Tag Archives | karen

Relief Trip to the Refugee Camp Destroyed by Fire

In the middle of a border mission near Karen State, we received news of a fire decimating a refugee camp in Northern Thailand.  Dozens killed and many homes burned.  Scattered updates, thin reporting, and suspicious causes gave us little comfort that needs would be well handled.  Being many hours away, there was little we could do immediately.  The refugee camp in Thailand is not within the typical scope of the FBR mission to serve the people of Burma—the Thai refugee camps have many NGOs proving aid.  Still, several ex-Free Burma Rangers and many once-IDP families in Burma now call Camp 2 home.


With no clear answer on what to do, Dave prayed for a way FBR could help.  Minutes later, he opened his computer to find an email from ____–they had relief supplies, but no means of transporting them to the camp.   FBR had trucks and rangers ready.  Doh Say, a Karenni FBR leader, led the trip, joined by Jonathan, Lisa, and me.

The mission would be no slam dunk.  Refugee camps in Thailand notoriously restrict visitors—especially foreigners, since the camps “technically” do not exist.  Despite the challenges, our team took off Saturday morning for an anticipated five-hour drive.

Ten hours and several engine overheating stops later, our truck rambled into the first checkpoint along the road the refugee camp.  We were not sure what would happen next.  Three hours prior, we received a phone call that the camp gate would close at 5 p.m.  We prayed for an opening and kept moving, anticipating that we might sleep on the hood of the truck at the camp gate.


News quickly turned worse.  A Thai army at our checkpoint told us that only 30 minutes ago, the refugee camp commander called up and said “Allow no more trucks through.”

“You missed it by half-an-hour,” the soldier explained.  “Only registered NGOs and people with camp permits.”

We had neither.  We decided to wait them out.  Two other trucks from Chiang Mai arrived just in front of us.  They received the same frustrating news.

After waiting 30 minutes, the Thai soldiers came to us and said they called the camp commander who would allow us to drive to the gate and then make a determination there.  With no guarantees our relief supplies or our FBR team could get into the camp, we pushed ahead.  There would be no turning around for the next two hours.

The road to Camp 2 winds up and down a ravine, crossing a large river in at least a dozen places.  The off-road trail requires four-wheel drive with deep ruts and steep climbs through the jungle—picture taking the back entrance to Jurassic Park.  With darkness already upon us, the pace slowed to a crawl.


Two hours later, our truck entered the rocky flats along the riverbed.  A surreal world greeted us.  Hundreds of candlelit tents lined the steep canyon walls around, reflecting off the snake-like river our trucked waded through.  We drove straight up the river in places, finally coming to a halt at an oasis of technology in this remote camp: the emergency response center, complete with satellites, internet, and aid workers.

Doh Say stepped out to negotiate.

“We can go,” he told us minutes later.  If we had a place to stay in the camp, we could walk in and drive our truck in tomorrow.  “Hurry before they change their mind,” Doh Say stressed.

By flashlight, we began a walk into an extraordinary land of suspended bamboo walkways and tree trunk footbridges.  Crisscrossing the river, entered a portion of the refugee camp burned to the ground.  The air smelled of recently scorched earth and, in places, the fire still burned and logs continued to smolder.  Charred bamboo poles rose eerily from the ground and each step left footprints in the ash.

We soon arrived at the bamboo home of the camp chairwoman.  I’m not sure whether they knew of our arrival, but they made space for us to sleep in and prepared dinner.

We rose in the morning to deliver relief supplies, including rice and cooking materials, and begin interviewing victims.  We made visits to families in two sections displaced by the fire, as well as interviewing several other victims and the camp chairwoman.  The fire victims received temporary tarp shelters.



In total, the blaze destroyed at least 380 homes out of 685.  The fire consumed 55% of the camp (2 sections), displacing approximately 2,300 people.  In addition to the homes, the fire burned 2 churches, 1 Bible school, and a large clinic.  39 people died in the fire, including two unborn children.

The sections of the destroyed refugee camp contained predominately Christian families.  They requested new Bibles, which mostly burned in the fire and relief organizations do not provide them.

The refugees interviewed said they had a lot of time between seeing the fire and it arriving at their home.  One section burned in 10-15 minutes while the other burned over the course of 30-60 minutes.  Yet, they did not know what to do an often ran in and out of their home in fright.  Despite the amount of time, they did not save any possessions from their homes.  Others attempted to fight the fire instead of saving possessions.  Also, many of those who died did so because they went in to rescue victims.  All of this gives rise to some questions about the adequacy of fire response training among the refugees.



The cause of the fire remains unknown as well as the subject of suspicion.  Early reports suggest a cooking fire.  Some refugees, however, cite seeing an aircraft fly overhead and drop a glowing material.  The Thai government operated rain-seeding aircraft in the area at the time of the fire.  Other refugees said the size of the fire was too large for it to be a cooking accident because the fire had to jump a wide river in several places.  Additionally, they said the fire appeared to begin burning in two places almost simultaneously.  The cause remains under investigation.

After spending about 10 days along the border, I am way behind on my bogging and report.  More to come soon!!


Request from Karen Refugees: Change the Dictionary!

I am in Thailand again for the annual Pepperdine Law Spring Break trip.  It’s arguably my favorite event to lead.  One of the most fascinating experiences for our students is an overnight stay at Mae La Refugee Camp with the Karen people along the Thai-Burma border.  We learn about the plight of the Karen, the dramatic story of Burma, and the ongoing fight for freedom.


As usual, we joined them on our morning of departure for a church service.  In typical fashion, we sat in front and each student introduced themselves.  I gave a message.  When that was over, one of the pastors thanked us and, in front of 450 Karen in the congregation, asked for our help in an important matter.  The dictionary.  In The New American Oxford Dictionary, he explained, the Karen people are defined as a “wild unclean man.”  Could you help us change it? he pled–he had written to the dictionary and received no response.

I was stunned–by both the perplexing nature this prejudicial definition and the specificity of their request.  Naturally, as lawyers, we all wanted to see the definition in print.  An outdated dictionary perhaps?  Urban legend possibly?  We would need to make it back to Chiang Mai to read this supposed definition in an obscure dictionary edition.

Or so we thought.

On Lisa’s Kindle, The New American Oxford Dictionary comes pre-loaded.  Not so obscure after all.  And, there it was, the high definition: “from Burmese ka-reng ‘wild unclean man.’”  The offending definition was Oxford’s proposed etymology, not the full definition itself.  Nonetheless, the Karen position is completely understandable.  For the several million strong Karen population now spread the world over as ambassadors and refugees of Karen nation, the definition is simply offensive.  Especially for refugees getting resettled among 11 nations, the definition is prejudicial.

The New American Oxford Dictionary

The New American Oxford Dictionary origin, however, is suspect.  First, the language of the Karen isn’t Burmese—it’s Karen.  It’s dubious that the Karen would adopt a name for themselves not of their own language.  It’s also questionable that they would willfully adopt a derogatory term.

We immediately began some research on the origin of the name.  It’s been studied by anthropologists and there is a fairly clear consensus among them: they don’t know.  While the exact origin of name “Karen” is unknown, the most probable scenario is that it came from the Kayin, another hill tribe in eastern Burma who speak a related Sino-Tibetan language.   No anthropologist suggests the name originated a derogatory Burmese term.

While the exact origin of “Karen” is unknown, The New American Oxford Dictionary treats it as conclusive fact.  At the very least, this is incomplete and misleading, if not woefully inaccurate.  While the good people at Oxford Press may not be moved by the effect of their definitions, I suspect they are concerned about the accuracy of their dictionary.

So, what do we do from here?  Despite their many needs as refugees, its not very often that the Karen ask for something specific.  Thus, we are inclined to do what we can.

Two questions:

1)     Does anyone have an explanation for the Karen name that explains or refutes the NAOD definition?

2)    If the definition is inaccurate, does anyone have any suggestions for how to help get the definition changed?  We are considering a letter from Pepperdine University School of Law to Oxford Press as well as a subsequent or concurrent Change.org petition.


Lifetimes of Work: A Reflection on the Ceasefire in Burma

A few years ago, I met an extraordinary woman named Louisa.  A colleague at Pepperdine told me that her next door neighbor growing up was somehow involved in Burma.  She wrote Louisa’s contact information on a note card.  I set the note card on my computer monitor stand and called.  She was thrilled that a university took interest.


Louisa lived a life worthy of biographies.  A Burmese movie star, she was crowned Miss Burma in 1956 and 1958.  Following the military coup of the early 1960s, she married a pro-democracy rebel army commander.  After her husband, the rebel commander, was assassinated, Louisa took over leadership of his brigade and led them back into the revolution.  She fought in Burma jungles until she moved to the United States as a refugee.  In the U.S., she was a significant figure in a landmark alien tort statute claim again Unocal and remained active in Burmese pro-democracy movements.

Continue Reading →


Praying for Your Enemies

A year-and-a-half ago, I went into the Myanmar (Burma) Embassy in Washington, D.C., to meet with the acting ambassador.  It wasn’t clear what I was going to accomplish–if anything–but I knew the enemy of the persecuted Karen people had a facility on American soil.  I got an appointment and we met.  It was a wonderful meeting with the ambassador–more than I could have expected.  I left not accomplishing anything, but building a friendship.  We kept in touch and in my follow up email to him, I told him that I would be praying for him and his country.  We said he appreciated my prayers (which was surprising from a diplomat of a deeply Buddhist country).  And I did pray for him.

We’ll get back to this momentarily.

The last two days, I’ve been in Minnesota and helped host Dave and Karen Eubank and their family.  Dave and Karen founded the Free Burma Ranges to bring relief and love to the people of Burma.  My home church, First Baptist Church in Worthington, MN, is now home to at least 100 Karen families–many of which were assisted by Free Burma Rangers or admired the organization.  I couldn’t forgo the opportunity to have the Eubanks speak to the church and Karen congregation. Continue Reading →


Upcoming Event in Worthington, MN — “Relief for Burma: An Evening with Dave Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers”



Tuesday, July 19, 2011

7:30 – 9:00 p.m.

First Baptist Church of Worthington

Main Sanctuary

FREE admission


If you will be in or near Worthington, Minnesota, on Tuesday, July 19, we are hosting "Relief for Burma: An Evening with Dave Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers."  Join us and friends from the Karen community for a wonderful and inspiring evening with Dave Eubank and the Free Burma Rangers..


In 1997, a former Army Ranger and ordained pastor started the Free Burma Rangers in response to a particularly ruthless Army offensive against the Karen people. Join us for an evening with Dave Eubank, founder and leader of Free Burma Rangers (FBR), as he reports on the relief effort for the people of Burma.  Free Burma Rangers strives to bring hope and love to people inside Burma's war zones.  Since its inception, Free Burma Ranger teams have treated over 360,000 patients and helped over 750,000 people.


The Free Burma Rangers is a multi-ethnic humanitarian service movement.  They bring help, hope and love to people in the war zones of Burma.  Ethnic pro-democracy groups send teams to FBR to be trained, supplied and sent into the areas under attack to provide emergency medical care, shelter, food, clothing and human rights documentation.  The teams also operate a communication and information network inside Burma that provides real time information from areas under attack.


Learn more about the event and the Free Burma Rangers on the "Relief for Burma" event page.



Joy in the Darkness: Hallelujah Chorus from Mae La Refugee Camp

Mae La Camp - Hallelujah Chorush

Long after dark on our March visit to Mae La Refugee Camp along the Thai-Burma border, we were preparing for bed after a full day.  Suddenly and dramatically, we heard the loudest hallelujah chorus billowing up from under our feet.  Our Karen friends were singing at the top of their lungs as they practiced the chorus for graduation.  We ran down to experience it.

The chorus was beautiful and moving knowing that they live in the camp and cannot return to their homeland.  Reverend Dr. Simon, pastor of the Bible school in the camp, penned this moving testimony in 2000:

Our Living Testimony

They call us a displaced people, but praise God we are not misplaced. They say they see no hope for our future, but praise God; our future is as bright as the promises of God. They say they see the life of our people as a misery, but praise God, our life is a mystery. For what they say is what they see, and what they see is temporal. But ours is the eternal. All because we put ourselves in the hands of the God we trust.

If you ever get the chance to visit Mae La Camp, I recommend it.  The people there are incredible and their stories are moving.  One day alone is worth the trip across the pacific.  Enjoy the video below and congratulations to the graduates!


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