Scorched earth Karen state

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Karen state in Burma is home to some of Southeast Asia’s most rural and undeveloped communities, and is a land torn by war and brutal oppression.

Deep in the mountainous jungle, the Burmese army continues a decades-long campaign of violent subjugation and oppression of the Karen people, an ethnic minority that has been indigenous to the region for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. By means of continual oppression and forced assimilation, the Burmese junta aims to bring demise to the Karen’s ethnic sovereignty, what they consider a threat to “the solidarity of the Union of Burma” and their stranglehold on the nation. Caught up in this historical power struggle are hundreds of thousands of Karen civilians living without homes, continuously on the run from their own supposed government.

Across northern Karen state, villages are regularly targeted and burnt to the ground, including their clinics, schools, temples and churches. Typically, Burmese troops will fire mortars into the settlement before entering and shooting any remaining civilians, regardless of age or sex. They will seek out stored medicines and food stocks to destroy along with pots, pans, blankets and school materials. Complete disregard for human and civil rights allows almost total impunity to soldiers on the ground, many of which are despicable racists and sadists. Monthly, reports are received of unprovoked torture, extrajudicial killing and rape, few of which gain local media attention let alone the international coverage, due to lack of accountability or communication capacity.

For many, it has become routine to leave home before the soldiers arrive three or four times per year with whatever few possessions can be carried on their backs. Thousands of villagers each time are forced to travel ever deeper into the hostile jungle where they cannot be found by the arriving soldiers. In hiding, these families have severely limited access to food, and live under the most rudimentary shelters. Disease spreads fast and weakness from malnutrition make the effects ever worse. Studies in 2007 found that in these regions one out of five children dies before the age of five. These conditions would be immeasurably more severe, were it not for local community groups, who ensure that medics stay with the villagers and set up clinics in the hiding sites and continue education under the trees of the forest.

This photo essay was compiled from photographs taken by Karen medics and students still living in the heart of their communities, doing what they can to help their people, preserve their culture and tell the world of their struggle.

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