The plight of Chin and Karen refugees
In December 2008, I received a request to help a Christian held in prison in Malaysia. Since I am Malaysian, it would be easier for me to communicate with the authorities there. The Christian was a Chin refugee from Burma.
In January 2009, my friend and I visited her Chin friend in Kluang jail, Johor (my home state). Thankfully, he had been in Malaysia for a year and had picked up the Malay language, so I was able to speak to him via a telephone, through a glass barrier.
Prison life was tough. There was little food and drink. He told us he had no place to lie down to sleep. He had been bitten by bugs all over but continued to keep a cheerful countenance. After many months he was released, malnourished and weak.
When I met him on my next trip, I did not recognise the transformation. He had put on weight, was smiling and happy. He was grateful for our visits.
Burma (Myanmar) is the largest country in south-east Asia. Its neighbouring countries include China, India and Thailand, and its ethnic minorities include the Karen, Chin and Dai peoples. 89 per cent of Burmese are Buddhist, but many in these minorities are Christians.
While Burma was a British colony (1886-1948), the British moved many Chinese and Indians into urban areas to stimulate trade. This displaced Burmese from the cities creating much resentment and helping to fuel today’s oppression by Burma’s military dictatorship of minority ethnic groups.
Many Karens have fled to neighbouring Thailand to avoid persecution, sexual violence, forced labour and forced conversion to Buddhism. From Thailand many have then, in turn, immigrated to Malaysia. There are around 4000 Karens in Malaysia, the majority in capital Kuala Lumpur.
According to aid agencies, up to 200,000 Karen have been driven by the Burmese government from their homes and there are 120,000 refugees living in camps on the Thai side of the border. Both the Karen and the Chin communities have embraced Christianity. The Karens first heard the gospel from Adoniram Judson in 1813 and took it to the Chins around 1905. Now, over 90 per cent of Chins are professing Christians.
Christianity has acted as a unifying force among Chin communities previously hostile to each other. However, it has led to their persecution too by the military junta. All missionaries have been forced to leave Burma and Christians are denied permission to build churches or print Bibles. Recently, a pastor was put in jail for two weeks for asking for electricity to be supplied to his village.
In their search for safety, many Chins and Karens have paid Burmese agents to lead them from the Thai-Burmese border to Malaysia, a journey that can take weeks and requires large sums of money. Many arrive in Malaysia with just the clothes on their backs.
Once in Malaysia, though safe from their own military, refugees are still in a precarious position. They are afforded no aid by the Malaysian Government and there is minimal aid from NGOs and charities. There are no refugee camps, so Chin and Karen refugees have to share makeshift huts in the jungle or run-down flats, where it is not uncommon to find 40 people sharing one room.
Women risk sexual assault and there is constant fear of being arrested and deported unless large bribes are paid. Those who work share what they earn to provide food, even though this may mean just one meal of plain rice or noodles per day, with a little meat. Many work illegally and are taken advantage of by their employers. There is no health care or government education for the children.
In April 2005 four students set up the Chin Students’ Organisation which now has 15 members dedicated to educating Chin children in Malaysia. Classes are held at the Chin Refugee Centre, with children often turning up two hours early.
I was also introduced to the Dai community, in Kuala Lumpur. The Dai people are from the south of Chin state in Burma. Their population there is about 90,000, making them the smallest Burmese ethnic minority.
There are approximately 1000 Dais in Malaysia, living in the states of Kelantan, Johor, Penang, Melaka, Pahang and Kuala Lumpur. Like the other refugees, they were forced to flee their homeland in 1999.
When we met them, the Dai were overjoyed as no one had helped them before. By the grace of God, we were able to bring them love gifts from Christians in London, including a computer, scanner, printer, photocopier, fans, food, medicine, second-hand clothes, shoes, Christian books and stationery for children.
You should have seen their happy faces when they received these gifts! I was also asked to encourage them spiritually. They seemed hungry for the Word of God. I found them to be meek and humble.
We went to the Cameron Highlands, a hill resort outside Kuala Lumpur, where some Dai men were working in farms. More than 30 men took time off work to listen to the gospel. I was humbled to see the spiritually minded Dai people. I reminded them that through their present trials they were being conformed to the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Like the children of Israel in Egypt, their cries are heard in heaven and deliverance will come one day in God’s own time. I firmly believe they need the Word of God to dwell richly in their hearts so that they may be kept if they resettle in the west, where there are so many temptations.
There is a school in Malaysia called the Victoria Childcare Centre. Its teachers are unpaid volunteers. I was able to give them colouring books from the Trinitarian Bible Society. The Grace Publications Trust and Purple Tulip Literature Ministries had also kindly given me books for the refugees. The children were thrilled to receive these books and basic stationery.
We brought the womenfolk two sewing machines and materials to make necklaces that they could then sell. I was amazed how thin and small everyone was. It’s probably because they are so poor, surviving on one meal a day with soupy rice and little meat.
When I saw that the women stayed at home while some of their husbands went to work, I advised them to form a Dai women’s fellowship. We held it in the flat of an elder. About 15 women came for the first fellowship meeting.
I spoke about keeping their eyes on our Lord, like Peter when he was walking on water; and also that they should pray for their husbands. One woman, Mary, was encouraged; she did not know she should be praying for her husband but promised to do so regularly.
Another woman, also Mary, was in tears when she mentioned how the Lord had comforted her to focus on Christ and not her circumstances. Another, La Tung, testified, ‘God is good to us. He gives us one life to glorify him. God puts us here to speak his gospel. Before, I want to get something; now, I want to know the Word of God. The Bible is more precious than worldly things. God is more precious than our body’.
It is convicting to see she has not this world’s goods and yet was happy in the Lord. At the second women’s meeting, I was overjoyed to see the flat filled to overflowing with women, children and even a few men.
Hamana was crippled because he started to run when chased by the police during the night. He ran onto a railway track and was knocked down by a train. He was unconscious for a few days until a preacher visited him in hospital; the preacher had to find M$5400 (£900) to pay for his hospitalisation, but he is now recuperating.
There are cases too of mental illness among the refugees. One pregnant women was eight months’ pregnant and I could hardly see any bump on her. I bought her some health supplements and chicken to nourish her frail body. She has now given birth to a healthy baby.
Most Karen women are working; they seem to have less hunger for spiritual things. The Chins seem more spiritually-minded and evangelistic.
Our refugee friends from these various groups are suffering much. Hebrews 13:3 tells us who live in the West: ‘Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body’. And Romans 12:15 says, ‘Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep’.
Kim Eng Sherwood