10,000 a year killed in secret jungle war
Civilians singled out and ethnic hill tribes targeted by the state army along Asia’s forgotten frontier
From Nick Meo in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border
HUNDREDS OF miles from the drama and trauma of Rangoon in the jungle-covered hills along Burma's border with Thailand, the Burma army was killing civilians last week.
They have been doing so for decades in one of the most remote areas of Asia. Unseen in a frontier where foreigners are excluded, a vicious war has been fought with effects comparable to the humanitarian disaster of Darfur but far less well known.
Nearly all of the ethnic hill tribes who inhabit Burma's frontier areas have suffered appalling atrocities in offensives which have singled out civilians for attack with brutality only rarely used against the majority Burman population in Rangoon or Mandalay.
The origins of Burma's long, painful civil war are complex, fuelled by an attempted communist revolution, the drugs trade, and ethnic conflict between Burmans and the country's patchwork of minority groups.
But for decades Burma's dirty little wars have been kept going by the army's poisonous ideology and the generals' lucrative private business enterprises dealing in gems, teak and, according to their enemies, opium.
As the Burma army expanded during the 1990s to become the world's 15th biggest force, it squandered more than half of the national budget on defence and became increasingly well-armed. Thanks to Burma's friends in China, many insurgent groups were forced to submit to the rule of Burma's generals.
Those which won't lay down their arms in ceasefire agreements have been pushed out of territory they held during the 1990s, fighting on in obscure jungle guerrilla wars in which the Burma army - the Tatmadaw Kyi - rarely catches up with fighters and instead concentrates its attacks on civilians.
One group to hold out is the Karen, one of Burma's largest ethnic groups. The Karen are largely Christian, and fiercely supported British troops during the second world war, though that didn't prevent Britain from shoehorning the Karen in with the Burmans when independent Burma was founded. The Karen had expected independence as a reward for their loyalty, but instead were embroiled in a war which is now in its 57th year.
These days the Karen National Union (KNU) says they would settle for autonomy, but attacks on their villages continue.
Attacks were stepped up in 2005 when the generals shifted the capital from Rangoon, where they felt vulnerable to an increasingly angry population, to Nay Pyi Taw, a former logging town on the edge of Karen State.
The military ordered the clearing of civilians from a huge area surrounding the capital with characteristic brutality.
In May last year exhausted farmers clutching their children began staggering out of the jungle where they had fled when their homes were burned, fleeing towards the border with Thailand which they were not allowed to cross.
Practically overnight, on a slither of jungle land controlled by the KNU, they built a bamboo city, complete with clinic and school, and planted crops. The Karen are nothing if not survivors.
Accurate casualty figures are difficult to come by, but some estimates suggest that 10,000 people a year, mostly civilians, are killed and thousands more flee. Around 2500 villages have been destroyed and, during years of conflict, between one and two million people have been forced from their homes. It is not unusual to meet elderly Karen who have been forced to flee dozens of times during their lifetimes from their childhood to their old age.
Human Rights Watch estimated that the offensive, which began in 2006, forced 27,000 Karen from their homes.
The Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a brave group of mainly Karen medics who venture into the frontier war zones, have tried to catalogue the atrocities. They record cases such as that of Naw Eh Paw, a nine-year-old girl whose grandparents were murdered in an attack on their village. Naw Eh Paw was shot, but survived.
An FBR report on the army's strategy said: "It is generally slow and insidious strangulation of the population rather than an all-out effort to crush them."
The worst atrocities take place in the so-called black zones, free-fire areas where anyone who moves can be killed by Burma army soldiers. Populations are enslaved, forced to become porters, who are commonly worked to death, or even used as human minesweepers. Disturbing evidence has been gathered of mass rape being used by soldiers against ethnic women as a weapon of war.
Other groups such as the Karenni and the Shan have suffered as badly. All are watching keenly to see if an upheaval in far-off Rangoon will bring an end to their suffering.
"We are hopeful," said Saw La Henry, a Karen politician. "Perhaps after all this time our war is finally about to end."
Sunday, October 7
"... the Burma army ... rarely catches up with fighters and instead concentrates its attacks on civilians."