Child's view of Burma's civil war
Grenades. Parental loss. Conscription. Young brothers tell a harrowing tale of conflict - and escape.
MAE SOT, THAILAND
In a jungle encampment, 9-year-old Saw and his 12-year-old brother, Paw, were trained to kill. They learned to plant land mines, reload rifles, and carefully fill homemade grenades. The brothers were forced to fight alongside as many as 70,000 other children in Burma, the Southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar, which is thought to have one of the largest number of child soldiers in the world.Skip to next paragraph
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Last September, Saw and Paw managed to escape through the jungle to a temporary orphanage on the Thai side of the border. They live with hundreds of other children, orphans of the 50-plus years of civil war between the Burmese military government and an ethnic tribe of 5 million people called the Karen.
In the noisy orphanage, surrounded by rambling slums, children elbow around low wooden tables for lunch. Saw and Paw scoop handfuls of rice and cabbage into their mouths. Rarely smiling, they keep their heads low and move carefully among the throngs of kids scrambling to wash plates under a running tap.
The orphanage sits on the outskirts of the Thai border city Mae Sot. It is meant to house 80 children, but almost 300 live here, and more arrive at its rusted roadside gate each day.
The civil war in eastern Burma began in 1948 as a Karen war of independence. In 1988, after a violent pro-democracy uprising, thousands of students from across Burma joined the renowned Karen fighters in the hopes of taking down the Burmese regime. Now the Karen say they are fighting for "freedom and democracy," not just for their people, but for the whole of Burma.
But the struggle has devolved into a war of self-preservation for the Karen, fought guerrilla-style in the thick jungles. Every month reports trickle out of Burmese troops descending on tribal Karen villages. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Burmese soldiers burn down schools and churches, publicly rape women, and force men into wooden stocks or shoot them on sight. For years, children from the region have been fleeing east toward the relative safety of Thailand.
On the uneven wooden steps of the orphanage, Saw and Paw tell their story in Karen, interpreted by Kwa Lwinn, a teacher who fled from the Burmese army 10 years ago, when he was 14.
"We lived with our family - mother, father, and baby sister - in our village," Saw says. He is less guarded then his older brother and does most of the talking. "The soldiers came and started to attack. They burned our school, our rice barn, our church, and our house. Our baby sister died when they threw a mortar into our house." The homemade grenades of the Burmese army can destroy a bamboo hut like a sledge hammer on a teacup, leaving bits of bamboo embedded in the arms and legs of many orphans here. "The army shot at girls and women; we tried to run away, but they caught us."
As the boys talk, other children begin to crowd around, nodding and fidgeting.
Saw, Paw, and four other captured boys were led in chains to a Burmese army base camp. As they filed through the jungle in silence, they say two boys had to walk in front - as if they were human minesweepers. "At night we would sleep on the rocks.... There was always a soldier with a gun pointed at us," Saw says.
Burmese soldiers made them sing propaganda songs, taught them to use rifles, and forced them to assist on daily raids of Karen villages.
The civil war in eastern Burma is one of the longest running in the world. In colonial times, British rulers favored the Karen minority. Some British officers are said to have promised the Karen an independent state in exchange for their help in fighting the Japanese in World War II, historians say.
But in 1948, the British handed over power to the Burmans - longtime enemies of the Karen. Now, local humanitarian relief organizations say that every year between 3,000 and 10,000 Karen are killed in the fighting. The Karen do fight back, but their ragtag army of 7,000 is grossly underequipped compared with Burma's army, 350,000 strong.
Last year, the Karen National Union made a verbal cease-fire agreement with Burma's army. But human rights groups based in Mae Sot report that there have been more than 200 attacks on Karen villages in the past year.
Burma's army has battled other rebel groups as well, eventually reaching official cease-fire agreements with many of them. The government insists that the country must be united to prosper.