Karen Refugees Describe Peace within the Context of Displacement

Published date01 March 2016
Date01 March 2016
C R Q, vol. 33, no. 3, Spring 2016 297
© 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. and the Association for Conf‌l ict Resolution
Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) • DOI: 10.1002/crq.21158
Karen Refugees Describe Peace
within the Context of Displacement
Al Fuertes
Displaced populations are often the most vulnerable and at-risk people
in our world today. Many end up becoming victims of human smug-
gling and traf‌f‌i cking, and they are often subjected to intolerable living
conditions and uncertainty regarding their future. What can displaced
populations teach us about peace? Using a storytelling method, Karen
refugees along the  ai-Burmese border describe peace as encompassing,
embodying quality of life, both social and personal. It comprises an
interdisciplinary spectrum of socioeconomic, political, psychosocial, and
educational elements. Peace for Karen refugees requires a collaborative
action among government and nongovernment organizations.
When war and armed conf‌l ict result in massive displacement and
devastation, displaced populations ask what has become of them
given their new reality. Many struggle to make sense of the destruction and
loss of lives and property, let alone comprehend the far-reaching conse-
quences of their displacement.  e UN High Commissioner on Refugees’
(UNHCR) annual Global Trends Report: World at War, released on June
18, 2015, said that worldwide displacement was at the highest level ever
recorded (UNHCR 2015).  e number of people forcibly displaced at
the end of 2014 had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2
million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.  e increase represents
the biggest leap ever seen in a single year. Moreover, the report said the situ-
ation was likely to worsen.
What can displaced populations teach us about peace given their expe-
rience of massive displacement?  is article discusses descriptions of peace
and the elements comprising peace as described by Karen refugees through
298 fuertes
C R Q • DOI: 10.1002/crq
various storytelling workshops that I have facilitated along the  ai-Bur-
mese border for nine years. I use the terms Karen refugees and participants
interchangeably throughout the article.
Karen people constitute one of the largest groups of ethnic minorities in
Burma (Myanmar).  ey and six other large minority groups (the Karenni,
Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Chin, and Mon) make up roughly one-third of
Burma’s population of 56,320,206 (Central Intelligence Agency 2015).
ey live primarily in the seven ethnic minority states named after their
respective ethnic groups that form a horseshoe of mountainous regions
around the central Burman plain.
My f‌i rst meeting with Karen refugees, which was also my f‌i rst time
inside a refugee camp, happened in February and March 2003. I was
invited to facilitate a series of trauma healing workshops in two dif‌f erent
refugee campsites, sponsored and organized by the Shanti Volunteer Asso-
ciation through the American Friends and Service Committee based in San
Francisco. Since then, I have been conducting workshops in trauma heal-
ing and conf‌l ict transformation using storytelling as a method in Karen
refugee camps.  ese workshops were made possible by invitations from
various nongovernment organizations (NGOs) working on refugee issues.
Participants in my workshops were camp leaders, librarians, teachers, par-
ents, and young people inside dif‌f erent camps, representing the Sgaw, Pwo,
and Bwe Karen groups (Marshall 1997). Close to a hundred Karen refu-
gees have participated in my workshops to date.
e Karen and other minority people of Burma have a long history
of displacement, especially internal displacement, as they continue to be
the targets of counterinsurgency campaigns since the early 1960s by Bur-
ma’s military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Asia
Watch 1992), later renamed the State Peace and Development Council
(Lang 2002).
Karen refugees started arriving in camps as early as 1984 (Mason 2000).
As set forth in Article 1 of the UN Convention relating to the Status of
Refugees (modif‌i ed by Article 1 of the Protocol Relating to the Status of
Refugees), refugee refers to any person who “owing to a well-founded fear
of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership
of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside of the country
of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail

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