Burmese refugees
Photograph by Atti-La.  Creative Commons License (Attribution, non-commercial, no Derivative).

 Ethnic minorities are leaving Burma by the thousands due to the great oppression they face under the military regime Tatmadaw.  Burma was under colonial rule from 1885-1948.  Since the beginning of its independence, Burma has been ruled by three major government forms: democratic (1948-1962), military socialist (1962-1988), and “transitional military rule” (1988-present) (Smith 2002: 8). In 1989 the Tatmadaw regime changed the name of Burma to Myanmar. Because the United States does not accept the legitimacy of the military regime, it refuses to accept the change in name. We will refer to the country as Burma.

map of burma
Map of Burma and surrounding countries.

            Throughout Burma’s history as an independent nation, minority groups have been targeted by the ruling majority and have responded with insurgency.  While colonized, Burma saw the division of its ethnic minorities due to Britain’s “divide and rule” tactic (Smith 2002: 6).  Dichotomous ethnic groups such as Shans, Karens, Arakanese, Kachins, Chins, Mons, and many other smaller indigenous groups form about 30% of the estimated 52 million people living in Burma (Background Note: Burma:2006). Minority groups such as these have been forcefully relocated from their homes, and threatened with their lives if they do not comply with the authoritarian government and move to the predetermined resettlement locations. Between 1996 and 1998, the Burmese government relocated an estimated 1,400 Shan villages by force (Grundy-Warr 2002: 102).  Throughout Burma, over 1 million people have been displaced without compensation since 1988 (Grundy-Warr 2002: 96).  The relocations are supported by the Burmese military regime, which seeks a “ 'unified’ national entity” with a “ 'Burman’ national character” (Grundy-Warr 2002: 97). The military regime took power in 1962 and has been pursuing its goal ever since by purging the country of unwanted ethnic minorities. Since 1948, the Karens have been tageted due to their resistence and efforts to create an autonomous Karen state (Demusz 1998: 234).

            Conditions for relocated Burmese are harsh, as are the relocations themselves. People are sometimes beaten, burned to death, or shot during the relocations. Once those being relocated are in the “strategic hamlets” the food and work situations are grave. Relocated villagers struggle to get enough food on the unsustainable land and often the food that they are able to grow is confiscated by the Tamadaw.  Forced labor further prevents the people from becoming self sufficient. The relocated people are also required to obtain a permit to travel outside the strategic hamlet. These permits are very difficult to get, and they further restrict people’s ability to sustain themselves (Grundy-Warr 2002: 105). Because of these forced relocations, dismal living conditions, and forced  labor, many people attempt to emigrate from Burmaparticularly to neighboring Thailand.

Burmese refugees
Map of Burma and surrounding countries.

            Today, more than one million Burmese live in neighboring countries as illegal immigrants or refugees and 500,000 are internally displaced (Woodrum 2006). Beginning in November of last year, however, the violent attacks launched by the Burmese military regime, on the Karen population in particular, have become more prevalent. Worldwide, the number of asylum seekers from Burma increased from 12,000 to 55,000 between 2004 and 2005 (Woodrum 2006). 


             While most Burmese refugees were forced across the border into Thailand and neighboring countries, some were permitted to immigrate to the United States (Bamforth 2000).  Many of the U.S. bound Burmese refugees seek housing and support in Minnesota because of the humanitarian work done by Minnesota churches, specifically Catholic Charities.  Additionally the International Institute of Minnesota and Minnesota Council of Churches provide substantial aid in Burmese refugee camps in Asia (Joshi 2005). Other Burmese refugees insist on coming to the United States instead of, for example, Europe, because they want to avoid isolation and to seek community support (Joshi 2005).  The Burmese community in the United States is developing and, while established communities are few, the rate of Burmese immigration to the US is steadily increasing.

Minnesotan religious organizations have helped resettle Burmese refugees since they began arriving in 2000 (Joshi 2005).  The Twin Cities are now home to around 500 Burmese refugees with 200-300 more families expected to arrive in the next 18 months (Nelson 2004). Most of the Burmese refugees who settle in the Twin Cities are Karenni (Nelson 2004). The increased population of Karen refugees in the Twin Cities greatly enhances the potential for more Karen refugees to settle in Minnesota (Joshi 2005).

Bagan temple
Bagan Temple in Burma

Burmese culture and governmental attitude has been impacted by the colonial rule of the British, as well as the Japanese, especially in terms of the vision of government that Burma gained as a result. At the heart of Burman political culture was the ‘Burmese monarchy…the king was so intimately connected with Buddhism, that until the last monarch was exiled, and foreign non-Buddhist rulers took over, it was inconceivable for anyone to consider the survival of the faith and the kingdom without a king to protect both,’ (Rotberg 1998: 14). In addition, Buddism has played a significant role in shaping the Burmese culture and government. The religion has influenced Burmese thought in terms of political values as well as societal standards. 

            In addition to the inner turmoil, the Burmese economy is facing increasing problems.  Due to poor railroad lines and unpaved highways, goods travel down the Ayeyarwady River and illegal drugs are exported across the Thai-Burmese boarder. The workforce is uneducated about modern technology and the country lacks adequate infrastructure.

On September 29 of this year, the UN Security Council agreed to place the Burmese conflict on their agenda of issues to address in the near future (Woodrun 2006).  This is evidence that the regime’s egregious human rights violations, failure to address the spread of HIV/AIDS, and drug trafficking have serious implications for not only Burma, but the surrounding countries as well. Due to support from powers within the region, it seemed unlikely that Burma’s political situation would change despite the sanctions by Western countries (Kurlantzick 2004: 188). However, in the past year the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has changed its attitude toward Burma. The actions of the Tatmadow regime pose problems for the entire region and Burma’s membership in ASEAN has been suspended until the junta, the military dictatorship, makes steps towards political liberalization.

Dating back to colonial times, Burmese people have been stratified among ethnic lines. The Tatmadaw military regime, which has been ruling the country for nearly twenty years, has caused Burma to undergo increasing economic hardship. The state’s unwillingness to adopt democratic practices has negative implications for both native Burmese and the surrounding countries. In an effort to create a singular national identity, the junta has forcibly relocated millions of people. Due to poor standards of living and atrocious human rights violations, members of the numerous minority groups are now fleeing the country. The intolerance of the Tatmadaw causes persecuted groups to seek refuge in other countries. While many have relocated to neighboring states, the appeal of humanitarian aid attracts Burmese to the Twin Cities region where there is a growing population from which they can seek community support.

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