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Forum Focuses on Burma's Abuse of Ethnic Minorities

Contact:  Lesley Crosson, Church World Service, 212-870-2676,; Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526,

NEW YORK, Mar. 16 /Standard Newswire/ -- As U.S. communities help thousands of newly arriving refugees from Burma make a fresh start in life this year, they're also learning about an underreported dimension of the decades-old Burma crisis: the plight of Burma's ethnic nationalities.

Photo: Jack Dunford, director of the Thailand Burma Border consortium, talks with an audience member after the March 14 forum. Credit Carol Fouke/CWS


The U.S. Refugee Program could bring in as many as 18,000 refugees from Burma before year's end. Most belong to Karen, Chin, and other ethnic nationalities targeted for repression and abuse by Burma's military regime.


"A political solution that embraces the aspirations of Burma's ethnic minorities is desperately needed. Without it, the crisis will continue," said Jack Dunford, a 25-year veteran of humanitarian work among Burmese refugees in Thailand. He addressed a Wednesday forum sponsored by Church World Service in New York City.


Dunford is executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which provides food, shelter, and other non-food items to some 154,000 refugees from Burma living in nine camps along the Thailand-Burma border. It also documents internal displacement in eastern Burma.


Church World Service, a TBBC founder and member, provides support through its Durable Solutions for Displaced Persons program. CWS also is among 10 voluntary agencies helping resettle refugees from Burma in the United States, and is pressing for Burma's military regime to stop attacking ethnic civilians, release political prisoners, and move toward democratic government.


Burma's national convention has met 10 times since 1993, but has yet to produce a draft constitution - though some think it could happen later this year. "The fear," Dunford said, "is that the newly constituted government will still be military rule under a different disguise and not address ethnic aspirations."


Burma is ethnically diverse. The current political map recognizes seven ethnic minority states in the east and west, with the Burman majority concentrated in the central plains. "But these are just lines on a map and the Burmese army has no empathy with ethnic aspirations. The ethnic groups want some kind of genuine federal state system that gives them a degree of autonomy in their own governance," Dunford said.


Instead, the situation in Burma "simply gets worse," he said. "In the past 10 years, the army has doubled its presence" along Burma's 1,200-mile border with Thailand. The TBBC has documented the destruction of 3,077 villages since 1996, with more than one million people forced to leave their homes. Forced labor, rape, torture, and summary executions are among the humanitarian atrocities perpetuated by the regime against civilians.


As a result, an estimated 500,000 ethnic civilians are currently internally displaced in eastern Burma, and there are believed to be over 2.5 million Burmese in Thailand (154,000 in camps, two million migrant workers, and 250,000 others, mostly Shan, living in northern Thailand). Others have fled to Malaysia, Bangladesh, and India.


Forced relocation is resulting both from outright military action and from clearing of huge tracts of land for such "development" projects as castor oil plantations for production of bio-diesel and the proposed construction of massive dams along the Salween River.


"The internally displaced persons are all potential refugees, and there's really very little international effort to protect them," Dunford said.


Many refugees in the border camps have been there for more than 20 years, he said. "Of the 154,000 in the camps we serve, 33 percent were born in the camps. A whole generation has grown up in the camps. People see little chance of repatriating soon, and opportunities for education and employment are very limited in the camps. We've seen a growing despondency in the camps, and a concomitant increase in domestic violence, gender violence, and suicide."


The Royal Thai Government has agreed to open up education and employment options for refugees from Burma, but it will take time before any significant numbers of refugees will benefit. Resettlement to the United States and other countries will provide a solution for thousands, but in the short term it is likely that births and new arrivals to the border camps will more than replenish their numbers, Dunford said.


Thirteen governments contribute the bulk of the TBBC's $35 million annual budget. "The United States government has been very generous in its funding of humanitarian work along the border, regularly contributing 15 to 20 percent of the TBBC's annual budget and an exceptional 28 percent in 2006. Keep encouraging the U.S. government to keep up its high level of funding," Dunford said.


A particular need as many of the border camps' most educated and skilled workers and leaders opt for third country resettlement is training new leadership to replace them, Dunford said. "If 20,000 resettle, it could take 40 percent of the camps' skilled workers and leaders in a year. This will weaken these communities and the strong links with their communities still across the border in Burma."