Cover Story: Burma Save

Actor's greatest role is building democracy

Clayton C. Knight

Patrick Kearns has used Animal Farm in his work with Burmese refugees.

Aung San Suu Kyi is under arrest again. The Nobel Laureate and leader of Burma's National League for Democracy (NLD) was traveling in northern Burma May 30 when she was taken into custody following an attack on her motorcade by what the U.S. State Department has described as "government thugs." As many as 70 of her supporters are reported to have been killed in the clash and hundreds, including Suu Kyi herself, wounded.

But you knew that. You knew it because Suu Kyi's name is the recognizable stuff that headlines in the English-language press are made of. The story probably appeared briefly on your Web browser a few weeks ago.

You could be forgiven if you didn't know that the Burmese ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council — formerly known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council — has governed this way, through violence and oppression, since the early 1980s. Or that despite the visibility of the NLD, ordinary Burmese are almost universally voiceless.

Patrick Kearns of Landen knows. After a brief return home last month to visit his family, he returned to the Umphium Mai refugee camp, where he teaches English to young people from the Karen ethnic minority.

The United Nations runs the refugee camp, just over the border in Thailand.

Kearns admits he's come a long way since he was a theater major at Miami University. He worked at theaters in Florida and Oregon before accepting a job teaching English in South Korea, where he set up a school drama program and saved money.

"I had read about Burma, and I had a good friend who worked with refugees on the border, so it sounded like a great opportunity," Kearns says.

He traveled to Mae Sot, Thailand, where he worked with the NLD and continued teaching English. With a group of older students, he taught George Orwell's Animal Farm.

"They struggled," he says. "Some struggled a lot. By the end of the book, they all got it. We were able to talk about how it related to the Burmese government and their own lives."

During the past two decades, an estimated 100,000 Karen have poured into northwestern Thailand, fleeing Burmese government tactics of forced labor and relocation, sexual violence and widespread closing of schools. The condition of the Karen refugees is at best tenuous — "half-shakedown, half 'but we'll let you stay,' " as Kearns put it — because Thailand is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention.

To make matters worse, a lack of fluent English speakers ensures that their political situation is not widely known. In order for Karen leaders to address an international community, an educated younger generation is imperative.

Kearns and a friend, Brooke Treadwell, conceived the idea for the English Immersion Project. Initial funding was secured from World Education Inc., a Boston nonprofit consortium, to create a sustainable 10-month program to give young Karen refugees fluent translation and teaching skills.

"I didn't start out with a desire to be politically active," Kearns says. "I only wanted to teach and help for a while. But after getting to know these people, I realized the political nature of their lives. I was learning about the political situation while hearing stories from friends about the effect it had on their lives. After friends had told me their family members had been murdered, jailed, tortured, removed from their land, I couldn't pretend that I had done my part by teaching there for six months. I couldn't go back home yet."

Even before the recent setbacks to the possibility of a democratic Burma, overwhelming threats to the Karen people loomed. Conditions of extreme poverty drive thousands to work in Thailand to survive. Prostitution traffickers lure young women with promises of legitimate jobs, force them to work in Thailand's sex industry without protection or medical care and, once they're infected with HIV, return them to their home villages — where there is no health care.

The official 1.9 percent HIV rate was arrived at through negotiation. The Burmese junta maintains there is no problem; international health organizations generally agree the figure is actually much higher. Environmental devastation, such as illegal logging of teak forests and construction of a major oil pipeline in the southern Karen state, adds to the human cost.

"I can't forget the friends I've made there and the lessons that I've learned," Kearns says. "I figure my work is not over yet; there is more to do. The situation for the Burmese, the Karen and the other ethnic groups has not improved. In fact, it might be getting worse. I hope by reading (this) story that, in a small way, this can start to be counterbalanced."

Most people would consider his monthly salary to be a more like a stipend, roughly $80. Kearns dismissed the question, reflecting on "the courage of some of the young adults that come to Thailand in hope for a better life, leaving all that they have known behind."

"Many come across without their families, never knowing when or if they will be able to go back or to see their loved ones again," he says. "A former student of mine fled Burma in the middle of the night without telling his parents, worried that they would try to contact him and bring trouble onto themselves. He hasn't spoken to them since that night four years ago. I think it might be important for readers to know what these people sacrifice for freedom and justice."

Additional information about Burma and the Karen people is available at To donate to the English Immersion Program at the Umphium Mai Refugee Camp, send a check payable to World Education, Inc., to Sandy Chou, World Education, Inc., 44 Farnsworth St., Boston, MA 02210. Include a note designating the donation for the English Immersion Program on the Thai-Burma border.

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