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Burmese refugees at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Utica
Burmese refugees at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Utica

Burmese refugees hope for change

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For half a century, one of the most repressive nations in the world has been Burma, or Myanmar, as its military government renamed it several years ago. But recently surprising political changes in that Southeast Asian country have led to a possible opening to the West.

Some of the people watching most closely are the Burmese Karen refugees. They're an ethnic minority, many of them Christian, who live right here in upstate New York. Our story comes from David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.

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Tabernacle Baptist in downtown Utica is a beautiful old church, with a stone steeple reaching to the heavens. Inside, its sanctuary is dominated by a large pipe organ behind the altar, and on Sunday mornings, by hundreds of Burmese Ka-rens sitting in the pews. So many refugees from Burma worship here, that hymns are sung in two languages.

At a recent service, the focus was very much on the rapid political developments taking place in Burma, especially the ceasefire between the government and Ka-ren rebels who have been fighting it ever since Burma became independent after the Second World War.

"Let us pray together that in the midst of all these changes that have happened in just the last few weeks that God will be there, not only will promises be made but that promises will be kept."

That theme...will the government keep its word and finally grant some degree of autonomy to the Ka-rens is a major question among the refugees here.

This man, who did not want to be indentified, arrived in Utica 3 years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand.

"I don't want to say I don't want to believe the government, but what we have learned, they never change."

29-year old Lup Way Doh has been in Utica only six months. He was born along the Burma and Thailand border after his parents fled the fighting.

"I'm not sure about their credibility in the agreement."

There have been peace talks before but this time around the Burmese government does seem more open to political reform. It has released hundreds of political prisoners, and freed its best known dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest. It's also eased censorship, and will hold an election in April. These are all good signs to the Utica Ka-ren, but suspicions linger. The president in the new civilian government used to be a general, and some refugees here says a tiger can’t change his stripes.

"I think when you look at his background, he came from the military, just change the coat, just change the clothes."

That’s Aung Tin Moe. In 1988 he was one of the student protesters who took to the streets too, only to be crushed by the military. He joined the Ka-ren rebels for several years, but was already living in Utica when Buddhist monks took on the regime 4 years ago in what’s become known as the Saffron Revolution.

That failed, too, and some of the monks landed in Utica after they fled, so strong is the community here. The US State Department has resettled about three thousand Burmese in Utica and thousands more across upstate New York, says Peter Vogelar, the director of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.

"The Burmese have been coming from almost 15 years now, mostly out of Thailand, and they have resettled into Albany, into Utica, into Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, so through the major metropolitan centers of upstate New York."

If peace, and democracy, do come to Burma, some of the refugees say they’ll consider going back to help build their country. But for now, Lup Way Doh is happy for the opportunity to build a life.

"Comparing to what we have been through, we consider this a better place, after decades of difficulties...hardships and fear. This is a better place; you can live here without fear of being killed or being attacked by your enemy."

The Karen are one of 11 groups that have been fighting against the central government. Achieving peace is an important condition of the west for lifting economic sanctions that are still in place.

I’m David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.

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