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New Burmese Refugee Group Finds a Home In Md. Suburbs

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 13, 2007

As the military rulers of Burma yesterday rejected international criticism of their brutal suppression of pro-democracy protesters last month, those who fled the repressive regime to come to the Washington region continued to fear for the safety of those left behind.

The government, which says 10 people were killed and nearly 2,1000 were arrested last month, said yesterday that it "deeply regrets" a U.N. Security Council statement deploring the crackdown and, in essence, urged outside critics to mind their own business. For refugees of Burma, which the ruling junta calls Myanmar, the recent government clampdown on information from their homeland cut them off from news that is very much their business.

San Mon, 28, one in a rapidly increasing number of ethnic Chin in the region, worried about his younger brother, a college student in Burma's major city, Rangoon.

"He wrote me an e-mail saying that he is joining the demonstrations," said San Mon, who recently arrived for resettlement in Howard County. "That was the last message I got from him."

Duh Tum, 43, a former gem miner, speculated that his relatives were probably being pressed into slave labor by military troops stationed near his village. "The army will be patrolling a lot more now. And that means that they are going to need a lot of porters," he said through a translator.

Both men's fears were based on personal experience: Spurred by similar, if less publicized, upswings of repression by Burma's military dictatorship, refugees such as San Mon and Duh Tum have been trickling into the Washington area for decades.

Compared with the hundreds of thousands of Burmese who have fled to refugee camps and cities in Thailand, India, Malaysia and Bangladesh, the population of roughly 30,000 who have reached U.S. shores in recent years remains small. But it has grown precipitously in the past year as ever-greater numbers of persecuted ethnic minorities such as the Karen, Shan and Chin have joined the ranks of the mostly urban, educated members of Burma's ethnic Burman majority who made up the earliest arrivals.

The Washington region, in particular, is emerging as a hub for ethnic Chin -- who speak their own languages, generally practice Christianity, and hail from remote, rural villages in western Burma that lack electricity and running water. Community leaders estimate that since 2000, the local Chin population has grown from about 100 to about 1,000, quickly outpacing the local Burman community. Ethnic Chin, who are concentrated in the Maryland suburbs, have already opened up five thriving churches in Gaithersburg, Silver Spring, Frederick and Rockville.

Several said their devotion to church was all the stronger because back in Burma, which is predominantly Buddhist, the ethnically Burman-dominated military junta often makes it difficult for Chin to practice their religion.

Cunglian Hup, 29, now a truck driver for Home Depot living in Elkridge, said that in 1999, authorities jailed him for nearly three months for hosting a party celebrating the 100th anniversary of the arrival of American Baptist missionaries in Burma. Others described how Burmese troops would routinely interrupt Sunday worship services to steal chickens or demand that villagers carry their gear on multi-day patrols through the area.

Duh Tum's wife, Zing Thai, 41, recalled a particularly grueling patrol during which she was forced to walk barefoot for hours in the dark through pouring rain and knee-deep mud.

"Our legs got covered in leeches, but the soldiers would not let us stop to peel them off," she said through a translator.

In response to such abuses, many developed sympathy for the Chin National Army, one of several ethnic guerrilla groups that have had on-again, off-again clashes with government troops. San Mon's father, a former police officer, rose to become second secretary of the CNA's political arm.

San Mon said that he himself never joined the guerrilla group or its political arm. But in 1995, after his father died of tuberculosis in the jungle area near the border with India, San Mon traveled there to pay his respects at the tomb. On his return, he was arrested and interrogated by government officials who stabbed him and beat him with their rifle butts, smashing his right hand so badly he still has limited use of it. After San Mon was released on bail, he went into hiding rather than face a trial. He escaped to Malaysia in 2004.

Zing Thai's brush with the CNA was even more casual, but the government repercussions were just as harsh: One night, she said, three members stopped by her wooden hut and asked to spend the night. The next morning, soldiers spotted the men leaving. The soldiers burned down the hut and beat her with their fists before taking her into custody.

Fellow villagers pooled their savings to raise a $100 bribe -- a substantial sum by local standards -- to get Zing Thai released. She fled immediately to Malaysia, living there for four years before five of her six children and her husband, who was working in another village at the time, were able to join her.

About 2000, the U.S. government, which had been admitting mostly Burman democracy activists, began a concerted effort to include refugees belonging to Burma's ethnic minorities. But progress was stalled after laws passed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks barred entry to anyone who had provided material support to an armed group -- even if the group, like the CNA, has not been designated a terrorist organization or if the support consisted of offering occasional shelter or food. In mid-2006, after several bureaucratic delays, the U.S. State Department began granting waivers to Burmese citizens who had supported ethnic militias, boosting the number of refugees admitted from about 1,600 in the 2006 fiscal year to 13,896 in fiscal 2007.

About four months ago, Duh Tum and Zing Thai learned that their family was approved for entry. They said they were thrilled.

Like other new arrivals, the couple have found themselves constantly turning to Chin who have been here longer for guidance and help.

Zo Hmung, who was among the first Chin to set roots in Washington, more than a decade ago, and now owns a three-bedroom house in Laurel, is hosting two families for free and building a basement apartment to accommodate a third. San Mon, who has been in the United States for a year but who has managed to save enough from his job at an Office Depot warehouse to buy a battered white Toyota Corolla, now spends nearly every minute of his free time shuttling fellow Chin on supermarket runs and other errands.

"The people here are so kind to us," Duh Tum said in an interview in the family's spare, two-bedroom apartment in Savage.

"Look at everything they have given us," said Zing Thai, pointing to her clothes, a television set, a metal dining table and chairs, and two cream-colored sofas donated by community groups and volunteers.

She herself sat on the floor. After a lifetime of living in one-room wooden huts, she said with a giggle, "I'm still getting used to the sofas."

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