It is safe to say that most people are not familiar with the situation in East Burma. The name “Darfur” has finally disseminated into many households thanks to groups like STAND, although there is still muck work to be done. Most people’s experience with Burma extends as far as the zoo, where they can see the country’s Python (at least that’s where I first encountered Burma in my youth). The effort to get people to pay attention to Burma’s struggle for democracy, much less the situation in East Burma, is just beginning. So how has the conflict in East Burma been allowed to go on since the 1940’s (before Sudan was even independent and Darfur not event a thought) with so little international attention? The answer to this comes in the manner in which the government conducts its genocide.
In 2000, a man named Guy Horton traveled through East Burma on the back of a 75 year old elephant. He had originally traveled to Rangoon at the behest of Michael Aris, a close friend and Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband in 1998. But in 2000, he came with a different mission. He emerged from the jungle and wrote an almost 700 page report called “Dying Alive” (the most comprehensive concerning the region) of which he was going to present to the UN and try and convince them that the situation in East Burma was genocide. Horton makes a convincing case that there is something, how do you say, sui generis, about the way in which genocide is pursued in East Burma. For Horton, the realization of this uniqueness came when he saw a cooking pot in one of the destroyed villages turned over on the ground with the bottom smashed in. At first he though, “Why do something so arbitrary and ludicrous?” He then realized that the tatmadaw (the Burmese military) were executing a type of scorched earth genocide against the Karen people of East Burma.
In the case of Rwanda in 1994, the Hutu militia went house to house, snatched people out and killed them. In only just a month, over 800,000 people had been killed. The Burmese government operates on a different plane to achieve the elimination of the Karen of East Burma. The tatmadaw not only kill people, but they make living conditions for them impossible to survive in, as evidenced by the things like Horton’s broken pot. Often times the military will burn villages to the ground, take any valuables, kill any livestock, and then destroy anything else that is necessary for every day living. They might not pursue the villagers who fled into the bush, but when said villager comes back to the razed village they have no means to support themselves, and are turned into nomads, who often starve.
This broken-pot method of genocide also works very effectively at fooling the international community. There is no great loss of life in a concentrated period of time as with Hitler and the Jews, Darfur, or RWanda so the attention of the world is absent. The East Burma crisis has been going on for the better part of 50 years. It started a civil war between Karen insurgents and the military junta controlling Burma. The junta’s philosophy in fighting the Karen insurgents has been to eliminate the Karen people altogether. Guy Horton calls this situation a “slow genocide;” due to the gradual medium through which the tatmadaw pursue the extermination it is not noticed. As anti-genocide activists it is important that we recognize that as indirect as the methods of the Burmese government are, they are still very intentional.