Daughters Rising is a human rights, non-profit organization that supports, educates, employs and empowers ethnic Karen women taking refuge from Burma in Thailand. Their sister company RISE is the eagerly anticipated ethnic and ethical handbags collection combining Italian leather and tribal textiles, hand made by Karen artisans in their villages.
In October 2015 I arrived at the Daughters Rising residence in Mae Wang to humbly volunteer my fashion expertise to aid the development of their promising new project. My aspirations were to learn from the inside out about Karen culture and to participate in the launch of a collaborative ethical handbags collection with an ethnic minority group. This has been the most profound and insightful experience of my adventures around Asia so far, leading to a change in my perspective and purpose for traveling in the future. In order to understand the ugency for such a project I will explain a brief history of the shocking situation that has hundreds of thousands of Karen people in this position.
Disclaimer: Before I start explaining and sharing my experiences of the past week I want you to understand that I am in no way an expert about the political actions and human rights concerns that surround the situation in Burma. All of the information contained in this post I have educated myself about in the last week via personal discussions with team members at Daughters Rising, Karen refugees working at Chai Lai Orchid and surrounding villages and using the links and resources listed below. If you see anything incorrect please politely advise in the comments at the end of the post. Thank you.
200km away from the Daughter’s Rising residence is the border of Burma where approximately 140,000 ethnic minority Burmese refugees are living in makeshift villages. They fled their homes over 30 years ago when the Burmese authoritarian military Junta began state sponsored ethnic cleansing of minority people who did not consent to their vision for the future of Myanmar. Persecuted ethnicities include Shan, Mon, Karenni, Arkanese, Rohingya and Karen people who in 1948 when Burma became independent from the UK wanted the right to govern their own states. Initially the junta only attacked the armed minority defences and rebels but soon after they began repeated massacres of peaceful ethnic villages in rural areas, burning them to the ground and orchestrating heinous crimes against humanity.
Refugees have no ID card in the country they are occupying, under Thailand’s domestic law refugees are seen as visa overstayers and therefore criminals. It is also a criminal offence to shelter a Burmese refugee in your home. Refugee camps allow people to meagerly exist. Refugees are dependant on depleting international and outside aid as they are not allowed to work or leave the camp. After 30 years many residents have only known the confides of their camps and very little else about the outside world.
“It is so strict to live here. There is nothing to do. I am not allowed to go outside the camp. There is no job, no work. So much stress and depression. I feel that I am going to go crazy here.” (Burmese refugee, Nu Po camp, Tak province, January 2012; Human Rights Watch, 2012e, p. 18)
Refugees are the easiest and most vulnerable targets to sex traffickers. Uneducated and desperate to support their families young girls are often lured away by the prospect of working in the city as a maid in a hotel or maybe behind a bar. They are tricked into believing they will gain an ID card, a place to live, minimum wages and new clothes. Grievously however once out of sight women are locked in room and beaten until they yield. They are told that if they try to escape and don’t prostitute themselves their family will be killed and their sisters will be joining them in the whore house.