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Cablegate: Even the Dead Are Oppressed

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. SUMMARY: The Burmese junta on November 1 ordered the
demolition of a large Christian cemetery in a Karen
neighborhood of Rangoon. Graves not exhumed by family
members of the deceased by December 2 will be bulldozed, as
the regime plans to build a condominium on the site. Emboff
witnessed the macabre scene of scores of families grimly
exhuming the bodies of loved ones during a visit to the
cemetery. END SUMMARY.

2. Sawbwagyigone cemetery, located in Insein
Township, is a large, 100-year old cemetery containing the
graves of over 5,000 people, mostly Karen and Shan
Christians. It is reportedly the largest Christian cemetery
within Rangoon's city limits. After the November 1 All
Souls Day ceremony, the community was told by the Yangon
Peace and Development Council about government plans to
build a condo on the site and the December 2 deadline for
removing the graves.

3. Emboff visited the cemetery with an FSN November 6.
Scores of families were busy breaking open the graves of
their relatives. A typical grave includes a two-foot high
brick and concrete structure over a coffin buried just below
ground level. Some people carried black garbage sacks to
gather remains from decomposed coffins. More recently
buried coffins were being taken away intact. Many Christian
ministers were there with distraught families to offer
prayers and solace. The FSN showed Emboff the graves of his
mother and sister and discussed his family's plans to dig up
and move their remains. A neighboring grave had already
been exhumed, but for some reason the bare skull was left
sitting on the remaining above-ground structure.

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4. Municipal authorities told families the government would
provide ground for re-burial in a distant, undeveloped area.
One family member said, "but what if they want to use that
land in five years; won't we just have to move the graves
again?" A Karen doctor has reportedly offered to buy the
cemetery land from the GOB to prevent a condo from being
built there, even though the cemetery must go. The
community backs this proposal, as the doctor would build a
Karen cultural center there that could honor the memories of
the twice departed.

5. Insein Township is populated largely by members of the
Karen ethnic minority. Emboff talked with an elderly Karen
women at the cemetery who said she was 9 years old during
the Karen uprising of 1949 and remembers government aircraft
bombing Insein - at that time a Karen rebel stronghold. She
said her 16 year old brother died fighting the Burmese
government in the revolt, another was still MIA, and that
her cousin had been captured and imprisoned for years. Many
cars and vans of families gathered for the exhumations
sported Karen flag bumper stickers or window decals.

6. The regime in 2000 ordered the obliteration of a Chinese
Buddhist cemetery three miles down the road. Today a still-
unfinished garish municipal hall occupies that site. Muslim
and other cemeteries within the city limits have suffered
similar fates.

7. COMMENT: The families exhuming the remains of their
loved ones were grim and forlorn, but Emboff heard no
rumblings of outrage or dissent. One wonders what it would
take for the downtrodden, docile citizenry of Burma to mount
even a symbolic protest. Perhaps the old woman, who lost
much of her family in 1949, feels she and her family have
already paid too high a price for acting on their political
convictions. End Comment.

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