Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border
with my fellow ASEAN parliamentarians who, like me, went because they were concerned
about the situation in Burma [Myanmar].
It was a journey that created in me overpowering emotions that I had perhaps not
anticipated. Having supported the movement for democracy in Burma, I was humbled
and moved to tears to witness first hand the plight of these innocent and brave people.
Similar to many camps along the border, this particular camp, which will be left
nameless for obvious security and political reasons, houses over 20,000 refugees
including children, women and men. Having myself come from a country that also experienced
war and mass displacement of people, I immediately felt a kindred sympathy with these
Like these innocent victims, I too understand the devastating effect that war and
military oppression places on lives. Those unlucky enough to be victimized by such
unfortunate and powerless circumstances are often left anxious, depressed, and desolate.
They also develop a feeling of hopelessness about their inability to change their
situation and redirect their future. This is particularly true when the refugees
have lived in the camp their whole lives - from child to adult. Yet what empowered
me about these people was their determination to move forward and their refusal to
give up and accept their fate.
Aware that we were Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ASEAN region visiting their
temporary homes, these determined and brave refugee communities used this opportunity
to remind me, and my fellow politicians, why our mission was so urgent and necessary.
They said that they needed our voice to speak on their behalf because their own voices
had become violently silenced and oppressed living in the camp. They wanted us, when
we left the camp, to tell the world that they want their freedom. They want justice.
They want to return to their real homes. They want to live in peace and dignity.
But the refugees believe that the world must show it is listening not through meaningless
rhetoric but through its actions and by genuinely committing itself do all in its
power to ensure democratic reforms are brought to Burma.
The integrity and conviction of the Burmese refugees was inspiring to all who visited
the camp that day.
What moved me the most at the camp, was not the somber sounds from the traditional
Burmese instruments being played nor was it the long row of refugees standing patiently
in the heat of the sun waiting to welcome us. It was undoubtedly the innocent faces
of tiny children gazing earnestly up at us with so much hope in their eyes.
Coming from Cambodia, which is still recovering from the human devastation caused
by the genocide during the Pol Pot regime, I was deeply saddened to learn from the
Burmese refugees that there were too many tragic similarities between our nations.
One of these was the use of children, some as young as 11 years old, for military
duty in Burma's Tatmadaw [army]. The reality for a Burmese child born in a refugee
camp is that they are often taken away from their homes to be trained as child soldiers.
Many of them are barely as tall as the guns they are forced to carry.
According to a recent United Nations (UN) report, commissioned by former Czech president
Vaclav Havel and Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Burma currently has
the largest number of child soldiers in the world, an estimated 70,000.
As I looked into the bright faces of these refugee children, I felt a chill thinking
that they are being denied their right to a normal and peaceful childhood. These
children do not have access to even the most basic of needs. These include the right
to proper schooling; the right to live in a loving and peaceful family environment;
and the right to grow up feeling - what all children should be allowed to feel -
safe and secure.
Even those children who escape the military are still often subjected to forced labor.
As a consequence Burmese youth are often left with no choice but to flee into the
jungles with their families to avoid the impending "duties" which frequently
lead to torture and death. For some it is too late. Many of the refugees we met recounted
to us first hand how they had to witness the deaths of their loved ones from military
violence, landmines or simply from the unbearably harsh conditions of jungle life.
In Cambodia, we have been over the last 15 years trying to move on and to recover
from this type of dire legacy. But Burma has not changed in so many years. The world
can no longer afford to stand by idly while these innocent and unique lives are destroyed.
The unacceptable use of child soldiers and forced labor in Burma must be addressed
now, with great urgency. We cannot afford to allow young children to regard war and
atrocity as an everyday part of life. We cannot allow children to grow up thinking
that their only worth is as combatants. We cannot afford to lose generations of people
to fear, anger and despair. We must not allow the flicker of hope in their eyes to
be dimmed. Please give these refugees and especially, the innocent children, the
voice they need and deserve to be heard.
Member of the National Assembly Member of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus
for Democracy in Myanmar