Disease and Food Shortage Await Stranded Karen

Photo: Free Burma Rangers via AP


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Disease and Food Shortage Await Stranded Karen

The roughly 20,000 people stranded in the jungles of Northern Kachin State in Myanmar are susceptible to hunger and health problems. Food is in short supply and the political situation in coup-plagued Myanmar remains unclear, thus forcing people on the run – to where, and to what, is yet unknown.

By Tara Abhasakun/Thailand

MYANMAR Slone Pham recalled the horrors of his childhood growing up as a member of the Karen hill tribe, a minority in Myanmar.

“It reminds me of what I have been through. The air strikes for example, I had to flee them when I was little. I hid in the jungle for a while as well when I was little, due to attacks by the Burmese military,” he tells Global Magazine.

Now living in Calgary, Canada, Slone Pham is the chair of International Karen Organisation. Like other ethnic groups in Myanmar, the Karen have been fighting for greater autonomy from the country’s central government ever since Myanmar gained independence in 1948. 

The fight has been bloody, and Myanmar’s military has displaced thousands of Karen, while also killing many.

Foto: Free Burma Rangers

A targeted minority

On March 15 Myanmar’s Tatmadow military launched airstrikes on the country’s Kachin state, home to the majority of Karen. This followed months of clashes between the Tatmadow and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU). 

Since March 27, 20,000 Karen in the northern Kachin state have fled the violence, and are now hiding in the caves and jungle of this region. David Eubank, American founder of the relief organization, Free Burma Rangers, said that elderly and newborn Karen are the most at risk for hunger and illness amidst the turmoil. 

But as the Tatmadow continues advancing through Karen land, killing more people in ground invasions, he said, Karen dare not return home. 

“They’re living rough. They’re living in caves because they’re afraid of getting bombed. They’re living huddled by a small stream, with maybe a bamboo or banana leaf roof, with families jammed in just huddling during the rain. They’re gathering roots and vegetables from the jungle to eat to supplement the small amount of rice they brought,” Eubank told Global Magazine.

While the Tatmadow delivered donated aid, including dried foods and medicines, to Karen living on the border of Myanmar and Thailand, Eubank say that such aid does not appear to have been delivered to the Kachin state. The roughly 3,000 Karen at the border received the aid on April 6, 2021, and UNHCR staff in Bangkok told Global Magazine that they stand ready to assist Thai authorities in providing relief assistance to this group. 

Eubank also said that Thai authorities have stated that they will allow more Karen from the area to cross the border if more active fighting occurs. 

But from what Eubank last heard, such aid has yet to make it to the 20,000 Karen stranded in the north. Meanwhile, the threat of disease looms. Eubank said that without mosquito nets, there is a risk of malaria. 

There is also the risk of water contamination since everyone is drinking from the same water source, which some people might pollute. Most Karen, Eubank said, only have one change of clothes. Since they have no towels, most people remain wet all day after bathing, increasing the likelihood of skin diseases.

Foto: Free Burma Rangers

Health risks, health problems

The population particularly at risk for health problems, Eubank said, are newborns and the elderly. The rugged terrain of Northern Myanmar is not ideal for older people who have trouble walking.

“They’re already weak or sick, with marginal health already because they’re maybe in their 70s 80s or 90s. And now they’re lead on an exhausting walk, usually on small trails. Over rocks and bamboo clumps.”

All the while nursing infants risk hunger.

“The newborn babies that rely on their mothers’ milk, maybe the mother has nothing to eat or drink, then her milk drops. There’s no clinic regularly available, even though our medics are rolling around helping, that’s still not as good as a fixed clinic.”   

As the Karen are largely farmers, the military’s attacks have disrupted their livelihood. The food supply of those stranded may continue to be a problem once they return home as well, Eubank said. If they cannot soon return to their homes to plant their crops and feed their animals, they will likely run out of food within a month, he said.  

Free Burma Rangers has over one-hundred teams working with local Karen organizations to provide medics to those who are stranded. Though he stressed that it did not define the Karen as people, the sense of despair is evident.

“Everybody [Karen] alive now has been through this. That’s all they’ve known. Like I talked to a woman who said ‘I remember when the Japanese invaded. I was a little girl when we fled. It seems like I’ve been fleeing my whole life.”

Slone Pham emphasized the need for international pressure on Myanmar’s military-aligned government, which seized power of the country in a coup on February 1. 

“The problem is the Burmese military regime. The refugee flow is a direct result of the bombing, shooting, and killing of civilians by the regime. If Thailand and other neighboring countries do not want refugees, and they want to see political stability in Myanmar, they should stop supporting the regime, and listen to the voices of victims and civilians.”

Foto: Free Burma Rangers

On the run

The Tatmadow has also killed Karen by shelling villages, Eubank told Global Magazine.

”In the meantime, even though the airstrikes have stopped for now, planes are still flying over, which makes them afraid to go home. And Myanmar army troops are still advancing over land, shooting. Like two days ago killing a woman and wounding a man, chasing the village out. People generally, dare not return to their village.”

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