Valued Less Than a Milk Tin

Wednesday, January 1, 2003

This report describes discrimination against ethnic minorities in Burma by the military. We, the Karen and Shan staff of EarthRights International, are very familiar with this issue, for we have personally experienced such discrimination. Because we and our families have had to endure this discriminatory treatment, we understand so much of what the people interviewed for this report say. We and our families have felt the pressure to use Burmese honorific titles in our names rather than ones from our culture. The Karen uncle of one of us was told he wouldn't get a promotion in his job if he didn't change his first name from “Saw” to the Burmese “U.” He didn't change his name and eventually quit his job. When another of us who is Karen needed to get a citizenship identification card, an officer at the immigration department wrote down his name as the Burmese “Maung” instead of “Saw.” He was so proud of “Saw” that he wanted it to be his official name, and he asked the officer not to put down “Maung.” But the immigration department told him that if he didn't use “Maung” he wouldn't get the identification card. He had to choose between getting the card and keeping the ethnic identity that was represented by his name. We have faced obstacles in learning our own languages. One of us is Shan, but she didn't learn the Shan language properly because in government schools the teaching was only in Burmese. Another of us knew a Shan teacher who was jailed for several months because he taught the Shan language in his community. She went to see him with food. When she was told the reason he was in jail, she felt threatened for wanting to know her language. Even though she wanted to learn Shan reading and writing, as a girl in Shan culture she was not allowed to study Shan language in the temple. The government schools didn't teach in Karen either, only in Burmese. When one of us who is Karen was young, his parents organized a summer camp to teach children in the community how to read and write Karen. The parents did this because they realized that the children were losing their language and their culture. But the military authorities came to shut the camp down, and he cannot forget how his mother got into a fight with the authorities because of the order to close the camp. Now the Karen language has almost disappeared.

And the authorities didn't allow the community to celebrate the Karen New Year either. Our families have also faced difficulties in getting education and jobs. The brother of one of us, a Karen, tried to go to bible school in Rangoon, but he was forced to leave because the military accused him of being a spy. The brother of another of us, also a Karen, had to repeat his last year of high school for three years. He managed to graduate and then go to college, but even after he finished college, he could not find a job. So he helped his uncle take care of elephants for several years. But how can you use your knowledge and skills from school by taking care of elephants? Many people suffered similarly because they came from Karen villages in the mountains.
We have had to endure the destruction of our ethnic cultural institutions. In the village where one of us lived, there was a Shan Buddhist temple that was one hundred years old. His village restored this temple, but a week after the village held a ceremony to celebrate the restoration, the military in his township received orders to tear down the old temple and build a Burman Buddhist pagoda in its place. The monk at the temple cried and asked the soldiers to stop, but they refused to listen. The military forced people from the area to destroy the temple, and ordered people with cars and tractors to carry the sand, rocks and bricks for construction of the new pagoda. Those of us who are women have also suffered because we are female as well as ethnic. When the military came into Karen State a number of years ago, the commander told his troops to completely occupy one area. As a reward for this accomplishment, the soldiers could do whatever they wanted to Karen women who wore the traditional white dress, the clothing on unmarried virgin women. Soldiers raped and killed women. The discrimination we have lived, like that described in this report, still goes on. This report sheds light on the suffering of ethnic minorities in Burma today, and we hope it encourages people to pressure the military rulers to change and to treat all people, no matter which group they are from, with dignity and respect.

Document PDF: 

EarthRights International, Valued Less than a Milk Tin, 2003