By BosNewsLife Asia Service with BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
RANGOON, BURMA (BosNewsLife)-- A Christian-run orphanage in Burma near the border with Thailand has been attacked by the Burmese army, amid a fresh crackdown on the predominantly Christian Karen people in the area, officials and children told BosNewsLife Friday, June 5.
At least 90 children, including 30 orphans and kids “ persecuted and traumatized by war” were trapped late Thursday, June 4, and were “forced to flee in the middle of the night,” said Jeff King, the president of International Christian Concern (ICC) which supervises the project.
He told BosNewsLife that the only way to safety was across the river into Thailand, however “Not all of the kids knew how to swim so we are on pins and needles waiting to hear what happened.” King added that initial reports suggested that “most survived”, but there was no immediate confirmation.
The ICC official said the attack came as a major setback as the “orphanage was a new project for us” in Burma, also known as Myanmar. The buildings, including the dorms, church, and a school, had just been finished in April, King explained.
“The project was such a success that another 60 kids, persecuted and traumatized by war but not orphans, had come to the orphanage for an education and relative safety, compared to living without defense in the jungle on the constant run from the army,” he added.
King said an ICC representative warned earlier that the Burmese army “might attack” as the fighting was getting increasingly close. “The Burmese army was going to make a final push this year to defeat the Karen people,” King added, citing local sources.
The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an outgunned group which includes 'born-again' Karen Christians, has been fighting for autonomy and protection since British colonial rule ended after World War Two. Burma's unelected junta, a group of generals known as the State Peace and Development Council, views especially Christian Karens as a threat to its power base, rights investigators say.
Witnesses said the Burmese army attacked a camp for internally displaced people in Burma first this week, then went and crossed the river entering Thailand. “They then crossed the river again from the Thai side into the other camp, our kids were trapped and could not run deeper into Burma because there were landmines placed around the camp,” a witness said in a statement distributed by ICC.
Hundreds of children and adults were apparently hiding on the Thai side of the border Friday, June 5. Another rights group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) told BosNewsLife that at least 1,000 people have fled the latest Burmese offensive.
“This is an urgent situation which requires immediate international attention. Karen civilians have been suffering such attacks, as well as other gross violations of human rights amounting to crimes against humanity,” stressed CSW Advocacy Director Alexa Papadouris.
Among the children seeking shelter from the latest clashes were orphans who already experienced suffering, according to letters distributed by ICC. “My name is Kham Loo, I am 13 years old. I have been [at the ICC orphanage in Burma] for eleven months,” one letter said.
“My parents were killed in Burma. I am an only child. It was very dangerous for me to get here. I had to avoid the many landmines. I saw the Burmese soldiers come into my village and have witnessed many of my friends being murdered.” She said, “Many girls have been raped and then killed by Burmese soldiers. Other girls who were gang raped became crazy. The Burmese soldiers also took our harvest.”
Another child, Seng Mon, 11, wrote: “I have been here four months...It took me one day to travel here. My father died and my mother was taken away by the Burmese soldiers. I came here, because in Burma it is very dangerous [as] I have seen the Burmese soldiers raping girls. There are many landmines around our village in Burma [but] I feel safe here and I want to learn to speak English.”
It was not immediately clear where the orphans would be staying Friday, June 5, but Thailand has set up refugee camps and Christian groups also support Burmese orphans there. CSW said the latest tensions come as the trial continues of Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for allegedly violating terms of her house arrest.
Suu Kyi, her two companions under house arrest, and an American, John W. Yettaw, are being tried together on charges of violating the conditions of her restriction order, which bans visitors without official permission. The offense is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Yettaw prompted the charges by swimming to Suu Kyi's property and sneaking into her home for reasons that remain unclear.
CSW said it has urged the United Nations Security Council to impose a universal arms embargo on Burma’s “military regime, and to establish a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity.”
Papadouris said the group has also asked authorities in Thailand to provide shelter and protection to the Karen from Ler Per Her region, “and we urge members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), China and India to use their collective influence with the regime to call a halt to such offensives against civilians”.
Burma, is majority Buddhist, a close ally of China, and mainland Southeast Asia's biggest country. The Burmese military government has denied wrongdoing. It has said it remains concerned over "the loss of all human rights of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan," while claiming that the Burmese military was enforcing law and order so human rights and democracy could flourish at home.