Sixteen years on, Sunday Htoo still remembers the day she lost her home. “We heard the sound of guns firing from another village,” she recalls. “The Burmese military were invading our area.” She was 11-years-old, sitting her exams in the village school.
For the next few months Sunday Htoo lived with her family in the jungle under haphazard shelters hastily put together with bamboo and plastic tarp, before heading to a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. It was a sprawling expanse of bamboo shacks and huts erected close together on reddish-brown soil that turned into mud during the wet monsoon seasons. “In the early days we had to turn off all the lights at 9:00 PM,” she says. “We were worried that the Burmese soldiers would shell and burn our camp.”
Her story is not unique. The Karen people, Burma’s second-largest ethnic group, have been at war with the government for about 64 years, and many have paid the price. The Border Consortium (TBC), set up to provide relief to refugees, reports that as of January 2013 there are about 128,784 refugees in 10 camps spread along Thailand’s border with Burma. 78.9% of these refugees are Karen. Thousands more are internally displaced in the Burmese jungle, constantly on the run from government soldiers who would burn homes, rape women and kidnap villagers to serve as military porters and human shields. Although it rarely makes international news headlines, the fighting between the Karen and the government has become known as the world’s longest war.