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Living in a State of Fear

Burma | Conflict

CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE of Burma’s civil war, hundreds of thousands of Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan are trapped in No Man’s Land.

At night, my mother and I boiled rice while my sister dried our wet clothes by the fire,” said Moo Kay Paw. “We were too scared to light a fire during the day in case the government troops saw it and came for us.

“We survived for weeks only on boiled rice. At night, we slept rough on the ground with pieces of bamboo for pillows. I shared a single blanket with my four sisters to stay warm,” she said.

Go deeper: See how grassroots aid is getting to people like Moo Kay Paw.

Four years ago, when Moo Kay Paw was 14, her village was burnt down by government soldiers and her father was shot before her eyes.

In many ways, her story is typical of someone from a farming village in eastern Burma. Constantly on the move to avoid the war between the Tatmadaw—the Burmese military government’s forces—and the ethnic insurgents of the region, Moo Kay Paw’s family has lived in a state of fear since the 1980s.

The first of five daughters, she was born in 1991 to a rice-farming Karen family in the village of Chaw Wah Den in Pegu Division. As a young girl she witnessed junta troops looting her village many times.

Sometimes, she said, they burned down houses, barns or rice stocks, and often conscripted men and boys to serve as porters, carrying military supplies for days on end.

On one occasion, her brother was gravely injured deactivating landmines in the jungle, she said. He was blinded and lost both hands in the blast.

Moo Kay Paw’s family finally left their village on Dec. 26, 2004, the same day her father was killed.

“We knew that the government troops were close by and my father told my mother to get all the girls and my brother together and wait outside the village in the jungle until the soldiers had gone,” she recalled.

They packed some blankets and clothes and headed for a hilltop. From there they saw the government troops enter the village and confront Moo Kay Paw’s father and the other men who had remained to safeguard their homes.

“The soldiers dragged him outside and began hitting him with their rifle butts,” she recalled tearfully. “They smashed all his teeth out before they shot him. Then they burned the village down.”

Her family—a widowed mother, five young girls and a disabled son—walked through the jungle for weeks, carrying clothes, blankets, a machete, lighters and some food.

They carried as much dry rice as they could and later scavenged for roots, berries, leaves and other food in the jungle.

Sometimes they joined other families, settled for a few months and tried to grow crops. But, sooner or later, the conflict caught up with them.

After years of living rough or in temporary shelters, Moo Kay Paw’s family reached Ei Tu Hta village in eastern Karen State in August 2007. They have sheltered there since.

In the terminology of relief agencies, Moo Kay Paw’s family are classified as “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs, meaning that they have been displaced from their ancestral homes, usually by government troops, and are now living rough in the jungle or are sheltering in “safe” havens under the control of ethnic armies.

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