Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Birds Inside a Cage: Metaphor for Karen Refugees

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Birds Inside a Cage: Metaphor for Karen Refugees

Article excerpt

This article explores the meanings and interpretations Karen refugees associate with the metaphor in which they describe themselves as 'birds inside a cage', including the notion of resiliency and healing. Historical information about Karen people is also imbedded in their discussion of the metaphor.

Karen refugees are birds inside a cage that get fed on a regular basis but are not able to fly. When the owner comes and opens the cage and lets them go, chances are that most of the birds cannot fly anymore because they did not have the opportunity to learn or practice how to fly for a very long time now. Many do not even know what it means to fly.' (Workshop participants, Mae La Camp, 02/09/2005).

The Karen Refugees

These are the words, translated into English, that Karen participants used to describe their situation during our discussions on the impact of war and displacement on their identity. They describe their being refugees as that of birds inside a cage.

Karen refugees are one of the ethnic groups in Burma, which constitutes 6.2% of its 47 million population (CIA World Factbook, 2007), together with the Burman (69%), Shan (8.5%), Rakhine (4.5%), Mon (2.4%), Chin (2.2%), Karrenni (0.4%) and many other ethnic minorities. Their displacement came as a result of the intensified efforts by the military rulers since the late 1980s. For many Karen refugees, Burma and not Myanmar is the name of their country. To call their country Myanmar gives legitimacy to the Burmese military regime which is responsible in changing not only the name of their country but also of other cities and public places. Sticking, therefore, to its former name is a form of protest for Karen people against the Burmese military regime. This also speaks to how Karen refugees view themselves in terms of their sense of collective identity in relation to the Burmese government.

In February and March 2005, I had the privilege to conduct two separate trauma healing workshops in Mae La Camp. It was during the second workshop that the metaphor of birds inside a cage was presented and discussed. There were a total of fifteen participants who joined the workshops. They work as community health workers, librarians, nursery and kindergarten school teachers, and housewives. Their work is being provided for by international non-government organizations working inside the refugee camp, providing relief assistance and humanitarian services. The average number of years spent by most participants as refugees is fourteen years.

According to the metaphor, the birds get fed on a regular basis without having any opportunity to fly. Now the birds wonder whether they still know how to fly when the time comes for the owner to open the cage and let the birds go, considering the fact that many birds have never learned nor have they practiced the skill of flying for a long time now. Some may not even have any idea as to what it means to fly.

Three Questions

The discussion in this article revolves around three fundamental questions. First, why did workshop participants use a metaphor in describing their being refugees? Second, what does the metaphor reveal about their being refugees living in a refugee camp? Third, how can a metaphor become a tool in accruing political attention on the part of governments and international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in terms of taking displaced people's needs, concerns and priorities into consideration? Before answering these questions, let me first discuss some views and dynamics of metaphor.

Meanings and Interpretations of the Metaphor

The birds in the metaphor refer to the Karen refugees themselves and their cage-the refugee camp. However, the metaphor involves more than the mere concepts of birds and the cage. Notice, for example, the way the metaphor constructs and articulates meaning - it is a living metaphor. …

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