The politics of hurricanes

Relief groups are scrambling to get aid to Myanmar to help victims of last weekend’s cyclone – the south Asian version of a hurricane.

But that’s no comfort to Minnesota’s fastest growing refugee community, ethnic Karen who fled Myanmar, which the Karen still refer to as Burma. Taw Dwe is among them. He’s doing a lot of praying these days.

A translator for the St. Paul Ramsey County Department of Public Health, he fled Myanmar in 2002. He and his then-pregnant wife crawled under gunfire on the Thai border to escape oppression of the ethnic Karen at home.

They’ve still got family back home, but there’s been no phone contact, no email, nothing to do but listen to the radio and watch television since the cyclone hit over the weekend.

The storm swept straight across the northern neck of the Karen homeland. And though his family lives inland, Dwe says about half the population of the nation’s Bay of Bengal delta is ethnic Karen.

“I feel like I am one of them,” says Dwe, who lives in St. Paul with his wife and three children. “I feel terribly sad for them.”

cyclonemap.GIFLike many other Karen, Dwe joined the armed struggle against the military dictatorship in Myanmar. His people have struggled for their independence, or at least some measure of autonomy, for half a century.

It’s sparked a sometimes brutal response in the nation’s Karen state. The government began a military offensive against the insurgent Karen National Liberation Army two years ago.

Dwe himself had been arrested, beaten and nearly summarily executed before he fled his native country six years ago.

Now, he and other Karen in Minnesota fear that the political unrest will spell even further disaster for their friends and family back home. Like those among the Tamil diaspora after the tsunami struck Sri Lanka in 2004, Karen refugees fear their brethren will intentionally be left out of recovery from the natural disaster.

And they are brethren. Many, like Dwe, are among a significant Christan minority. Their families were brought to the church by American Baptist missionaries to southeast Asia nearly two centuries ago. It’s part of the reason they’ve had to flee their homeland.

For many, though, there’s no where to go. More than a half million Karen were though to have been driven from their homes by the armed struggle with the government. About 150,000 have fled to Thailand, swelling eight refugee camps on the northern border.

“We’re really concerned,” Dwe said. “We really want to have good management for this assistance to get directly to the people that are suffering, not to the Burmese military. We want to cooperate with the local government.”

He said he expects the death toll to rise dramatically in coming days, nonetheless. Dwe says the estimates of 20,000 dead and 40,000 missing only account for the cities, not low lying rice-growing areas where many Karen grow rice.

Dwe also fears a lack of clean water and food, dysentery and malaria will kill many more in the wake of the cyclone.

The eventual death toll, he says, “will never, ever be counted.”

Here’s a 5-minute interview with him.

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