Posted on September 20, 2004

Saving Burma

Doug Bandow, National Review Online, Sept. 20

Humanitarian crises encircle the globe. Violent resistance afflicts Iraq. Mass death from starvation and war threatens Sudan. Millions have died in other conflicts across Africa. So no one has much time for Burma.

But if only the right government officials removed some wrong bureaucratic barriers, 1,000 Burmese children could be saved. Orphaned in their government’s war on its own people, they could trade helpless dependence in crowded refugee camps in Thailand for positive futures with loving families in America.

Burma, now called Myanmar by the military regime that has held power there for more than four decades, is among the world’s poorest and most oppressed countries. The junta brutally crushed pro-democracy protests in 1988 but foolishly called an election two years later. The result was victory by the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, a leading independence figure assassinated in 1947.

The government put Suu Kyi under house arrest, suppressed her party, loosed thugs upon democracy advocates, and closed the universities. Despite periodic hope for a more moderate course in Rangoon, the self-styled State Peace and Development Council always returns to repression.

At the same time the government has pursued a brutal war against ethnic groups seeking autonomy. At least a million people have been displaced within eastern Burma. Another 200,000 live in refugee camps in surrounding nations, the most heavily afflicted of which is Thailand. Hundreds of thousands more live and work illegally outside the camps.

Refugees began flooding into Thailand 20 years ago after government forces launched a sustained offensive. The primary victims are Karen and Karenni, many Christians whose ancestors were converted by missionaries in the mid-1800s. Today vast refugee camps sprawl across undulating green hills north of Mae-sot, Thailand, generating a solid carpet of two-story bamboo shacks.

A tenuous cease-fire now exists between Rangoon and members of the Karen National Liberation Army. But many of the Karen and Karenni have known no life other than as refugees in a war of extreme brutality. The ill-disciplined Burmese forces draft civilians as porters and routinely kill and rape villagers before destroying homes, clinics, and churches — and then sowing land mines.

Unfortunately, a refugee’s life inside Thailand is fragile. The choices are illegal work, which risks deportation, or helpless idleness within the camps.

Bangkok complains of the burden, despite outside assistance. And Thailand has not signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees, leaving the latter with precious few legal guarantees.

Indeed, the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has business interests in Burma, desires to push the Karen and Karenni back across the border. Unfortunately, neither safety nor peace await them there. They can only sit nervously in the camps, vulnerable to cross-border attacks from Burma and threatening political initiatives from Bangkok.

The violent conflict has yielded thousands of children without parents. Many are orphans; some have been separated from parents who have disappeared and may be dead. A number have been abandoned — in this culture, a common practice when a father or mother remarries.

About 1,000 are under the care of Christian Freedom International, which conducts relief operations along the border, provides medical aid inside war-torn Burma, and runs schools and orphanages in the Thai camps. CFI is pushing to make these children eligible for adoption.

They are, however, stateless: not recognized as Burmese citizens, not Thai nationals, and not certified by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees as persons of concern. Thus, they are stuck in legal limbo — and in the camps.

Jim Jacobson, CFI’s president, has taken the children’s case to UNHCR officials, the Thai government, and the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, but all point accusing fingers at one another. The Thai ministry of the interior claims to have no objection and blames the UNHCR. Yet in the past Thailand has obstructed adoption efforts, perhaps fearing a new influx of refugees.

That isn’t likely: Jeremy Woodrum of the U.S. Campaign for Burma notes that the Karen and Karenni generally flee only as a last resort, despite the abuses that they routinely suffer. The adoption of 1,000 orphans is not likely to increase the refugee flow.

However, the UNHCR says it cannot certify those of uncertain legal status; without U.N. sanction, the U.S. will not allow adoptions. But UNHCR says it cannot move ahead without prior American agreement. The embassy says the decision is for Washington to make. They just “kick it back and forth,” complains Woodrum.

And so the orphans languish. Complains Jacobson, a soft-spoken activist who has worked both in the White House and on Capitol Hill: “Over the last nine years I’ve observed some of these kids grow up into young adults.”

Jacobson, long a Virginia resident who has moved to Thailand to better oversee CFI’s operations, flew back in mid-August to seek support on Capitol Hill. Breaking down the bureaucratic barriers would open the way for adoptions not only in America but in other nations — such as Great Britain — that in the past have taken in victims of foreign oppression.

The orphans’ cause crosses party lines. Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) has led the effort to eliminate adoption barriers. Also pushing for action are Republicans Rep. Mark Souder (Ind.), Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), and Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) and Democrats Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) and Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.).

Observes Jacobson: “We’ve got everyone from the right to the left. It’s crazy that we can’t get something done.” Yet so far Bush administration officials have been strangely unhelpful.

The State Department remains mired in bureaucratic minutiae, while the White House refuses to discuss the issue. In response to his request to meet with an administration official “who could help break this bureaucratic logjam,” Jacobson received a form letter explaining that the president was extremely busy. Rep. Wolf hosted a meeting with State Department personnel in mid-September, but they were reluctant to adjust their procedures and suggested that any babies admitted would have to be placed in America’s already badly over-burdened foster care system.

Immigration issues have become particularly controversial after September 11, but the case of 1,000 orphans in a war zone should be a no-brainer. Many of these children have witnessed the destruction of their homes and villages; today their futures remain bleak.

They deserve a better life. And generous Americans are willing to give them one. Says Jacobson, “We are in touch with many American families willing and able to adopt these kids.” But bureaucrats and red tape stand in the way.

America cannot right every wrong in the world. But Americans can aid some individuals and families now at risk — including a few desperate children languishing in Thai refugee camps.

— Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.