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Long, quiet ethnic war in Burma

As the ruling junta talks with Suu Kyi, troops continue to attack ethnic groups.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2002



LER PER HER, BURMA

The day after Burma's military rulers released democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, they also ordered the destruction of Kho Kay village, say ethnic leaders. Soldiers from three different battalions descended on the ethnic Karen village on May 7 and gave the residents an ultimatum: Leave or be shot.

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Then the soldiers, eyewitnesses say, slaughtered the villagers' livestock and burned their 27 houses and 30 rice barns. The villagers got away with their lives, but not much else.

As Ms. Suu Kyi begins talks on political reform with the ruling generals in Rangoon, the capital, the continued attacks on Karen villages near Thailand's border put her release into perspective as a very small step in a country with perhaps the worst human-rights record in Asia. President George Bush on Friday renewed sanctions on Burma, citing the regime's repressive measures.

The sanctions make it illegal for US companies to invest in Burma (called Myanmar by the ruling junta), and they prevent aid institutions such as the World Bank from lending there.

In Burma's frontier provinces, there's an ongoing, lop-sided battle where government troops evict villagers and destroy property.

"I can't think of a month in the past few years where something like that hasn't happened,'' says Saw Bathin Sein, chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic party that supports Suu Kyi and has a 2,000-member guerrilla army.

This month, he says, seven Karen villages have been destroyed and 15 villagers killed. Human-rights workers, diplomats, and spokesmen for the Shan, Karenni, Lahu, and other ethnic groups in outer Burma report similar oppressive tactics by the ruling junta.

Burma has about a dozen ethnic insurgencies, though most are fighting for autonomy, not independence.

Travel to these areas is restricted. But a steady trickle of refugees to Thailand's border carry news. They say the secretive military government, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has been systematically displacing ethnic minorities. The government, however, says that national unity is its overriding concern, and says it is taking appropriate steps to hold the country together.

The junta, which took power in 1962, has made Burma one of the world's most closed societies: E-mail is illegal, and so is airing opinions about the government. More than 1,000 political prisoners are held captive. Yet more disturbing, say escaped ethnic members, are the millions of subsistence farmers forced to neglect their crops and act as porters for troops – one of the reasons that a third of Burmese children are malnourished. Sometimes villages are destroyed and their rice fields sown with landmines, forcing people to live in SPDC garrison towns, where they become a ready labor pool for the military.

The intent of the evictions is twofold: to punish villagers for antigovernment sympathy, and to create internal discord.

"Scorched-earth tactics to deny rebels access to support from the population remain widespread,'' says Chao Tzang Yangwhe, a former ethnic Shan rebel who is now a political scientist and democracy activist in Chiang Mai, Thailand. "They're creating poverty."

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