KAWTHOOLEI, Myanmar — From a distance, the jungle looks peaceful. Dense, green growth covers hills that march endlessly onward. Primitive villages emerge in simple clearings: wood and bamboo buildings, covered by thatched roofs, sitting on stilts and open to rain, animals and mosquitoes.
War is everywhere. Two million ethnic minorities have been displaced by 50 years of conflict: Of these, 243 lived in Law Thi Hta, located just across the Moi River from Mae Sot, Thailand.
War consumes their lives. One 22-year-old told me he had been fighting “for many years,” perhaps 10. But Gen. Bo Mya, who also serves as vice president of the Karen National Union, joined the Karen revolution when it started in 1949.
Gen. Ne Win seized power in Burma, now Myanmar, is 1962. Mass democracy protests in 1988 were crushed with martial law. The ruling junta foolishly called elections two years later, which were won by the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. The self-styled State Peace and Development Council annulled the election, put Suu Kyi under house arrest and arrested many of her followers.
Although international attention has focused on Suu Kyi, the more serious threat to the ruling junta comes from the Karen and other ethnic groups, which have been fighting for autonomy since independence. During the last decade several of them have come to terms with Yangon. But the Karen and several other ethnic groups fight on.
In response, the SPDC has expanded its military to some 400,000. Two years ago, 13-year-old Yei Shweh took a bus to Yangon to see the big city: He was seized by the army when he arrived. Yei Shweh, who defected to the Karen National Liberation Army, says most Myanmar soldiers like the democracy movement, but brutality and fear keep them in the ranks.
Yangon maintains numerous bases in eastern Myanmar and periodically strikes at villages suspected of harboring rebels. Refugees report frequent atrocities, stories confirmed by Yei Shweh and other defectors.
As a result, the Karen fight desperately. The battle remains sadly uneven, however. The KNLA fields 4,000 to 5,000 rag-tag, ill-equipped guerrillas.
The KNLA usually inflict far more casualties than they suffer — they claim a 20-to-1 kill ratio. But they can rarely stop a determined SPDC offensive. The Karen lost their capital of Manerplaw four years ago and are increasingly pressed against the Thai border.
The dry season is known as the “killing season” because steep jungle trails dry out and rushing streams run low. Military action typically ends at midyear, but SPDC troops arrived at Law Thi Hta before the rain. Just six weeks after my visit earlier this year, government forces advanced, burning the village, including a small hospital constructed by Christian Freedom International, a U.S.-based relief group. A second clinic to the north, along with an entire refugee camp housing 4,000 people, was also destroyed. “This happens every year,” observes CFI head Jim Jacobson, but this is “one of the worst years.”
KNLA Gen. Saw Htey Maung offers a positive spin: Since the Karen rely on “guerrilla tactics, hit-and-run,” it looks “to the outside world that we are losing. But every month we can see that the SPDC’s casualties are greater.”
In fact, the Myanmar government’s victories are usually costly and often temporary. The SPDC cannot garrison the rugged and isolated jungles. But it doesn’t have to. All it has to do is terrorize and displace the Karen. As Htey acknowledges, “the SPDC try to fight the grassroots, our backbone, the villages,” so the people “don’t have the morale to support us with food or anything else.”
The plight of the Karen is only likely to worsen. Thailand recently announced that with the help of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees it hopes to move 100,000 refugees back into Myanmar within three years.
Yet fighting continues. KNU President Saw Ba Thin says that “only a political settlement can make peace last.” Karen representatives have met with the central government several times, most recently in 1996, with no success. There is no evidence that the SPDC is prepared to end its murderous depredations, let alone offer the autonomy for which the Karen have been fighting for half a century.
Which leaves the Karen (along with Suu Kyi) hoping for outside support. But what can be done about a repressive and isolated regime like the SPDC? It is supported by China, which covets naval access to Myanmar’s long coastline and began arming and financing Yangon in 1990. U.S. and European Union sanctions inconvenience the SPDC, but have not shaken its hold on power. Unfortunately, though, warns Robert Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations, as a result of sanctions Yangon “has drifted toward Beijing.” Economic restrictions also impoverish those who languish under SPDC jackboots.
KNU President Saw Ba Thin says that “we’d like to see the U.S. government increase pressure like trade sanctions and diplomatic sanctions, and other pressures.” But most countries believe sanctions have failed and are moving in the opposite direction. At meetings in Seoul earlier this year, Asian, European, and U.S. officials met to consider new approaches to Myanmar.
Some Karen pine for Western military intervention. Last year, a top KNU official told U.S. journalist Rich Miniter, “Do like you did in Kosovo.” Saw Ba Thin concurs: “If the American government could do it, it would be helpful.” However, America’s interest in the Karen’s struggle is humanitarian, not strategic.
A better alternative to current policy is probably a mix of diplomatic pressure, which can most effectively be applied by Japan, India and the ASEAN states, and economic engagement, primarily by private individuals and organizations. Over time, broader contact with the West might strengthen internal democratic forces. But this will be an uncertain and long-term process at best.
The West’s most important role may be to help the Karen and other ethnic peoples cope with SPDC brutality. That largely means private assistance, such as that provided by CFI, since neither the United Nations nor Western governments will work in Myanmar against Yangon’s express wishes.
Scores of wars dot the globe. Occasionally one captures newspaper headlines — Kosovo last year, for instance. Most languish in obscurity, like Myanmar.
“Remember the Karen people. Don’t abandon us like the British did,” Saw Ba Thin pleads. But most of the world doesn’t know enough about the Karen to abandon them. The Karen’s only hope seems to lie in groups like CFI, which are helping oppressed peoples survive until the so far elusive political solution is found.
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