United in hope

By Lauren McKellar

Medical student Emma Ellis with members of The Karen Women's Organisation - the KWO relies on international support to improve the social welfare of refugees.
Medical student Emma Ellis with members of The Karen Women's Organisation - the KWO relies on international support to improve the social welfare of refugees.
Burma’s Karen people have suffered forced labour, 
beatings and rape, but a group of women are standing strong, MiNDFOOD reports.

Living in a Western society, it’s hard to imagine having to flee your home in terror when the army arrives to steal your belongings, rape you or your loved ones and force you into slavery. When running for your life across the border into another country is your only option, imagine if you are then faced with trying to forge a new life for your family in an overcrowded refugee camp that you are not allowed to leave. And you are considered one of the lucky ones – for all those who successfully cross the border there are many more who don’t make it. In the case of the Karen population of Burma, the survivors must hide out in the jungle in fear of being persecuted by a brutal regime.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, 
is ruled by a totalitarian regime. The military junta, in control since 1962, is accused of gross human rights abuses such as sexual violence, human trafficking, forcible relocation of civilians and the widespread use of forced labour, including that of women and children.

The Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO) is fighting to provide refugees with shelter, medicines and protection. Relying on inconsistent funding from charities worldwide, these courageous women fight every day to improve the quality of life for those they love and to advocate their struggle on the international stage.

The Karen people are one of the eight major ethnic groups in Burma. They have struggled for over 50 years fighting for democracy against an unjust Burmese military regime that enforces economic, cultural and political suppression. When the regime infiltrated the Karen area (the hills bordering the eastern region of Burma), the local people were faced with forced labour, looting, rape, torture and murder.

As a result, about 120,000 people live in the seven refugee camps dotted along the Thai/Burma border, on the run from the Burmese army but not able to 
be granted the full refugee status in Thailand that will allow them to leave 
the designated camp area.

In 2007, the KWO compiled a comprehensive report detailing hundreds of cases where their people have suffered injustice at the hands of the Burmese army. The reports make chilling reading: “Tell us the truth, otherwise we will cut open your stomach with this knife and take out your baby and all of your insides.” – Case 111.

“Every day we had to carry [things]up the mountain and down again. I was sweating and couldn’t breathe because I am very old, and the soldiers kept poking and nudging me with their guns because I was slow. I felt like my heart was breaking.” – Case 79.

 “After they raped her, they killed her by shooting into her vagina. No action was taken against the perpetrator.” – Case 43.

These are just some of the brutal acts that the Burmese military are responsible for; crimes against women of any age.

The Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO) was started by the Karen women for the Karen women. Their 49,000-plus members work voluntarily to change life for themselves and the people around them. Three resource centres along the Thai-Burmese border provide them with empowerment and leadership training, literacy and health education and awareness raising to prevent violence against women. The centres also offer members support to communicate between donors, non-government organisations and internationally displaced persons (IDPs), resulting in a successful, cohesive group run by strong women, each of whom contributes what she can, when she can.


The Early Childhood Development (ECD) program is one of the success stories of this group. “In the refugee camp, children who are under five are not allowed to go to primary school. So during the daytime, they play around in groups in the middle of the road,” Moe Oo, the Nursery Project Coordinator for one of the Karen camps, reports. “The situation in IDP areas is way worse than in camp. People have to work and survive each day in fear. Moreover, as children are the most vulnerable group, parents can’t leave them alone at home when going to work in the rice fields.”

“Most of the children are in a state 
of malnutrition and poor health [when they first come to the nursery school] as they are poor refugees,” adds Moe Oo. 
She and the nursery school workers provide these children with basic education, health care, hygiene and a nutritious lunch, all the basics that we, 
in the Western world, take for granted.

Moe Oo is an exceptional woman. Born in the Thai-Burma border area, Moe Oo didn’t see a lot of her parents as a child, with her father fighting for the Karen resistance group and her mother a prominent player in the KWO. After her house burnt down, she moved from one camp to the next, finishing her high school in a refugee camp and then taking a huge risk by completing a diploma of General Education Development outside of the refugee camp in Thailand. She risked arrest on sight for breaking the refugee laws. It’s truly amazing to think that when brought up with so little, 
these women can still dream, take risks and achieve things that are so far from 
being easily within their grasp.


A group of Sydney medical students flew to Thailand recently to help in Mae Tao Clinic, a hospital for the Karen people situated near the town of Mae Sot. One of these students, Emma Ellis, remembers walking down the hill the day before her work started to check out the hospital.

“Despite multiple stops for directions we still managed to walk past it twice as it is so small and unassuming from the road. I could not understand why it did not advertise its presence until I found out it can’t. The clinic is illegal in the eyes of the Thai government,” Ellis says.

In her second week at the hospital, Ellis moved to Reproductive Health inpatients and delivered her first baby. 
She also resuscitated her first “floppy 
blue” baby and witnessed numerous women being treated for the complications of illegal abortions.

“Gender-based sexual violence 
is rife in Burma, perpetrated by the Burmese military particularly against ethnic-minority women,” Ellis says.

Late in the third week, she saw a patient who she says will stick in her mind for a long time. He was a farmer from Burma in his late forties, although he looked a lot older. He came in wearing the traditional ‘longyi’, or Burmese sarong, and sat down quietly, not wanting to be a trouble. His complaints were vague and non-specific – generalised aches and pains, fatigue, some numbness for the last year.

“I was immediately shocked by his protruding hip bones and skeletal frame 
– he weighed just 41kg,” Ellis says.

The medic gave him some general health advice, some paracetamol and vitamins, and sent him on his way with the diagnosis ‘general weakness’.

“He was the first of many patients 
I was to see with this diagnosis – basically the label given for someone who works too hard with not enough food or happiness. The diagnosis of a hard life.”

Medical student Chandelle Whitfield was impressed with how well the Karen doctors managed – despite their woefully limited resources and the isolated conditions in which they had to work.

“They couldn’t even go into town 
for fear of getting arrested. There was 
an unspoken agreement that if they stayed on clinic grounds, Thai police looked the other way,” she says.


“They were incredible people. They knew so much about tropical medicine and were fantastic at their job, which was extremely busy and under-resourced.”

Whitfield felt like she had nothing to offer them but her speed at writing in English. “They taught me so much; more than I could teach them and I left the clinic with such a different perspective 
on medicine and life,” she says.

Whitfield plans to return to the Mae Tao Clinic when she has finished her medicine degree to offer further help.


Since a military coup in 1962, Burma’s military junta has forcibly suppressed any dissent, and gross human rights abuses continue despite international condemnation and sanctions.

Pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi had a landslide election victory in 1990, but the military has never allowed her political party, the National League for Democracy, to govern.

Burma is a country of fertile soil and dense forests and is rich in teak, jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires but its people have 
a poor quality of life. The economy is driven by the black market and corruption is rife.

The Burmese media is heavily censored and the internet is so tightly controlled that it really operates more as an intranet.  


A shop in Mae Sot, Thailand, created by the Income Generation Project in 2004, sells Karen handicrafts to raise money for KWO work and for women weaving in the camps. The aim is to promote self-sufficiency and improve living standards by providing opportunities for people in the camps and Karen State to earn an income.

The weaving project teaches women traditional loom weaving and cotton dying to make bags, clothing (pictured above), sarongs and blankets, and training in such things as sewing and candle or paper making. Traditional dying techniques using bark, earth and other materials sourced from the natural environment are still used by many of the weavers, but conventional chemical dyes enable them to incorporate a wider variety of colour and more modern styles into their designs.

To donate to the KWO or to find out how 
you can help, visit karenwomen.org


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