Refugee from Burma caught in Canadian immigration limbo

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On a Saturday night in November 2007, Ler Wah Lo Bo, a Karen refugee from Burma living in Toronto, received devastating news. Ler Wah's wife, her sister and her sister's 14-month-old baby had died in a car accident in North Carolina.

Five months earlier Ler Wah's wife, Pawleenar Wah, and their three children Ner Ta (Victor) Wah, Ner Soe (Vincent) Wah and Mae Kaba (Violet) Wah, arrived in the U.S. after living under a plastic tarp in a Thai refugee camp for 10 years.

Even after death, reunion denied

Ler Wah desperately wanted to be reunited with his distraught children and attend his wife's funeral but he couldn't because after being in Canada for more than six years, he still does not have permanent resident status.

He had tried in vain to sponsor his wife and children from the squalid Thai refugee camp and bring them to Canada. After waiting for more than five years, Ler Wah's wife decided to join her sister in the U.S. She was desperate, as during her last 18 months in the camp things had changed rapidly; most of Pawleenar's friends had already left for resettlement in third countries. With her support network greatly diminished she feared for her children's safety. She hoped that going to the U.S. to join her sister would be the fastest way to be reunited with her husband whom she hadn't seen since December 2001.

Ler Wah's inability to get status stems from Canadian government policy that continues to discriminate against refugees for their involvement in the resistance to the Burmese Armed forces war against its own people. Ler Wah was a member of the Karen National Union (KNU), Burma's largest and oldest ethnic opposition group. For decades the KNU has operated as the de facto government in large areas of eastern Burma.

Ler Wah served in the KNU for 16 years, first as a teacher and then as solider in the KNU's armed wing Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). In the mid 1990s Ler Wah left the KNU and helped set up refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border for the thousands displaced by decades of war. He then spent several years working along the Thai-Burma border for NGOs mapping and monitoring land mines.

After more than six years in Canada, Ler Wah is unable to get legal status because the Canadian government deems his involvement with the KNU and KNLA as unlawful. Under Canada's current refugee screening policy Nelson Mandela would also be denied status in Canada because the ANC, like the KNU, was a political organization with an armed wing. Were participants in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to apply for asylum in Canada today, they too could be denied asylum due to their equally "unlawful" resistance to Nazi slaughter.

Honourary citizenship for some: non status for others

Mandela, like Ler Wah's hero Aung San Suu Kyi, received Honorary Citizenship from the Canadian government. Sadly Canada refuses to extend the normal kind of citizenship to Ler Wah and others like him because, like Mandela, they resisted a brutal regime committed to repression, slavery and tyranny.

In Ottawa in November 2001, minutes after Mandela received his honorary citizenship, the rebel-turned-world statesman told reporters: "Where the oppressor tightens the screws of oppression and uses force to suppress the legitimate aspirations of the oppressed, the lesson of history throughout the world, right down the ages, is that the oppressed take up arms. Not because they become terrorists, but because their struggle is just. That was the nature of our struggle [against apartheid]. Any other struggle that follows that pattern is not a terrorist organization."

Over the last two years Canada has accepted more than 2000 Karen refugees from camps in Thailand. Ler Wa, however, remains separated from his children as a result of his involvement in the very organization that protected these refugees and thousands of others and facilitated their escape from a violent military dictatorship including those from the dominant Burman majority.

Burma: A land wracked by military dictatorship, civil war

Exiled activist Toe Kyi was a high school student in Burma's third largest city, Moulmein, when in August 1988 he took part in the massive anti-government demonstrations that swept Burma. Following the military's violent crackdown Toe Kyi and tens of thousands of students fled to rebel territory to avoid the Burmese military. According to Toe Kyi, "If I had stayed I would have been arrested or killed. The KNU helped me and thousands of others escape a violent military regime. I really appreciated the fact that they helped us even though we weren't Karen. Without their assistance many more students would have died."

Toe Kyi's comments serve not to glorify the KNU but to put into perspective the long and complicated history of Burma, a country wracked by 46 years of military dictatorship and an even longer civil war. A decade before Ler Wah joined the KNU in 1981, the KNU entered into an alliance with a guerrilla army run by Burma's deposed democratically elected Prime Minister, U Nu, and a group of his followers whose stated goal was to overthrow the military regime.

Ironically it was U Nu's government who greatly bolstered the KNU raison d'etre when in 1961 he had declared Buddhism Burma's official religion, infuriating Burma's substantial religious monitories including many Karen (roughly half of Burma's Karen population is Christian, as are a majority of the KNU leadership).

Democracy denied

Following the 1990 elections won overwhelmingly by Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party, the National League for Democracy, the military government refused to relinquish power. A group of elected opposition MPs led by Aung San Suu Kyi's cousin Dr. Sein Win fled to the KNU's rebel capital Manerplaw, where they formed a government-in-exile, which remained in KNU territory until shortly before Manerplaw fell to the Burmese military in January 1995.

The bloody crackdown by the Burmese military junta against peaceful monks demonstrating in Rangoon in September 2007 shocked and outraged the world. In rural Burma, where the majority live, the military's behavior is equally vicious if not worse but rarely does this ever make CNN. In the last year alone Burma's military has burned numerous Karen villages to the ground resulting in the displacement of thousands. The army continues to subject thousands of its rural citizens to forced labour and sexual violence.

In July 2008 during Ler Wah's most recent meeting with Immigration Canada officials he was repeatedly asked if he was a terrorist. As evidence the immigration official confronted Ler Wah with articles from the Burmese regime's official newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar (NLM), which accused the KNU of terrorism. The NLM is notorious for its bellicose support of the Burmese junta, declaring on a regular basis that there are no political prisoners in Burma and that all demonstrators are criminals.

Lest the NLM reader somehow forget that Burma is ruled by a military dictatorship, for the last 20 years every issue of the NLM has prominently displayed on the front page some variation of the stated goals of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (the name the junta has given itself). Chief among these Orwellian pronouncements is the "People's Desire," which according to the generals and their paper of record, is as follows: "Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views; oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation; oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State; and crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy."

If Canadian authorities continue relying on the NLM to determine Burmese "terrorists," then Suu Kyi could be barred entry to Canada, since the NLM frequently describes her as an inciter of terrorism and claims that the overseas wing of her political party is a terrorist organization.

According to exiled student activist and Canadian Friends of Burma executive director Tin Maung Htoo: "The only terrorists that I know of from Burma are the generals and their henchmen who continue to wage war against their fellow people. The idea that the KNU or the KNLA are terrorists is totally wrong. Terrorists do not harbour democratically elected MPs and protect them from military generals."

Tin Maung Htoo also vouches for Left Wah: "I know [him] personally and I consider him a principled, honest and truthful individual. He is held in high regard in the Burmese community in Canada, by both Karen and non-Karen alike, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim. We are lucky to have him in Canada, his deeply unfortunate predicament must be rectified as soon as possible."

Relegated to second class status in Canada

It is truly tragic that Ler Wah will never see his wife alive again. Canada's reluctance to grant Ler Wah status in Canada is a major impediment to him being permanently reunited with his children, and this only makes his pain worse.

Without normalized status in Canada, Ler Wah is relegated to the life of a second-class citizen, unable to travel, go to university and at the mercy of a temporary work permit that frequently expires and condemns him to menial labour.

The government of Canada must reconsider an ill-informed policy that punishes those who stood up to resist a brutal regime from murdering their fellow citizens.



Kevin McLeod is a member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Friends of Burma (CFOB). A shorter version of this article was previously used as a CFOB press release.

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