Are Burma's aid delays discriminatory?
Minority groups, uch as the Karen, inhabit much of the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy Delta.
Myawaddy, Burma; and Mae Sot, Thailand
Since 1949, the Burmese military has waged a war in the east against mainly Christian Karen ethnic minorities, who for centuries have also inhabited the country's Irrawaddy Delta.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, Karen leaders and aid workers fear that the 60-year old conflict may be part of the reason the government of Burma (Myanmar) is aiding some people and not others in the southern region devastated by the May 3 cyclone Nargis, where Karens make up an estimated half of the population.
"[Ethnicity] is one of the reasons why the government is blocking international aid from entering the delta. It's already 10 days now," says David Tharckabaw, secretary-general of the Karen National Union, a political group with a military wing based in Mae Sot, a Thai town at the Burmese border. "Many Karens are fishermen or farmers living in the worst storm-hit areas."
Human rights workers cite unconfirmed reports that friends and family have been separated by boatmen evacuating ethnic Burmans from the Delta while leaving Karens behind.
Mr. Tharckabaw says he has no way of calculating the death toll among Karens. But based on "underground communications with Karen leaders in the delta" who are also sending photos and videos to Thailand, he fears it could be 500,000, since many Karens lived on the small islands or seaside areas swept away by a 12-foot-high sea surge. International aid groups have put the total death count at 100,000 but warn it could rise drastically if aid doesn't reach survivors soon. "The junta is playing with the lives of people in order to use food aid for their own gains," says Tharckabaw.
Karens and rights groups have long accused the Burmese military of raping or using Karens as forced labor. "The Karen have long suffered from the operations and discrimination of the military regime," says Myat Thu, a student leader of the 1988 demonstrations, now living in exile in Mae Sot.
"Our concern is that we've got reports of discriminatory practices in the delta region in terms of who gets aid first," says Benjamin Zawacki, who has been researching the issue for Amnesty International from Bangkok, Thailand. "These reports are consistent with past practices of the military regime. This is really the root problem of the aid process. Without having foreign staff on the inside, it's problematic to let the military distribute aid."
Privileges for the military class
Not just the Karens, many ethnic groups face poor treatment from the government, Mr. Thu says. "Now the government is discriminating against all ethnicities, even the Burmans, who are the largest group. The military are creating themselves as a separate, special class. Everybody else is below them."