In Burma, there are more than 135 distinct ethnic groups, each characterized by their own history, culture and language. The largest group is Burman, representing nearly 70% of the country’s 51 million people. The other major ethnic groups include the Arakan (Rakhine), Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan. The vast majority of refugees from Burma are ethnic people who have been displaced by civil war in the resource-rich ethnic areas.
Most of the visual stories in Forced to Flee were painted by youth in refugee camps and urban slums in countries bordering Burma, including Thailand, India and Bangladesh. Witnesses and survivors of injustice, the youth documented their memories, struggles and dreams. Representing Burma’s rich ethnic and religious diversity, they came to realize that genuine democracy not only beneﬁts from diverse perspectives; it depends upon them.
Initially, workshop participants questioned why anyone would care about their lives. However as they reflected on their journeys and committed their visions to paper, they began to discover strengths they had developed while overcoming the never-ending challenges of being refugees, including courage, resilience, ingenuity and perseverance. While straddling cultures, they had learned—out of necessity—how to bridge diverse ethnicities, languages, traditions, even identities. In the process, they discovered the power in their voices, voices that deserve – and need – to be heard to ensure that Burma’s peacebuilding efforts are inclusive.
Collectively, over 1,200 youth participated in the visual storytelling workshops. Youth representing Burma’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. Youth whose families had been uprooted from their ancestral lands and torn apart by outbreaks of violent conflict. Youth who had been conscripted into armies, trafficked, preyed on for sex, orphaned, persecuted, discriminated against, marginalized and, without exception, forced to flee.
Handed a piece of watercolor paper, a pencil and a box of watercolor crayons, the same youth rose up, eager to share their voices and visions, eager to be heard and—by the end of the workshop—eager to support Burma’s democracy movement.