Pressure mounts on Burma's junta
A military offensive against the country's Karen minority has displaced 18,000 people this year.
RANGOON, BURMA (MYANMAR) — Leaning on a worn wooden crutch, Saw Pa Pwe, a short, muscular man, hobbles on one leg from his brother's exposed bamboo platform to the hut he now calls home. The makeshift shelter sits three feet from the ground on the low point of a wet hill where he and his wife, who sits silently in the stifling midmorning heat, are starting from scratch. She has not spoken since a landmine maimed her farmer husband as he walked to his fields in 2002.
They are now one of the many thousands of displaced villagers who spend their life on the run, choosing to wander relentlessly through the jungle rather than to live under the repression of the military regime ruling Burma (Myanmar).
"Living under their control means forced labor," says Saw Pa Pwe's sister-in-law, Naw Pi Htoo, who lost three of her seven children to disease. "They use the people to clear landmines and women and children to carry the military's supplies."
Their plight and that of millions of other Burmese is set to gain greater international attention after the United Nations Security Council last month voted to put Burma on its permanent agenda and officially discussed the issue for the first time – despite sharp objections from Russia and China. With a bilateral trade relationship worth around $1 billion, China is the largest trading partner of Burmese authorities.
The US and European Union have imposed various types of economic sanctions on the regime since 1996, in response to its unwillingness to hand over power to a democratic government.
In 1990, the regime had annulled the landslide election victory of the National League for Democracy and placed its leader, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 10 of the past 17 years.
Even foreign ministers from the normally deferential regional economic body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have issued harsh rebukes against the regime's foot-dragging on promised reforms.
But this is a regime notoriously unresponsive to outside pressure, and public rhetoric notwithstanding, certain signs point to it becoming more reclusive. Late last year, Burma's military junta moved its capital to a construction site in the jungle town of Naypyidaw, 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of the former capital Rangoon.
"It's bizarre," says a senior Western diplomat in Rangoon. "It wasn't designed to be a workable city. It was designed to isolate," says the diplomat. "They don't care what the world thinks of them."
The UN vote at the end of last monthcame as human rights advocates based along the border in Thailand say the current military offensive under way in eastern Burma against the Karen ethnic minority is the worst they have seen in 10 years, displacing about 18,000 people since the end of last year, according to the Thai Burma Border Consortium, an advocacy group based in Bangkok.
A report released earlier this month by the Back Pack Health Worker Team, a Burmese cross-border medical-relief group based in Thailand, painted a picture of a humanitarian crisis as bad as any in any African war zone.
The first broad-based public health study of its kind in eastern Burma, the report found that 12 percent of the population is diagnosed with malaria, the most common cause of death, and that more than 15 percent of children are malnourished. The report links high rates of death and disease to life under military rule, where forced labor and displacements are common.
Neighboring India and China have come in for sharp criticism over links to the Burmese regime, with the countries poised to benefit from natural-gas fields being developed off Burma's west coast.
The fields are being opened up by South Korea's Daewoo Corp., which could earn the regime between $12 billion and $17 billion over the next 20 years, according to the Thai NGO Shwe Gas Movement.
"Why do human rights abuses happen in Burma?" asked David Mathieson with New York based Human Rights Watch. "You just allowed business from three countries to finance repression in Burma for another 20 years."