26 January 2006

Free Yourself Like a Gazelle from the Hunter

“My name is Naw Hlaing Thuzar,” she said. “But most of my friends call me Htoo Htoo.”

There began my introduction to Htoo Htoo, a bright Karen on pilgrimage to Bangkok, carving out a rough but sweet new life. Born in Karen State, Hpa-an Township inside Burma, Htoo Htoo quickly ran into the educational wall familiar to the Karen—no more funds, nor more opportunities.

With the help of a friend she reached the Thai-Burma border in the summer of 2003. He cousin Teetoh became a good friend of mine while I lived in his house and served beside him at Mae La. He introduced me to Htoo in desperation to find her the funding she needs to continue her studies. Waiting on doors to open, Htoo Htoo began serving her community by teaching Karen inside the camps. In May 2005, God opened up the door to a scholarship at the prestigious Assumption University in Bangkok.

“Only by the blessing of God did I overcome many hardships to reach this path in my life,” she notes, fully understanding the weight of her new fortune. Missionaries who visit Mae La and see the Karen often stumble under the magnitude of their plight. What to offer under such a political shadow and economic darkness? Often I wonder how much the Karen really need our words as evangelists. Far more they need education. With the Burmese government closing university options inside Burma in addition to hunting Karen and subjecting them to rape, starvation and military attics, all higher education has dried up.

Along with the blessings come the hardships. Htoo Htoo’s scholarship covers her academic courses but not the expensive Bangkok living expenses and cost of resources. She was recently blessed with a gifted used computer.

Her scholarship stipulates that Htoo Htoo must return to help her community. She would have it no other way. Supporting Htoo Htoo is not importantly only because of all the lives her education will teach, lead and instruct. A much larger ripple is the Hope it brings to the Karen. As a pastor and teacher I daily talked about Hope for the Karen. One day a favorite student Sal-Lin put his arm around me as I slipped down a rocky trail. “Teacher sir, I am most happy just that you keep coming. You never forgot us. I have hope now Americans will know and remember us.”

All of us need hope. On the frontlines you need it desperately, to see the light at the end of the tunnel and to take even small wins in the day. Htoo Htoo’s education at Assumption University explodes with the same impact as a poor Oklahoma Indian kid attending Harvard proving to his community that there is development.

“I have strongly belief that God will never ignore me whenever I need His richly blessing. I know that I cannot get any good chance by myself or I cannot do anything without Him.”
You can help. Pray for Htoo Htoo, remember the education the Karen need and when God moves your heart please donate to this cause. You can reach me: kylerallen@yahoo.com for information on giving donations directly to Htoo Htoo in Thailand.

03 June 2005


The Thai Constitution of 1997, also called the People’s Charter, has been hailed for its inclusion of numerous rights and benefits, including 12 years of compulsory and free education, public health services, as well as freedom of speech, association and movement. From 1992 to 2003, Thailand acceded to no less than six major human rights treaties. In the past few years, however, some human rights groups and others within and outside Thailand have been asking if the Thai welcome to refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers has cooled, indeed, if the overall human rights climate in Thailand is growing colder. As evidence, they point to crackdowns on illegal migrants, a “war on drugs” in 2003 that left more than 2,000 people dead in three months, and the fact that Thailand has no legal working definition of “refugee” on the books.

Despite a long history of involvement with refugees and asylum seekers and a cooperative relationship with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees dating back to at least 1975 with the first influx of Indochinese refugees, Thailand has never ratified any of the UN instruments relating to the status of refugees or stateless persons.

The more than 140,000 Myanmar nationals living in camps along the Thai-Myanmar order, though classified as “displaced persons” by Thai authorities, are recognized by UNHCR as refugees.

Elwyn woke me. He came in to sit on my floor and talk. He has many ideas and a mouth full of words. He gave me information about Thai soldiers in and around the Mae La camp, about them arresting freedoms, torturing workers who venture past the walls, even raping women.

“I have no chance to be a man, earn some baht here, no” he says.
“I would like to buy some small thing, plant rice and get more education. We have no chance for more study.”
He went on speaking in memories as pictures of a sweet country land and handed-down tales of his glorious nation collided violently with the admissions of the fractured, ignoble pains of a refugee.
“They Thai solider call me illegal, immigrant. They call us displaced person and so many other bad names. I don’t want to hear it anymore. I am a man, just like you. It is not good for our hearts, these dirty things they call us, no.” I had nothing to say so I only listened, still half asleep in the hot room. I sat on the floor and listened to a pattern already familiar in speaking with Karen students here. Some of these younger ones, when given time to speak spin tales that rise up from anger, hate, bitterness and shame to intense emotions of pride and courage, nail-tough strength and intelligence.
“If we die, it’s ok,” Elwyn says plainly. I keep staring up at the wooden roof through my net, my shirt soaked in sweat.
“Better like that, maybe. But to stop struggle, that is bad, not like Karen, not like a man. We must fight to the end or die. This is simple and truth.”

Myanmar is the name recognized by the UN, but not by the US nor the Karen people who like most of the world view the name change from Burma another of the ruling military junta's slight of hand manouevers to put a 'new face' on the country as they continue to stall the peace process towards democracy.


At night all you hear is the stillness of the crickets and lizards calling out beneath the darkness. The moon is wide and bright tonight. It is the calmest thing I have seen yet and I have seen many things.

I saw so many little girls and boys; the kid girls’ faces powdered yellow in cute, rough circles. I saw them shuffling around to somewhere, dust kicked up and tiny, bright bags swinging in the wake of this child exodus headed into or out of church, homes or schools. I heard the acoustic ring of guitars in the distance, the dookay lizards making an own chorus.

Singing is around all corners here and laughter follows in smaller, widening ripples. Lives are carved out here. In the side of this mountain bamboo homes rest next to so many, many houses. Unofficial number is around 50,000 but who can call it with all these new babies crying in laps and on shoulders, women hauling bamboo poles with a swollen, pregnant stomach.
I saw the houses closely today. Dried, massive leaves sewn together make roofs, some sadly slipping off, others cracked through in this hot, arid season. The bamboo is getting old here, worn through and splitting down the middle. In other places new shelter is going up, houses raised by four men working. Tiny patches of farm gardens make tight lines between silty walks. I saw boxed in self-sufficiency. The good earthy smell of fresh, watered mud is around, a giant green snake slithering through the field. Cobras run here as well.

Across the way, the thin, ash-colored trunks grow bare up to the top of the hazy green mountain. The water flows in swells up stream, chugging and pausing as it slaps and slips over the rocks, falling down the way, cut through the green-brown of dirt and grass until it is slowed to a chocked trickle in front of my feet. On one side of the stream is the impossibly large mountain range standing high on guard. Here, now, there is only one mountain, not many to be concerned with or know. There is only one and he is so big you can hardly stand to look at him, hazy and burning in emerald green, the straight white lines of trunks breaking the burn. Below the tree line, dried-out brown rooftops dot the hillside, up and down in stacks that stick out under the green of the palms. The big, wide leaves of the palms blow in a warm wind. I stood in the heat to watch one of my student water a tiny, deep green plot. He waved across before carrying two large empty pitchers back down to the stream. On the other side of that mountain are thousands and thousands of people running through the jungles, starving and staving off malaria, bullet wounds, rape, torture and death as much as they can while they stave down crying babies, hungry stomachs, and heart through souls.

The houses on this side of the mountain, in the land around the seminary look abandoned. Piles of ash sit kicked into ditches in front of the high porches. Some young men sit underneath the raised houses, asleep in the shade. I watch their hammocks rock slowly as I pass, climbing like a Billy goat up the steep cuts. The Karen move up with ease, a natural walk. I am stumbling. Inside glassless windows, women sit on the floor, men sit chewing and spitting beetle nut down between the floor beams. Many houses are empty. I circle back, sliding downhill and catching stares from dark eyes hidden behind walls and smaller eyes hidden behind trees, children smiling then disappearing.

As the sun went down, I crossed back down to the stream. Evening of this hot day made a little warm wind to blow through the dried treetops. A rustling broke the silence as bodies broke through the brush. Men and women walked in groups through to the water, sitting down in heaps to bathe and wash clothes. The shadow rose higher up the mountainside. While the women soaked their clothes, dirty-faced kids ran across the stream, kicking a flat volleyball, splashing and shouting into this fine hour, all dressed in matching navy blue shirts with logos in a Scandinavian tongue.

Besides the European-sponsored shirts, I wondered how much would change or be different at this hour of the day if these people were home, in a free state on the other side of this mountain. It is hard to imagine. What do they feel at this hour? It is harder to know the shock of looking across the East River in New York, standing on a Kip’s Bay pier if Queens was a country I once knew but could not call home any longer. So close and well….yes, very far.

I am sure there would be large, concrete schools if these Karen could live in peace. A man could plant his own rice and not wait for one of the Burma Border Consortium groups to give it to him. There would be more water, more food and a man could call a patch of mountain land his, and not theirs or someone's. And a man’s hands could do his own work. I imagine a Karen man could then come home at this good hour and bring his family up close to his body and look into the sky and his chest would go silent and cool like a filled-up river in ways no American has known since the Natives but that we all still search for in the security of suburbia and non-thinking, at least about neighbors and the others.


The Christian faith here is overwhelming. The photo above is a newly rebuilt church inside Burma. The past 3 in the village have been burned down by Burmese SPDC soldiers. The Karen keep building it, knowing God has a plan for them while the world ignores them.

In only one day of living with the Karen you can sense their faith coming out of corners, smell and taste it on all fronts and hear it sung earnestly. I suppose they have nothing better to do, nothing else to soak up hours. Why not go to church five times a Sunday? I am not sure though what better things exactly we have to rush off for back in the States. We seem to get ants in the pants after one hour in God’s house. I am starting to wonder if we should be so lucky to have nothing to do on the Sabbath but sit and worship. Back in New York wheels turn quickly yet there is little progress. I remember days filled in busy work, trappings and self-obsession.

Watching these people for only a few days, I already wonder if the faiths of these beaten and scarred people would change in freedom that large, massive word that seems even harder to hold along these borders. Perhaps there is no maybe about pressure building faith in a dying criminal or a low-life who knows his need for Christ long before a rich, pious man even realizes something is missing. Many of us will never know a thing about the joy a stone broke man feels when he finds one single dollar lying on the road. Still my new neighbors could be doing about 1,000 things that have nothing to do with going into a church and getting down on your knees.


According to the US Committee for Refugees (USCR), a non-partisan private organization, Thailand hosted over 420,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2003, the overwhelming majority, 405,000, of whom were from Myanmar, including about 140,000, mostly Karen and Karenni, living in camps, of whom 20,000 were unregistered; an estimated 200,000 ethnic Shan living among the local population, and at least 50,000 from persecuted ethnic minorities living as illegal migrants.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a 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 the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. 96

Thailand does not employ the term “refugee” in reference to any of the populations displaced on its soil. The general term employed since 1954 has been “displaced person”, following the Ministry of Interior’s 1954 “Regulation Concerning Displaced Persons from Neighboring Countries”, which defines a displaced person as “he who escapes from dangers due to an uprising, fighting or war, and enters in breach of the Immigration Act”. 97

Thailand has not allowed the estimated 300,000 ethnic Shan refugees living along the northern border to enter designated camps, nor has UNHCR been allowed access to the Shan.


Compared to most of its neighbors, Thailand is an example of economic success and political stability, religious tolerance and ethnic pluralism, and freedom of expression. Because of this, over the past quarter-century, Thailand has played host to hundreds of thousands of Myanmar, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and other nationals, many seeking temporary refuge from persecution or conflict in their own countries, others seeking economic opportunities unavailable at home. Yet, due to the high pressure the press put on Thailand while the country hosted refugees from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, Thailand has made full-access to the Karen camps difficult to journalists, the UN and private aid organizations.

26 May 2005

To Lay Down Your Life

Kawthoolei, a Land Without Evil, has long become a land of mines and a killing field. Burma, once a rice bowl of Asia, is now the Least Developing Country in the world. 52 years of fighting a civil war, 40 years under the military dictatorship and for many of us living more than 1½ decades in exile as illegal immigrants or displaced people is long enough.
The only way to have lasting peace is through having mutual love, understanding, forgiveness, recognition, negotiation and reconciliation. On behalf of our Karen people and all the ethnic groups of Burma (Myanmar) we would like to request both the Military Regime and all the parties concerned to stop fighting and find a peaceful solution to the long existing problem.
We would also like to humbly and earnestly request all the international Community to be willing to serve as “Peacemakers” and help us. We are tired of hearing news of both the soldiers and civilians (Bamese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, Shan), our own people, brothers and sisters living in the same country, being injured, tortured or killed in the battles. We hate hearing news of fighting, human rights abuses and atrocities committed without discrimination of age, sex, race, and religion. Please help stop the civil war in Burma and help restore peace and stability to Burma. It will be good, not only for us, but FOR ALL.
We are badly in need of your immediate response, action and kind help. Help us through any ways and means you can. Most of all we need your prayers that God will intervene and change the situation in Burma for His own glory and honor. May God bless you all as you continue to serve Him through helping your needy brothers and sisters.

I believe these words to be Dr. Simon’s own. I saw them on a yellowed Karen calendar blowing bamboo poles of his house and residence for visiting missionaries, aid workers and teachers.

13 June 2004

Family Shelter

There are no loans or mortgages but acquiring a house inside the camps is a lengthy process. With the large numbers of refugees pouring into the Thai-based camps from Burma, housing is a serious concern. This large, extended family takes shelter from the burning midday sun under a simple lean-to, squatting on the land until their home can be built. All work is done by hand while bamboo and leaves are the only materials available. With nearly 50,000 people inside Mae La, materials are often scarce while housing is not only on subsistence level but crammed tightly together, increasing the spread of disease as well as unsanitary conditions. Though there is less fear these simple homes will be burned by soldiers like inside Burma, the Karen still live daily with profound emotional pains—even when this family’s house is complete they still won’t be home.

Sharing Hope

I was asked to preach many times while staying with the Karen during my month long stay. This photo was taken on perhaps the most emotional occasion of my preaching—Easter Sunday. Thra Simon, the KKBBSC seminary president was my translator and I was terrified in many ways to speak to the Karen that morning. Many preachers wait all year for the big Easter sermon—but I was struggling with how to give hope to people who hourly live with murder, rape, and destruction. Who was I to tell them to keep faithful? Yet Easter is the day we are reminded of our true hope—Christ’s resurrection. I reminded them of our Lord who suffered more pain and shame than any of us will ever know. That day I stopped pitying the Karen as I began for the first time to understand them.

A Muslim Coffee

It is not only the Karen that are suffering under the Burma military junta. Many ethnic groups including the Karenni, Shan, and Kachin are facing persecution and genocide from the Burmese army. To my surprise large numbers of ethnically Indian Muslims have also fled the injustice of the military regime and live inside Thai refugee camps alongside the Karen. I enjoyed a coffee with Muslims the morning I took this photo. Muslims run most of the shops inside Mae La camp’s busy market and have dozens of mosque for their worship. They are a new mission field for the Christian Karen who are now witnessing to them and building a united community.

New Life - Baptism

Nineteen former Buddhist and Animist celebrated Easter Sunday by announcing their new life as Christians with a public baptism. The site was a new church plant that already has grown to 500 members in a few years, many of them recent converts. I asked one of the teenage boys after his baptism about his change and he answered that inside the camp he had first witnessed the love of Christ through school friends. Still wet from her baptism, a girl told me she had always felt empty in Buddhism, never knowing how she could do enough to earn happiness. She smiled brightly and told me this was the happiest day of her life. She is one of thousands of refuges finding a new freedom inside these tight walls.

05 June 2004


Largely Buddhists in religion, the Karen have many temples inside the Mae La camp. Like their Thai neighbors, the Burmese and ethnic groups inside Burma fuse traditional Theravada Buddhism with animism, spirit and ancestor worship. Many monks protested the Burmese military in Rangoon and were shot the same as other civilians. These young novice monks live inside temple compounds atop a high, dusty hill. As dusk came on, I spent time with them, photographing and asking questions through my guide. I was moved by their playful smiles though I know the crush of the refugee life touches their young lives. Though I have studied the philosophy of Buddhism through books and lessons, little of the formal scriptures help me understand these people. When we talk though I see many of their questions are my questions, their problems and desires the same as all of us—to Hope in a better world, a love that will last.

Across The Line

This photograph was taken during a brief but emotionally powerful visit across the Burma borderline. The children stand in front of rebuilding projects for their school, church and houses at Ler Pher Hurn village, which has been attacked by Burmese soldiers four times in as many years. The troops regularly burn villages and kill or enslave what Karen they catch. We were warned by radio that the soldiers were only 1km away on patrol when I snapped this picture. We hurried back across the border, the charred remains of the previous village visible as our long-tail boat skidded up the Moei River.