MAE SOT, Thailand — Theirs is the longest-running insurgency in Asia, against a regime widely recognized as one of the world’s most repressive. And yet the Karen National Union, which launched a guerrilla war in 1949 to secure a homeland for the Karen ethnic minority in eastern Myanmar, is anything but a household name.
The KNU, which seeks an autonomous Karen state within a new Myanmarese federation, needs the world’s help to resolve its conflict with the military junta in Yangon, said Mahn Sha Lah Phan, general secretary of the KNU, in an interview in the Thai border town of Mae Sot.
Mahn Sha said intense international pressure could force Myanmar’s ruling military junta to enter into meaningful dialogue with the KNU. “If there is concerted pressure from the international community as well as domestic pressure, there is the probability that they [the junta] would accept dialogue,” he said.
The KNU general secretary emphasized the need for tough trade sanctions against Myanmar, as well as a strict arms embargo.
Mahn Sha called on international nongovernmental organizations to denounce countries such as Japan that provide economic assistance to Yangon, and said that Western oil companies that have invested in a natural-gas pipeline running through eastern Myanmar “have been hurting the Karen population to a very serious extent.”
NGOs should “single out countries like Japan and denounce them,” Mahn Sha said.
Japan has broken ranks with Western nations and formulated a policy of “constructive engagement” with Yangon. Tay Tay, secretary of the Karen Refugee Committee, said “constructive engagement will mean giving money, and that money will go to the military.”
Mahn Sha said oil firms that have invested in a $200 million natural-gas pipeline were partly responsible for human-rights abuses against Karens. The pipeline to supply natural gas to Thailand runs through Karen homelands.
During the construction of the pipeline in the early 1990s, Mahn Sha said, numerous Karen villages were forcibly relocated, and Karen villagers were conscripted as construction workers for the project. He said the three major foreign investors in the pipeline — the United States’ Unocal, France’s TotalFinaElf and Britain’s Premier — were complicit in human-rights violations that included forced labor, executions, rape and arbitrary arrests.
The British government last month urged Premier to withdraw from Myanmar because of the military junta’s human-rights record. Premier has said that it has no intentions of pulling out of the $200 million gas project.
In the U.S., 15 plaintiffs representing thousands of Karen refugees have filed lawsuits against Unocal, charging that the California-based oil firm was complicit in human-rights abuses by the Myanmarese military. Unocal denies the plaintiffs’ allegations.
A U.S. federal judge in Los Angeles will hear arguments on May 22 to decide whether the suits — which are the first to ever name a U.S. corporation as a human rights violator — can go to trial.
By some estimates, more than 30,000 Karen civilians have died as a result of Myanmarese military actions in the past decade. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s Karens — who number about 7 million — remain displaced by fighting. According to the KRC, more than 90,000 Karens have taken refuge in Thailand. It is believed that another 300,000 Karens are internally displaced.
Mahn Sha said the Myanmarese were practicing “ethnic cleansing” against the Karens, and compared the situation in Myanmar to Bosnia. The KRC’s Tay Tay drew similar analogies, saying: “When we told our people about Bosnia and Kosovo, they said, ‘Oh, we have gone through that.’ “
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook condemned Yangon’s treatment of Karens last month during a visit to a refugee camp in Thailand. “I have heard enough and I have seen enough to know that the people that are here only came here because they were fleeing from brutality, from military action,” he said.
The Myanmarese government has reached ceasefire agreements with all of the country’s other ethnic insurgencies in recent years, but the KNU finds fault with the deals Yangon has made with the rebel groups.
“The Shan, the Mon, the Karenni — a number have reached ceasefire agreements, but they are still no nearer to any negotiated settlement of problems” facing Myanmar’s ethnic groups, Mahn Sha said.
The KNU started dialogue with the ruling State Peace and Development Council earlier this year, but fresh fighting between the insurgents and government troops last month sent thousands of Karen civilians fleeing into Thailand and led the KNU to break off talks.
The Karen insurgents envisage establishing a Karen state with its own legislature and governor, along with its own system of taxation. The rebels also demand control over natural resources in Karen territory.
The KNU’s forces have decreased markedly since 1995, when its headquarters in Manerplaw was overrun by Myanmarese forces. Mahn Sha said that rebel troops now number about 10,000 and that they still control key stretches of Myanmar along the Thai-Myanmarese border.
A small splinter Karen rebel group calling itself God’s Army gained notoriety in January for its alleged involvement in the takeover of a hospital in the Thai town of Ratchaburi. The group is led by twin boys whom the fighters believe possess supernatural powers.
Although the Karens have suffered greatly during the war, “resistance is better than submission to total domination by the Myanmar chauvinists, because they have a policy to destroy the Karen as a people,” Mahn Sha said.
The rebels’ general secretary said the KNU would not accept Yangon’s demand that the insurgents renounce armed resistance as a precondition for any peace agreement.
Mahn Sha said the junta leaders “are the ones who have to renounce armed force. They have seized power relying on armed force and they have ruled the country with arms.”
Harshly repressive military governments dominated by members of the majority Myanmarese ethnic group have held power in Myanmar since 1962, when a coup led by Gen. Ne Win ousted an elected civilian government.
Since 1988, when the military brutally crushed huge prodemocracy demonstrations, a military junta has ruled by decree. More than 1,300 political prisoners languish in Myanmarese jails, according to the U.S. State Department.
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