Diana Moo joined hundreds of Minnesota’s Karen residents who descended on the U.S. Capitol on Monday, urging a tougher stance toward their home country of Myanmar as a new refugee crisis unfolds there.
It’s been 20 years since Loo’s family and other Karen fled the southeast Asian country. But news of a violent crackdown against another of its minorities, the Rohingya, has roiled Moo and her community.
The United States is winding down a major effort to resettle the Karen that brought more than 10,000 refugees to Minnesota, home to the largest Karen community in North America. Many in the area worry about family members who remain in Thai camps and the prospect of their return to Myanmar, once known as Burma.
Now, the attacks on the Rohingya by the Myanmar military are reviving painful memories and fueling mistrust in the country’s authorities. But with the world’s spotlight trained on Myanmar, local Karen also feel this is the time to draw attention to their cause — and they rushed to help organize the Washington, D.C., rally.
“With what’s happening in Burma now, it’s really a time for us to get together and support one another,” said Moo, a recent St. Catherine University graduate and community health worker who attended with her mother and sister.
The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a statement on Monday condemning the violence against the Rohingya, a significant step that still fell short of a stronger resolution that Western nations wanted but China opposed.
The statement expressed “grave concern” at reports of human rights violations, including murder, “sexual violence and ... the destruction and burning of homes and property.”
End to resettlement
Karen refugees from around the country rallied in front of the U.S. Capitol to speak out against human rights abuses in Myanmar. Many dressed in traditional, brightly colored clothes as they waved flags and signs. Organizers said that Capitol police estimated the turnout at about 5,000.
“Our generation and the next generation need to remember where we came from,” Minnesotan Morrison Johnny told the crowd.
Karen and other Myanmar minorities in nine refugee camps in Thailand faced a January 2014 deadline to seek resettlement in the United States. The cutoff brought a last-minute surge of applicants for what’s considered one of the world’s largest resettlement efforts. Some are still arriving in Minnesota in a slowing trickle.
Some of the 120,000 refugees who stayed in the camps past that deadline had chosen to do so. But many never registered as refugees, making them ineligible to apply for resettlement. The deadline sneaked up on others, says Eh Tha Khu, the co-executive director of the nonprofit Karen Organization of Minnesota.
More recently, some options to reunite with family in the United States have gone away as well. One program that allows refugees to sponsor their parents, spouses and unmarried children ended for the Karen last year, but some participants are still waiting to travel to Minnesota. In a recent executive order, President Donald Trump put on indefinite hold another family reunification program, for spouses and children of refugees who came within the past two years.
The end of Karen resettlement has troubled the Minnesota community. The Karen Organization estimates there are 17,000 from the ethnic group in the state, including some who moved here after they were resettled elsewhere. There are also as many as 2,000 residents from the Karenni and other Myanmar minorities.
“This has been a huge concern for the community because we still have a lot of loved ones hoping to resettle,” said Eh Tha Khu.
Johnny, the organization’s program manager, visited several Thai camps this year and found widespread anxiety. He says rations have shrunk, in what some there see as preparations to close the camps. Reluctance to return to an area of Myanmar where Karen militants and the military battled for decades remains widespread. Some question whether a years-old peace accord will hold. Others worry about making a living and sending their kids to school.
Micaela Schuneman at the International Institute of Minnesota, one of the local resettlement agencies, says former Karen clients call looking for inside information about the camps’ future or voicing worry about relatives in the resettlement pipeline.
“They say, ‘Can you go any faster because our relatives are told they might have to leave the camps?’ ” she said. But Schuneman has no inside knowledge and no power to fast-track applications.
Then came the news of the military’s crackdown on the Rohingya, which has driven some 600,000 into neighboring Bangladesh.
Like the Karen in Minnesota, most of whom are Christian, the Muslim Rohingya are a religious minority in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. In arson and rapes the Rohingya have reported, some Karen say they recognize tactics the Burmese military once used against their community. Myanmar officials have vehemently denied such accounts, blaming abuses on Rohingya militants and touting progress in maintaining peace with other minorities.
Local Karen fear that the military is bolstering its power, still considerable despite the 2015 election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. They worry that once authorities wrap up their campaign against the Rohingya, they will revisit conflicts with other minorities.
“That’s how they operate the country: They divide and conquer,” Eh Tha Khu said. “They attack one particular group at a time while they talk to the others.”
Anne Richard, who was assistant secretary of state for refugee issues during the Obama administration, recalled that Myanmar leaders embraced a hard line on the Rohingya, whom they view as ethnic Bengali impostors, during her visit in 2015. But, she said, “It really seemed they were making a big effort to resolve their long-simmering conflicts near the Thai border.”
She says she understands why other minorities are rattled by the Rohingya crisis. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has repatriated 71 people from the Thai camps in the past year. Another 247 who prepared to return have been held up by Myanmar government concerns about their ability to support themselves.
Amid media coverage of the Rohingya and congressional efforts to respond with sanctions, Karen in Minnesota and elsewhere saw an opportunity. Organizers pulled off the Washington, D.C., event on a tight timeline.
“The only moment for us is right now because the world is watching,” said Johnny.
Organizers called on U.S. leaders to freeze the assets and restrict travel of Myanmar’s military generals, and otherwise put more pressure on Myanmar to protect all minorities. Karen community leaders from Minnesota said they plan to contact the state’s congressional offices and keep up advocacy efforts after returning from Washington.
Moo says she had never attended a rally or reached out to politicians before. But with relatives in Thai camps still fearful of returning home, she wanted to highlight the Karen’s plight. “We’re not here to demand or to protest,” she said. “We are here to show our unity and our appreciation to the United States.”
The Associated Press and staff writer Maya Rao contributed to this report.