Karen Army Lends a Hand to Hundreds of Homeless Near Rangoon

By Zarni Mann 20 February 2014

RANGOON — An ethnic Karen armed group has offered property in Karen State to hundreds of people whose homes were bulldozed earlier this month in Rangoon Division after authorities said their villages were located on military-owned land.

The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) has offered to drive the displaced residents from their temporary shelter—an overcrowded monastery in Hlegu Township—to available land near Myawaddy in Karen State, but their invitation has been turned down.

“I invited them to come and stay in Karen State if they want. There’s no hidden agenda behind this humanitarian act, though some have accused us of trying to recruit them as soldiers,” Maj. San Aung of the DKBA told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. He said trucks with rice and other food were sent to the monastery in Hlegu Township on Wednesday.

“If they do not want to come, I will not force them. If they are willing to come, we will arrange homes and they will be able to work at rubber and fruit plantations in the area,” he added.

“I do not know whether the land [in Hlegu] was owned by the military. What I do know is that every citizen has a right to own their home and land. …Without a home, a person cannot live. I could not ignore their suffering, which is why I’m trying to help as much as I can.”

Hundreds of people from Hlegu Township, about 45 kilometers northeast of Rangoon, have been homeless since local authorities bulldozed their homes earlier this month.  More than 400 homes in Thameegalay village were torn down on Feb. 4, along with a monastery and a government-run school. Since then, homes in about 11 nearby villages have also been bulldozed.

Some displaced residents are staying with relatives in other villages, but a majority are now seeking shelter at Aung Theikdi monastery near Thameegalay. Hundreds of people have crammed inside the monastery compound and in an open field nearby, where makeshift camps have been set up. However, they have been told they will need to move soon, and authorities have reportedly ordered the monastery to stop accepting new arrivals.

“The monastery needs to provide food and shelter to more than 300 people who have nowhere to go,” said Zin Min Oo, a Rangoon-based member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who visited the monastery on Wednesday to deliver food and other donated supplies. “The abbot alone cannot feed all of them and will not be able to provide conditions for proper sanitation in the long term.”

Teachers and more than 50 children from a school in Thameegalay say they are struggling to continue their lessons, with final exams just around the corner. Parents have requested permission from authorities to remain at the monastery until after exams, so their school-aged children may continue studying.

“We were saddened to see children spreading their books on the ground and studying under a tree,” said Thet Khine, a local member of the NLD. “We will complain to Parliament, urging lawmakers and the authorities to take care of these displaced people.”

Despite the DKBA’s offer, the displaced residents are not eager to relocate to Karen State.

“We don’t want to move from here, where we were born and have lived for decades,” said Kyaw Sein, a resident from Thameegalay village who is staying in a camp outside the monastery. “We appreciate the invitation from the DKBA, but we want to try our best to win back our homeland first.”

He added, “Although we face difficulties for food and proper shelter, we believe the government will listen to our voices and give back our homes. To abandon the region would be a last option, if we have no other options left.”