Burma, the Karens, and Zoya Phan

Burma has been in the news lately, with some apparent liberalization, Aung San Suu Kyi able to travel out of the country and finally give her Nobel Prize speech, and talk of economic sanctions being lifted or weakened with the prospect of new trade agreements with the developed world. But Burma is still Burma, and it is difficult to know if the reforms are long term, who would be permitted to benefit from increased commercial activity, and what is happening in the more remote jungle areas of the country. I have just read Zoya Phan’s “Little Daughter” (I read the English edition; I think it was published here under a different name), and you begin to see how vicious has been the government’s actions against the country’s ethnic minorities has been over the past several decades.

Phan is currently a thirty year old Burmese activist living in London. Burmese I. That she is from Burma, but ethnically Karen, a separate ethnic group of between three or four million people, some Buddhist, some Christian, some animist, some a combination of two or more. She is the daughter of Karen activists – her mother died several years ago, and her father, a leader of the Karen resistance was murdered in 2007. Her background, fully described in the book, started with a technologically primitive, but idyllic childhood in a remote jungle village, but was torn apart by invading Burmese troops trying to crush the long time Karen oppositon.

Attacks, escapes through the jungle, crossing into Thailand, life in a refugee camp, returning to another village in Burma, another attack and it all starts all over again.

Throughout this, Zoya had some advantages. Her parents were bright, strong, principled. Her intelligence was superior allowing her to excel in the makeshift schools she attended (although I must say that, based on her friends, the Karens have inellignce and intellect that can compare with anyone). She was also very adventurous and in some ways fearless.

Winning a scholarship in a program funded by George Soros, she was able to leave her Thai refugee camp (in Thailand, but as she describes it, reluctantly permitted by the Thais) and enter a university program in Bangkok, and then a graduate program in England. In fact, even those these scholarships were hard to get, Phan’s brother and sister were all winners. Her sister is also an activist in London and her brother a student in Canada.

While studying in England, she attended a rally in front of the Brmese embassy and was interviewed by a television reporter, bringing her to the attention of others. Soon,she was not only active in Burmese opposition movement, but a spokesperson, following I her father’s footsteps.

Reading this book gives you a beautiful picture of Karen village life, an appreciation of the dangers and violence the Karen people have been dealing with, life in refugee camps and so much more that you would not normally ab able to learn so much about.

The book does not end on a hopeful note (it was published in 2009), but you are convinced the fight must and will go on. How Phan’s movement is reacting to current events, I do not know. But would like to.

This book, which has been well reviewed, is highly recommended.


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