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Refugees warn of darker side of home

JIMMY ELLINGHAM
Last updated 12:06 24/11/2012
PN refugees

FREE SPEECH: Wah Gay Htoo Kyaw, Naomi Aye and Win Tun from Karen state in Myanmar, now living in Palmerston North, talk about recent political changes in the country. Photo: WARWICK SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

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Three Burmese refugees have welcomed Prime Minister John Key's visit to their home country, but caution against such occasions painting too rosy a picture of the situation there.

Democracy is only young and some military generals aren't keen on losing power.

The New Zealand prime minister is for the first time visiting the Asian nation and has announced a $7 million aid package to the country - $6m of which is for helping Myanmar's dairy industry.

Also announced was a reciprocal visit by Burmese president Thein Sein, a former general in a country ruled by the military.

Win Tun, 45, said he was happy to see aid given to Myanmar, so long as it was humanitarian assistance rather than money given straight to the government. He was also keen on seeing foreign investment if it didn't damage the environment.

Recently United States President Barack Obama visited the country and was given an enthusiastic welcome.

But Mr Tun, Wah Gay Htoo Kyaw, 21, and Naomi Aye, 23, all say democracy is only young and there are still troubles and restrictions on freedom. The three are among more than 100 Burmese refugees in Palmerston North and have lived in refugee camps over the border in Thailand.

Myanmar has more than 100 ethnic groups with their own languages and cultures.

Ms Kyaw and Ms Aye were from the Karen group, while Mr Tun was of mixed heritage.

"People want democracy," Mr Tun said.

All three hoped foreign visits would encourage that.

"The people want it to change the way the military treats us," Ms Kyaw said.

"When a leader from a big country comes into Burma, people will think they can rely on them," Mr Tun said.

Some small steps have been made though, including the release of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi from two decades of house arrest.

But, Mr Tun said, some of the powerful military generals did not want democracy.

When Ms Aye arrived in New Zealand she noticed how different the country was. "You can do anything freely," she said.

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- Manawatu Standard

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