Burma's War Against the Karen
by Patrick Winn
www.globalpost.com/, June 20,
It is among the world's longest-running
civil wars, waged between Burmese forces and separatist guerillas
with strong ties to U.S. Christians.
Now Burma appears to be waging a last
stand against the Karen, an ethnic group of 7.5 million people
largely based in a hilly sliver of land bordering Thailand. Burmese
forces have launched a fresh mortar-shelling offensive in Karen
territory this month, sending an estimated 3,000-plus refugees
scrambling across the Thai border.
These attacks follow the widely publicized
imprisonment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy figurehead
supported by Western leaders. Burma's military junta, experts
say, are systematically crushing dissent to help rig next year's
highly anticipated national elections.
Many of the Karen villagers are fleeing
junta-allied forces that are dragging villagers into forced labor
or worse. The Burmese military has been repeatedly accused of
forcing conscripts to plod through paddies and detonate mines
with their own bodies.
"It's not clear where these refugees
will return," said Poe Shan, a coordinator with the Thailand-based
Karen Human Rights Group. "If they go back, they'll be used
as porters, forced laborers or mine-sweepers."
Karen highlanders have maintained ties
to Western Christians - notably American Baptists - since missionaries
arrived in the region in the 19th century. Christian foreigners
established a network of schools and churches, which eventually
helped coalesce various Karen tribes into a united struggle for
The Karen National Union, formed in 1947,
has since battled better-equipped Burmese soldiers with its ragtag
armed faction: the Karen National Liberation Army. Six decades
later, the conflict is ongoing. With the aid of Christian organizations,
many Karen have settled in the U.S., largely in the St. Paul,
The Karen hills even provided the setting
for 2008's "Rambo IV," which depicts Sylvester Stallone
as a wayward mercenary mowing down Burmese soldiers to defend
Karen villagers and stranded missionaries from Colorado. (Stallone
claimed to USA Today that, while filming on the Thai-Burma border,
Burmese forces fired shots in his direction.)
The Karen situation is also complicated
by infighting. In addition to uniformed Burmese soldiers, many
attacks against the Karen come from within. A splinter faction
of government-allied Karen militants - believed to accept junta
bribes of vehicles and weapons - routinely extort and attack their
fellow Karen. Called the "Democratic Karen Buddhist Army,"
they often fight as Burmese military proxies.
In statements through state-owned news
outlets, the Burmese junta said the recent "scuffles"
only amount to internal Karen strife. Echoing a familiar claim,
the junta insisted that outsiders have mischaracterized the fighting
and singled out the European Union, which has issued an anti-junta
The condemnation "obviously reflects
the total ignorance of the EU presidency on the true facts and
main causes of clashes," Burma's foreign ministry said in
the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper. (The junta renamed
the nation "Union of Myanmar" in 1989, though many foreign
nations refuse to recognize the name change.)
Burma is, in essence, a patchwork of varied
ethnic groups forcibly held together by a military government
since 1962. Under persecution, many have fled. An estimated 3.5
million people - roughly 7 percent of Burma's total population
- live in neighboring countries, according to Washington D.C.-based
Because Burma's various ethnicities are
indiscriminately killed, extorted or forced off land, the larger
ethnic groups maintain their own guerilla armies for protection.
With looming 2010 elections, which rulers
hope will lend the nation an air of legitimacy, the junta hopes
to co-opt separatist armies willing to sign ceasefire agreements
- and chase out groups that prove stubborn. The Karen National
Union, the junta said through state media, still refuses to "enter
the legal fold."
The latest attacks have crowded Karen-friendly
camps in Thailand. Many villagers fear the Democratic Karen Buddhist
Army will slip across the border - a narrow river - and attack
them in Thailand, according to the Karen Human Rights Group.
Thai army leaders have also complained
of the strain caused by the Karen influx. But with no longterm
right to remain in Thailand, and with war raging in their home
territory, many Karen are being rendered stateless. "The
Burmese coming into Thailand are seen by the army as a national
security threat," said Jackie Pollack, director of the Thailand-based
Migrant Assistance Program.
Extortion and attacks in Karen territory
began to intensify last year, according to the Karen Human Rights
Group. The group expects the Burmese military, allied with Democratic
Karen Buddhist Army, to ratchet up the war against Karen separatists
as elections draw nearer.
These attacks are not "isolated events,"
said Stephen Hull, a researcher with the rights group. "They
happen in a clear political context."