From a small community radio station in Melbourne, Australia, a group of passionate Karen refugees broadcast a weekly news program in their native language that beams into the homes of fellow Karen.
News of change from their homeland, Myanmar – Burma to this ethnic minority – has dominated discussion between presenters in recent months and made the wider Karen community, which numbers more than 5000 in Melbourne, wonder if a return home might soon be possible.
Since holding elections in 2010 and ending military rule, the Myanmar government has released hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed media and internet censorship, embarked on economic reform and introduced legislation that allows workers to strike.
ASEAN nations have responded by calling for sanctions against Myanmar to be lifted, the US has waxed lyrical about boosting relations and the EU has agreed to lift visa bans on Myanmar president Thein Sein and other high-ranking officials, citing “remarkable” reform.
For Karen people in Melbourne, the biggest news in recent times has been the January 12 cease-fire between the government and Karen rebels, ending hostilities that began in 1949.
Shah Paung, the Karen radio show’s secretary and a journalist who has lived in Australia since 2008, didn’t expect this progress so soon.
“Since 1949, Karen villagers, particularly those in rural areas, have had to flee fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army and Burmese troops,” she says.
“So these changes bring hope of peace.”
There are an estimated four million Karen people, and as many as 500,000 of them live outside Myanmar, mostly in Thailand.
Many have spent years in Thai refugee camps, and those who have made it out have been accepted as refugees in Western countries.
The cease-fire stipulates that Karen people must be helped to return home. Although this is something many of the displaced dream of, the reality of a swift and smooth return is far from simple, Paung says.
“The Karen people are hoping to live a peaceful life in their own territory . . . but this will probably not happen soon.
“The first step would be for the government to guarantee a safe life for the Karen people and clear landmines in areas the villagers would return to.
“[The government] has accepted the 11 points the KNU asked for and signed a written agreement; the Burmese military government has made only verbal cease-fire agreements in the past.”
Paung, 30, grew up in a small village in Karen state, in the country’s south, that was under the control of brigade six of the Karen National Union.
She recounts a childhood marked by constant upheaval as her family fled from fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army and Myanmar troops.
“The Burmese army always came to attack our village, especially during the summer time,” she says.
Some villagers were killed, women were raped and men were detained and forced into hard labour, Paung says.
“In 1997, the Burmese military government launched an offensive against the KNU in brigade six.
“All the villagers fled to the Thai-Burmese border . . . [and] we sought refuge in the Nu Poe refugee camp in Tak province of Thailand.”
Paung and her family waited until September, 2008 to be re-settled in Australia.
Venerable Ashin Moonieinda, part of a regional community of about 300 Karen refugees in Bendigo, 150 kilometres from Melbourne, is hopeful that Karen people will be able to return home, but remains sceptical of the government’s commitment to democracy.
“If we look back to when the civil war started, many agreements have been made,” he says. “I don’t think Burma will be a true democracy soon. In 1996, [the government] warmly welcomed other countries as a ‘real democracy’, but after a year they changed the new policies – and no one had a chance to respond.
“Many people want to return to Karen state if they get the opportunity, because they like their birthplace and mother language, but I don’t think the military will be changing its rules and policies.”
Reginald Shwe, vice-president of the Karen Community of Victoria, says the sett-lement and reconciliation process will take a long time.
“Most Karen people view [the cease-fire] as a positive step and welcome it with some conditions, Shwe says.
“They are always willing to return home, [but this] depends on the political process between the military-backed government and the opposition group – and also how much the international community is involved.”
Ethnic community groups, local NGOs, the government, the international community and an independent monitoring body would need to play a part in returning Karen people to their homeland, Shwe says.
Michael North, an Australian involved with Karen communities in Burma, Australia and at the Thai border, says he has encountered mixed responses from Karen people about their possible return home.
“Some have hope and some are cynical; many say, ‘Let’s wait and see’,” North says.
Disagreement among leaders as well as refugees in Western countries not acknowledging that change has occurred are issues that will affect Karen people’s efforts to return home, he says.
“As for the Karen I know who have settled [in Australia] . . . I imagine that returning would present a dilemma, as now they have children who are more Australian than Karen, and who would not wish to return.
“Overall, there hangs the question of whether the changes . . . will continue and be lasting, and there is the personal matter of deciding between two ways of life, each with its own comforts and contacts.”
While the world waits to see what will happen in Myanmar, especially as the April by-elections approach, many Karen people will watch closely for assurance that a return to Karen state will be peaceful, Paung says.
In the meantime, her radio team will continue to report on the change that may one day help them to return home.
“Even if the country started to change to a democratic country, there are many things that need to be arranged for the Karen people to be able to return,” she says.
“The Karen people cannot return yet.”