the Stewards Fund has provided a $75,000 challenge grant, whereby the gifts of any new donors (anyone who has not given within the past 12 months) will be matched if a minimum of $75,000 is raised by June 30.”

She concluded by saying, “For tens of thousands of Burma’s refugees, life in America means many things: a home of their own, freedom to work, freedom to pursue an education…but most of all, freedom to worship without fear of persecution or oppression.”

According to a group called Christian Freedom International (, on Sunday, April 10, a gathering of more than 100 guests and Karen churchgoers came together for a special two-year anniversary celebration, commemorating the establishment of the Karen Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan.

“Once we were in the jungle and wanted to worship in freedom, but we didn’t have that,” says Winner Linn, a Karen refugee and CFI employee. “God gave us a place to worship him…he has supplied all of our needs.”

For the past two years, dozens of Karen refugees have worshiped at the facilities of its sponsoring church, Olivet Baptist, in Lansing. In April 2010, Karen Baptist submitted an application for membership into the American Baptist Church of Michigan (ABC-MI); in a unanimous decision passed by ABC-MI’s regional board, Karen Baptist became a member of the organization on April 9, 2011.

“The plan…was to get people together and celebrate what God has done for us,” says Winner Linn regarding the anniversary celebration, which included food and fellowship after the service.

“We shouldn’t forget what He has done for our Karen people. It’s easy to forget, living in a free country. But it was really encouraging to see the people come together, even though they speak different languages.”

Other groups working on behalf of the Karen include the Jubilee Campaign (, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) — — Christian Solidarity Worldwide (,  and many others.

Please pray for the Karen people. They are still fighting for their freedom and they need to know that they are not forgotten.

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