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Interview with Saw Simon Mae La Refugee Camp, Mae Sot, Thailand

Saw Simon was the recipient of the Baptist World Allianc e Human Rights Award in the year 2000. He is founder and principal of the Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School and College in the Mae La Refugee Camp in Thailand, home to some 50,000 mainly Karen refugees from Myanmar (Burma). The following is an interview of Simon conducted by Baptist World Aid Director Rothangliani Chhangte on her visit to the Mae La camp in July, on plans by the Myanmar and Thai governments to repatriate Karen refugees back to Myanmar.

Karen Refugees By Rothang Chhangte

“The Karen people are not economic or disaster refugees but refugees because of the civil war in Burma that had its beginnings in 1949, the year I was born. Thus the confl ict between the Karen and the Burmese military is as old as I am,” began Rev. Simon, when I asked him about his thoughts on the peace process and the repatriation of the 140,000 Karen and Karenni refugees living along the Thai- Myanmar border. Rev. Simon is rather wary about the peace talks and the peace process. He said the Myanmar government’s tactic is to sign a ceasefi re with one ethnic group when it wants to fi ght another ethnic group. It has done that in the past when it signed a peace treaty with the Kachins and the Chins while it fought the Karen people. Now that the government is back fi ghting the Kachins, it has started peace talks with the Karen National Union (KNU) the armed insurgency group that has been fi ghting for the freedom of the Karen people, the right for self-determination and the freedom to practice their own culture, language and religion. Rev. Simon is also wary about the

real intention of the government and the military. “If the government is serious about peace,

reinforced its bases with ammunition and military hardware in the Karen state?” he asked. “If the government really wants peace why is it building new bases and barracks

since Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

community-based organizations, and includes the provision of food and nonfood items to 2,475 refugee households in Lebanon, and more than 1,650 internally displaced families in Syria. In parallel, our children and youth ministry is organizing

activities for the children in Zahle’ (the Bekaa region, around 15 minutes’ drive from the Syrian border) where we have the largest concentration of families, and where we are now developing a pilot “school” and income generation project for the education of Syrian children, using the Syrian curriculum taught by teachers who are themselves Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The families LSESD serve wrestle with many challenges,

including the effects of traumatic experiences that they’ve been through.

“Our journey from home was a rough 11 hours ride by bus. Along with our young daughters, we put on long gowns and veils to avoid the unwanted attention of armed men controlling the unoffi cial checkpoints on our way to Lebanon. The risk was no less for our husbands, yet thank God we made it safely”, said

the talks started?” The why has the military

military is not involved in the peace talks and so he is not sure if current negotiations carry any weight if they are not part of the negotiations. He is also not sure who is in control of the country, whether it is the president of Myanmar or the head of the army. The army generals seem to do their own thing, even against the president and the parliament’s wishes. In Myanmar, many internally displaced Karens are forced to live in government/ army built quarters closely monitored by the army, that were built to house refugees who return. He said the Karen people do not want to return if they are not able to go back to the homes and farms they left behind. One of the conditions for their return is that they be allowed to go back to their villages and repossess their land and property.

He has heard that

has been confi scating and grabbing land for development, displacing

the government thousands

of people. “The Karen people have to be able to determine their own future and what development they want to see on their land,” he said. He fears that the government is making business deals with many countries including the United States. These business negotiations do not take into account the best interests of the Karen people. He stressed that the self-determination of the Karen people is crucial and that any peace treaty that does not include this will not be accepted by the people.

Syrian Refugees

Samia, a Syrian woman in her early thirties who had just arrived a week earlier with her husband, children and other relatives. Still weary from their journey to safety, they spoke of the

“shooting, bombing, kidnapping …” that led them to the diffi cult decision to leave their homeland. Their 12 year old daughter, Houda, who had been silently observing her surroundings suddenly turned to us and started recounting, in an expressionless face and voice, story after story of atrocities that took place in their neighborhood at the hands of strangers, ending with news of the kidnapping of her classmate a few days earlier. “Our country is no longer the same. It is no longer safe for our women and children to go out,” commented her father. “It is for their safety that we left.” This family, along with another that arrived with them, are

currently staying in the home of a Syrian relative who is married to a Lebanese. “I don’t know how long we can impose on our hosts. As you can see, they themselves live in a very small apartment. We need to fi nd work so we can afford to move to another place. We also need to be thinking of our children. They already lost (Continued on next page)


Saw Simon at Mae La

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