Last stand for Burma's democracy movement?

Daniel Pye
16 March 2009

In a small Karen National Union (KNU)-controlled village in eastern Burma children play tag and clutch pieces of string tied to oversized flying beetles. Here, at least, a semblance of normality remains. But the Tatmadaw - the Burmese military - are camped just 20km away.

Daniel Pye is a freelance journalist and activist. Pye is Assistant Chairman of the Survivor Media Group based in Sheffield, and edits the Survivor newspaper - a title largely produced and written by refugees and asylum seekers in Leeds and Sheffield.

The village is preparing for Karen Martyrs Day, a day of remembrance for those who gave their lives in pursuit of the independence promised by the British in 1948. The Karen have been fighting the central Burmese government ever since, in the world's longest ongoing civil war.

A Thai, sympathetic to the Karen's plight, shows me three schools and a medical clinic he built."But most of the teachers, nurses and doctors go to Thailand" he says. The young cadets in the village square are practicing for the coming ceremony. That was six months ago.

Despite torrential rain, in late June 2008 the battle for control of the region escalated. A new offensive is underway today.  ‘Four cuts', the policy of the military junta, or State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is intended to deprive the democratic opposition of food, funds, recruits and information. It operates by systematic intimidation and repression of the civilian population.

It aims to force villagers into sites controlled by the army, where they are forced to build roads to link up military installations, then ‘reintroduced' into what the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) calls "forced labour villages". These labour camps are kept well away from tourists' cameras.

Surviving soldiers of the guerrilla campaign that helped defeat the Japanese Empire in Burma now struggle to nourish their bodies on hand-outs in ‘temporary refugee camps' near the border in Thailand. These camps house some 160,000 ‘displaced persons' from Burma. Most have fled the violence in the east of the country. Others live a marginal existence in frontier towns like Mae Sot, three kilometres from the border, where trafficking in drugs, gems, guns and people is the norm. They are dispossessed and largely forgotten.

When the Burmese generals refused to recognize the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in the elections of 1990, the elected government and their supporters were forced to flee the central plains and seek refuge in the mountainous jungles along the border with Thailand.

Burmese resistance fighters joined ethnic-minority guerillas in the stronghold of Manerplaw, after being pursued into the mountains. Manerplaw - the planned capital of a future Karen state - was overrun by the Tatmadaw in 1995 after a lengthy siege that cost hundreds of lives.

Armed with billions of dollars of Chinese military hardware over recent years, the Burmese army has no constituency within Burmese society. Mid to high-level officers see it as one of few real career opportunities and use their positions to enrich themselves. Soldiers are conscripted through forced lotteries or are rounded up in markets and schools. Most recruits are young boys.

Many Karen were converted to Christianity in the nineteenth century by Jesuit missionaries. But there are still a large number of Buddhist-animists. The late General Bo Mya of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), who led the resistance fighters, described how the junta used an agent called U Thuzana to fracture their forces.

The junta sent U Thuzana into Manerplaw to preach his path to nirvana to the Buddhists, according to the general. He gained a devout following and suggested building monasteries on the mountain-tops that surround Manerplaw on three sides. Construction began without consulting Bo Mya. When he learned they would obstruct his soldiers' positions he had the half-built structures destroyed.  This was used as a pretext to divide the Karen, and depicted as deliberate religious persecution.

It worked. Some of the Buddhists made a pact to guide Tatmadaw soldiers through the minefield covering the only land route in. These soldiers became the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a slave militia in the pay of the junta.

Today's crisis

Over the past seven months DKBA and SPDC patrols have repeatedly breached Thai sovereignty in their war against the Karen, Shan and Karenni rebels. They terrorise local Thais they suspect of harbouring sympathies.

The SPDC's latest offensives, which began in Karen State but have now pushed into Shan and Karenni States, are part of an outright bid to force armed insurgencies into submission before the 2010 elections. According to Daniel Pedersen, author of Secret Genocide, Burman dissidents in Mae Sot agreed, saying the SPDC would pressure insurgents weakened by the current extreme military offensives to sign ceasefire deals before next year's poll. The loss of a base camp garrisoned by the 103 Special Batallion means that "only Wah Lay Kee, further north, remains," Pedersen testifies. Wah Lay Kee has seen serious bouts of fighting since it was attacked on the evening of June 29, 2008, and could fall at any time.

This war is as much about money as it is about crushing dissent and armed resistance. The area of conflict, between the Phop Phra region in the north, and Umphang to the south, has sizeable deposits of gold, tin, zinc, and antimony, and has long been deforested on both sides of the border for its fine teak.

Deforested areas now provide a lucrative farming income to whoever can occupy them. Defeating the KNLA here could open up new trade and smuggling routes, and increase security for lucrative mining and damming projects already agreed with Thailand and private financiers.

Thailand's foreign ministry portrays the current escalation in violence as in-fighting between Karen factions and denies SPDC involvement. It is in their interests to maintain a semi-cordial relationship with the generals.

Speaking in August last year at a KNLA base camp destroyed in the ongoing offensive, Colonel Nerdah Mya, Bo Mya's son said: "We cannot run away from this. We must confront it, for our families, for our homes. We must continue the struggle."

The human cost

Over the past few months, lawyers, artists, monks, journalists, students and human rights activists have been given sentences of up to 65 years for "threatening the stability of the government". Writing a poem or drawing a cartoon critical of the regime is punishable by decades of forced labour and incarceration at the aptly named Insein (pronounced Insane) Prison. 

The Karen Human Rights Group estimates between two and four million people are displaced within Burma, and a further one million eek out a meagre existence in the illegal labour market in Thailand. Mae Sot has over 40000 registered migrant workers. The true figure, including those who do not register, may be four times larger. They produce clothing and other products to supply global high street brands, for which they are paid a pittance. Thailand calls this an ‘export processing zone'.

Burmese living in Mae Sot are routinely arrested by the Thai police and driven to the ‘Friendship Bridge' that spans the Moei River on the Thai-Burma border. There they are handed to the Tatmadaw and taken to the SPDC stronghold of Myawaddy, where they face years of forced labour, destitution and torture.

Women are brutalised in brothels, many run by trafficking gangs with ties to the local police force, spies, and drug cartels. Sexually transmitted infection makes this a death sentence. Some prefer suicide.

Men fare little better. Zin, aged 17, spent two years in prison. The favourite torture of his SPDC ‘interrogators' was to strip him naked, beat him and make him stand on tip-toes and simulate riding a moped while they drank whisky and burned his genitals for  hours at a time.

"We have a saying in Burma," says Ken, a Burmese student living in Mae Sot, "Behind the smile there are many tears, but behind the tears there are many more smiles." Although he hasn't got long to live he dreams of studying computer science, hacking into US Defence Department servers and "stealing the Roswell spaceship" to force world leaders to listen.

"But one day I will go home," he says.

Note: Some names are changed to protect identities.


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