Military Draft Spurs Asylum-seeking Surge

Irrawaddy news, 8th Feb 2011,

LONDON — Sitting at a makeshift computer desk made out of a dirty old table, Kyaw Htet cleans the blisters that litter his hands. He has just finished a grueling nine-hour shift in a warehouse in east London, and grunts as he takes off his worn-out trainers.

“When I decided to move to London, I never expected to end up like this,” says the 26-year-old lighting a cigarette, before checking his Facebook profile.

Three years ago, Kyaw Thet completed a business degree at a top university in Rangoon. After job-hunting for several months, he came to the conclusion, like many other Burmese graduates, that he would have to leave the country in order to find a suitable job.

“I found some job opportunities in Burma, but the salary wasn’t high enough,” he complains while sifting through his friend requests on Facebook.

“It doesn’t matter how hard you study, education is worthless in Burma—if you don’t have connections with the generals, you don’t make money,” he rasps.

Seeing no future for himself in Burma, Kyaw Htet applied to study business at a college in London. He hoped this would allow him to advance his education and secure a decent job.

“I’m lucky, my parents were just about able to afford to send me to the UK. There are millions of kids in Burma, stuck with no hope, no future,” he says, shaking his head in dismay.

Despite his gratitude for having the opportunity to come to the UK, he still feel frustrated and dejected.

He is now in his last year of college, but doesn’t see much hope of finding employment suitable to his education after he graduates.

“Many of my friends have invested time and money in education here, but find themselves working simple jobs,” he says, pointing to his friends sitting around the small room.

Still feeling the effects from the recession, many Burmese who have migrated to England seeking a better future have found it difficult to find work. Of all his friends who graduated in the last three years, Kyaw Htet notes only a handful are working in their desired professions.

Not only is Kyaw Htet concerned about future difficulties, but also like most Burmese abroad, he faces difficulties on a daily basis.

Notorious for its high prices, London has just got even worse. Recently the British coalition government, shared between the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats, hiked tax tax from 17.5 to 20 percent.

“It has always been expensive here, but now its got even worse. It’s not just us who feel it, but also English people too,” he says.

In order to study and survive the high cost of living, nearly all Burmese students living in England work full-time to bear the brunt of the expense. Kyaw Htet shares a room with three other students his age, an hour travel from his college, and another hour from the warehouse where he carts boxes.

To make matters worse, the Home Office in London has reduced the number of hours foreign students are permitted to work from 20 to 10 hours per week. “It makes it very difficult to earn enough to survive,” he groans.

Despite the setbacks along the road, all the Burmese students in this household are unanimous in the belief that they are far better off here than in Burma. This sentiment was further entrenched by the recent news that the regime will soon enact a military conscription law.

The law, dated Nov. 4, 2010, but still not made public, will require every male between the age of 18 and 45, and every woman between 18 and 35 to serve in the military for two years, which could be increased to five years in times of national emergencies.

News of the draft has traveled fast around the Burmese expat community in England, igniting fresh concerns about returning to their homeland.

“Before we were worried about the lack of democracy, the quality of life and getting a decent education in Burma,” says Kyaw Htet. “Now we have to worry about being sent to the front line to fight the regime’s battles against the ethnic freedom fighters.”

At present, Burmese government forces are engaged in fighting ethnic armies on all its frontiers. Repeatedly criticized by the ethnic nationalities for excluding them from the national process, and citing a lack of self-determination, many ethnic people in Burma see taking up arms as the only solution to their struggles.

Although the regime was able to sign numerous cease-fire agreements over the last two decades, there has been a massive breakdown in relations recently. Almost every cease-fire group has rejected the regime’s proposed border guard force.

A faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) has begun fighting with the regime, and reports have come in that the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) had in early February engaged in its first fight with the regime since 1997.

All this increases the youths’ concerns, and are setbacks to their dreams of returning to Burma one day.

“We were lucky to come here to study, we know that, but we all came with the intention of returning to Burma with our skills and savings to improve our country, and our families’ lives,” says Aung Khine, sitting around a table in The World’s End, a popular pub in north London.

“But we keep hearing these reports of fighting between the regime and the ethnic armies,” he says. “Now they say we will have to be in the military. Many of us don’t want to return to that.”

Since word of the compulsory draft was released, there has been a growing interest to apply for asylum in the UK among many young Burmese workers and students.

“Before the news, I was unsure about what to do,” says Aung Myat, looking out the window onto a busy London street, dulled by the gray sky typical of England.

“We’ve always been concerned about the lack of freedom we have in Burma, but there has been ways to work inside Burma as long you avoid politics,” he says.

“Now I know for sure I don’t want to go back to Burma. I don’t want to serve in the Burmese army and die in the jungle for that dictatorship,” he continues defiantly. “That’s why I will apply for asylum in the UK.”

Commenting on the issue, an officer from the UK’s Home Office told The Irrawaddy that they have seen an increase in asylum applications from Burmese youths.

“There hasn’t been a massive increase, but we are certainly seeing a gradual rise in asylum applications from the Burmese community,” he said. “Even before the news about the conscription law, many Burmese youths had been applying for asylum due the lack of political progress in Burma.”

Sitting opposite Aung Myat, a close friend of his who now goes by the English name Steven, was already granted asylum last year. He’s working at H & M clothes shop, and is barely given enough wages to survive, but asserts it is better than going back to Burma.

“In the UK, life is expensive, and we face problems finding work. But at least we are free,” says Steven. “If I returned to Burma, I would have been arrested for my video work criticizing the government, and my participation in protests outside the embassy here.

“There is no free speech, no opportunities for the young, and now they dare to say we have to go and fight in the army,” he scoffs.

Some Burma observers believe that the law will benefit Burmese society, saying that it will allow civilians to influence and therefore improve the military. Others have suggested it will allow educated youths to receive military training, and if the opportunity arises, fight against the Burmese army.

Steven, and his friends completely reject this notion.

“Do these people not watch the news?” shouts a member of the group who had until now remained silent.

“The SPDC doesn’t want to use us as soldiers,” he continues. “They would never dare give us guns, because they don’t trust us. They know we would use our military training against them. They just want to use us as porters, as human landmine sweepers. It’s just a law to legalize the use of forced labor.”

The Burmese regime is notorious for its use of porters. The Karen Human Rights Group has documented countless cases where villagers living in conflict zones across the country have been taken at gunpoint and forced to carry supplies for the Burmese army.

Recent fighting between the DKBA and the government troops has seen a surge of porters escaping from the fighting and seeking refuge in Thailand. One porter told The Irrawaddy he had been kidnapped while visiting Kyaik-hti-Yo pagoda with friends. He was then sent to the front line.

In previous years, porters have been taken from even further afield than the ethnic areas. The director of Free Burma Rangers told The Irrawaddy about a time they found a Kachin young man, dead, on the side of a trail in the jungle.

“He was still in his university clothes. It was clear they had just snatched him from Rangoon University and taken him to the jungle,” he said. “When he was no use to them anymore, they left him to die on the side of the road.

“The Burmese army needs to make up for its lack of morale and ideology—they need to force civilians to help because no one will help them voluntarily,” he added.

The threat of returning to Burma, only to be forced to be a porter has seriously unsettled the Burmese communities living abroad.

While many youths were already thinking of applying for asylum to avoid having to return to Burma’s oppression and economic woes, the recent news about conscription will only affirm their decision.

Add these disillusioned youths to the countless Burmese worldwide who have already given up hope of returning home, and it remains clear that Burma has lost and will continue to lose many of its best minds.

“Sadly, many of us will have to accept that we will never return home,” says Kyaw Htet as we finish the interview.

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