Opposing injustice: empowering Karenni refugees in Thailand
Driven from their homes by the Burmese military and living in camps on the Thai border, Karenni women are striving for a better future while confronting a legacy of violence. For one VSO volunteer, working alongside these remarkable people to raise awareness of human rights abuse, campaign for women’s rights and lay the foundations of a future Karenni State has proved to be a humbling and inspiring experience.
Driven from their homes by the Burmese military and living in camps on the Thai border, Karenni women are striving for a better future while confronting a legacy of violence. For VSO volunteer Zoe Latumbo, working alongside these remarkable people to raise awareness of human rights abuse, campaign for women’s rights and lay the foundations of a future Karenni State has proved to be a humbling and inspiring experience.
Escape into the unknown
“When the Burmese army entered our village, we feared for our lives,” recalls 58-year-old Bwee Paw. “My husband and I, together with our six children, fled into the jungle.” They took refuge at the Thai border and did their best to survive, improvising a shelter from bamboo and foraging for food.
Bwee is a Karenni, one of the 135 ethnic tribes in Burma who mostly live in Karenni State under the control of the Burmese military regime. Although it happened 19 years ago, she remembers her flight from the Burmese army as if it happened yesterday. “The Burmese military government tries to colonize Karenni State by destroying our villages and killing many people,” she says. Today, two camps in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province are home to more than 23,000 Karenni refugees.
Bwee was one of the women who set up the Karenni National Women’s Organisation (KNWO) in 1993. This NGO provides Karenni women with skills to prepare them for leadership roles in a future Karenni State. It has set up nursery schools in the refugee camps, provides education for women, and advocates women’s and children’s rights.
Revealing abuse and lobbying for change
The arrival of Zoe Latumbo, a researcher and advocacy adviser who had worked previously as a VSO volunteer in Papua New Guinea, gave the KNWO a timely boost. “The women I work with have shown courage, perseverance, and a strong desire to learn,” says Zoe. “Each has a sad story to tell, which I find humbling and inspiring. I have been able to work on so many topics at the same time, which is very exciting – building a website, teaching them how to write for newsletters and reports, training staff and conducting workshops.”
She found her work so fulfilling that she extended her placement, uncovering disturbing information that has given her campaigning work an added edge. As Bwee explains, “Many Karenni women in the camps suffered from domestic violence because of the poor living conditions and the lack of livelihoods.” Many women have also suffered abuse at the hands of the Burmese military. In response, Zoe has helped the KNWO increase understanding about violence against women and has taught staff how to conduct interviews and document evidence of abuse.
Zoe adds, “We are trying to lobby with other international organisations for the United Nations to put Burma under the United Nations Security Council so that it could help do something about the situation. I realise that our organisation is very small; we can only work at the grassroots level. Nevertheless I would like to show the world that the situation in Burma has been going on for many years and is not getting any better.”
ChallengeThe rights of the displaced Karenni people in Thailand are largely overlooked.
VSO volunteer Zoe Latumbo, brings advocacy skills to the Karenni National Women’s Organisation.
Lobbying the UN brings evidence of human rights abuse to light, while Karenni women prepare for a future Karenni State.