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Grassroots Aid for Burma's Refugees

Burma | Human Rights

DESPITE THE DIFFICULTY of getting relief aid to the more than 450,000 displaced people in eastern Burma, they are not entirely lacking outside assistance.

Some nongovernmental organizations are active in the Burmese border region, not only delivering essential supplies and medical aid but also documenting cases of abuse by Burmese government forces.

Chief of these groups is the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a multi-ethnic humanitarian service founded in 1997.

Working at the grassroots level and with community-based organizations, the FBR sends out teams with food, clothing, construction materials and other essentials. The teams include ethnic teachers and medics, who treat up to 2,000 patients during each mission—a total of more than 400,000 since 1997.

The FBR has trained more than 100 ethnic relief teams, and 52 are currently active in the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Arakan and Lahu regions. Missions last up to two months.

The FBR teams also act as a non-combatant information service, warning IDPs and villagers in advance if they detect threatening troop movements.

Sai Noung Noung, an FBR relief worker, said the IDPs are truly homeless, constantly fleeing attacks by government forces. “They sometimes have to move to new shelters every day,” he said.

The Back Pack Health Worker Team, founded in 1998, has 80 mobile clinics in Karen, Mon, Karenni and Shan States. The group’s director, Mahn Mahn, said children, pregnant women and elderly people were the most in need. Many children suffer from malnutrition, while malaria is also endemic.

Karen relief organizations that are active in Karen State include the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP) and the Karen Office of Relief and Development (KORD). Htoo Klei, the KORD secretary, said food shortages, restrictions on freedom of movement and the threat of forced labor were among the reasons villagers became IDPs.

An international charity, Partners Relief & Development, also assists IDPs in Burma and refugees who cross into Northern Thailand.

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This article originally appeared in the Thailand-based magazine, The Irrawaddy.

Saw Yan Naing is an ethnic Karen journalist from Burma, currently living and working as senior reporter at Thailand-based The Irrawaddy Magazine, a leading Burmese news agency in exile. He focuses in reporting about human rights, press freedom, democracy, violence, and armed conflicts in Burma. He can be reached at or

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