BURMA’S FORGOTTEN WAR
Refugees, Orphans, Assassinations, and Nuclear Ambitions
For decades the Burmese dictatorship, ironically called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has been carrying out scorched earth policies that have seen Karen and other ethnic minority villages burned to the ground and the rape and murder of their civilian population.
This ethnic cleansing inflicted upon its tribal populations has crowned Burma one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Today up to a million people are internally displaced in Burma itself, with several hundred thousand refugees scattered on the Thai border.
The Karen National Union (KNU), the largest Karen organization, has only 8,000 troops and 2,000 militia to fend off the brutal SPDC army that fields some 200,000 soldiers. In truly a David and Goliath struggle, the KNU’s armed forces, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), have gallantly staved off defeat for 60 years with little or no outside support. The SPDC, with its numerical advantage and weaponry from China, Russia and North Korea, has ensured a never-ending war against the Karen. To make matters worse, the SPDC has manipulated a Buddhist Karen faction to attack their own, pitting Karens against each other in a civil war within a civil war.
In January 2009 I traveled to the region with an associate who had been involved in humanitarian work with the Karen for the past 30 years (he requested anonymity).
Mae La Refugee Camp – 33,000-Plus Refugees
We arrived by bus in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, described by locals as “little Burma,” hence the large number of ethnic Burmese in the region. It was a short drive north that we encountered Mae La refugee camp, which officially held some 33,000 refugees. The camp straddled the Moei River, and we drove past miles of barbed wire fences and Thai checkpoints. The Thais, in a politically sensitive move, have implemented a containment policy of sealing off the influx of refugees from Burma. A stone’s throw away on the opposite bank of Mae La was the disputed war zone, Myanmar or Burma to the SPDC, or “The Karen State” to the Karens.
Avoiding Thai security, we pulled off to the side of the road and walked amid the hundreds of crowded huts built on stilts with roofs of woven leaves and bamboo. While visibly poor and dependent on foreign aid, an orderly society had evolved in the camp. The alleyways were clean and market stalls traded in daily necessities. Shed-like classrooms schooled thousands of children.
Karens, a predominantly Christian people, passed us wearing crosses. It was Baptist missionaries over a hundred years ago who first introduced them to Christianity. We also saw a small Mosque and met Muslim Rohingyas. The Thai authorities spotted us chatting to refugees and a half dozen uniformed police promptly escorted us out of the camp, threatening us not to return.
60 Years of Struggle – Anniversary Celebrations
31 January, 1949, the Karens fought their first battle for independence.
We were told the SPDC would not be attacking the celebration. As we bundled out of our pickup we heard the patter of motors ferrying Karens by longboat across the river to Kawtoolei, the Karen word for their country. We boarded a longboat and on the other side approach - ed the checkpoint where KNLA soldiers, both male and female, stood guard. A Soviet Goryunov machine gun with belts of 7.62 mm bullets peered menacingly over sandbags.
By nightfall thousands of Karens had arrived at the jungle camp, while soldiers with squawking radios patrolled the perimeter armed with shoulder-fired antitank rocket launchers (RPGs) and automatic weapons. Most of the soldiers carried variants of the US M-16. Others carried older looking Soviet Bloc weapons captured from SPDC troops. In the morning hundreds of KNLA soldiers marched out of the mist toward the parade ground singing a Karen anthem.
One commander described how he had fought against the Burmese military for over forty years. He had been wounded several times and could remember British and Japanese soldiers occupying his country during WWII.
4,000 Trapped Refugees
Arrangements were made a few days later to smuggle me to a “restricted” refugee camp in the Karen State. These camps were politically sensitive as they had become a bottleneck of trapped refugees, with the SPDC on one side and the Thai Army on the other. We crossed the river in the dead of night by longboat and as we chugged along, I covered myself with a sarong as we passed a Thai Army outpost on the riverbank. Upon arrival in Karen State we were greeted by the camp’s leader. He told me his camp had over 4,000 refugees.
Hut after hut the stories were the same—of shootings, relatives tortured and killed, and villages burned. I was introduced to a woman who spoke English and she told me of rapes committed by the SPDC where Karen girls were abducted and murdered. She told me of one case she personally knew, where a young Karen girl was murdered by SPDC soldiers in 2003.
I met a legless landmine victim, a child with a bullet-riddled arm, a man blinded in one eye when his village was attacked. He also had several gunshot wounds in his shoulder and back. An old woman hobbled over to me and showed me a bullet wound in her thigh. She described how her village was destroyed by the SPDC a year ago in 2008. She couldn’t escape, and so they had shot her.
Of the 4,134 refugees in the camp, over 1,200 were children. The camp leader, who spoke excellent English, said they received only rice and salt from outside aid organizations. He described how the SPDC mined their villages and “burned every thing” so they could not return. The camp leader had been a soldier with the KNLA for 35 years and he laughed as he told me he was now “retired” from the army. At nightfall my guides took me downriver and we faded back into the Thai jungle.
The Assassination of Manh Sha by SPDC Agents
In Mae Sot, arrangements were made to meet with David Tharkabaw again. Our contacts warned that the SPDC had spies operating throughout the area and reminded us it that it was a year ago, on 14 February, 2008, that a top KNU leader had been assassinated right here in Mae Sot. Assassins had burst into the home of Manh Sha, a hardline SPDC opponent, and gunned him down in cold blood.
The murderers were never caught, but everyone we spoke to said the killers were SPDC proxies acting on orders from the Burmese regime. In 1994 the SPDC had in fact organized a breakaway faction of the KNU to defect. By exploiting religious sentiments, the SPDC convinced some Karen Buddhists to take up arms against the mainly Christian KNU. Thus the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) was born, willing to kill for the SPDC.
Manh Sha himself was a Buddhist who strongly supported the KNU; thus it was no surprise to see the SPDC’s ‘divide and conquer’ strategy behind his murder. Reports indicated the DKBA has around 2,000 soldiers with about 1000 or so civilians, while the KNU fielded some 8,000 troops and 2,000 militia and had wide support among the estimated 7 million strong Karen population. For what they lacked in arms and equipment, the KNU reportedly made up in spirit. Unlike the DKBA, KNLA soldiers received no pay and fought solely for the Karen cause. The
DKBA accepted money and the latest weapons from the SPDC and proved themselves willing to kill other Karen in both assassinations and military operations. Further, the DKBA has dabbled in the illicit drug trade and it is noted that the U.S. Congressional Research Service has identified the DKBA as having criminal networks involved in transnational crime. The KNU, on the other hand, has a large number of Christians in its ranks and avoids involvement in the illicit drug trade.
Inside Scoop—How the Racist Regime Perpetuates War
A car collected us and took us to an undisclosed location where David Tharkabaw greeted us warmly. “We only have 8,000 active soldiers and the SPDC has some 200,000 troops.” He also described how weapons from China and
Russia gave the SPDC an advantage, but stated clearly the Karen could not be defeated.
Tharkabaw was worried for the future and stated how some European countries were pushing the KNU into laying down arms and dealing with the SPDC. He cited how the Kachins in 1992 had similarly entered into a cease fire with the Burmese regime, encouraged by an internal nongovernmental organ ization and a “church-based organization.” The Burmese regime reneged on the agreement, however, and the Kachins have since lost almost all their lands and resources to the SPDC.
Indeed, it was in 1992 that Burmese General Ket Sein publicly declared “In 10 years all the Karen will be dead. If you want to see a Karen you will have to go to a museum in Rangoon.” A threat of genocide if I ever heard one, and Tharkabaw described how the SPDC retains a mafia-like control over the country’s business interests. Natural gas, mining, logging—all enterprises the SPDC controls at the expense of the ethnic minorities. Tharkabaw stated that all the ethnic minorities—the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Chin, Kachin, Mon, Wa—and the ethnic Burmese as well suffer under the SPDC.
Burma’s Nuclear Ambitions and Reports of CIA Drones
I tracked down a long time Burma activist in Thailand, Roland Watson of Dictatorwatch, who reported how he spoke to KNU soldiers who had intercepted SPDC communications describing attempts to shoot down unmanned drones. The drones, allegedly CIA-operated, were flying over Burmese military bases. Indeed, nukes in Burma were a real issue; the SPDC first announced that Russia was supplying them with a nuclear reactor in 2001. More recently there have been chilling allegations of SPDC collaboration with North Korea and Iran. Watson stated the drone reports were highly reliable and pointed out the U.S. State Department was currently overdue in publishing its mandatory report on Burma’s nuclear ambitions as required under U.S. legislation, “The JADE Act.”
An Abandoned Crisis and Forgotten War
The United Nations appears paralysed on the issue. In 2007, a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Burma’s human rights record was scuttled by Russia, China and South Africa, all regimes supporting the SPDC. On 19 February, 2009, the KNU issued a statement expressing disappointment with UN Special Envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, stating he had “sidelined” the ethnic minorities and had “failed to secure any tangible progress.”
During the month of March 2009, the KNU reported 107 military clashes between their troops and the SPDC. The SPDC incurred 77 KIA and 120 wounded. with only one KNLA soldier KIA and 5 others wounded. The kill ratio was 1 to 77 in favour of the Karen. Every year the SPDC launches another dry season offensive, bolstered by unlimited draftees conscripted from their repressed population. The KNU reports the SPDC inflates its actual troop strength and, while claiming 500,000 troops, in reality they have only half that number—some 200,000 troops. Further, the SPDC is plagued with poor morale and high desertion rates.
The war rumbles on, however, and it was in a school in Mae Sot that I met some 30 child orphans who, while cared for now, must have suffered terribly. I purposely wore dark glasses and with a mixture of grief and guilt I asked them the question. Some had lost their parents from Cyclone Nargis; others were abandoned in the course of war, and some had their parents killed by the SPDC. Two girls aged 8 or 10 years old told me how their parents had disappeared when the SPDC attacked their village.