Burma's Karen revolt fueled by smuggling, but not of drugs

Gen. Bo Mya, commander of 6,000 soldiers fighting the Burmese government, chomped on some beetle nuts and spoke confidently of gaining independence from Rangoon. General Mya is the military leader of 2 million Karens, a mostly Christian ethnic minority that controls a large chunk of territory inside Burma along the Thailand border.

''We're going to beat them on the battlefield because God is on our side,'' he says.

While the possibility of their winning is remote, no one can say the Karens are not trying. They took up arms 35 years ago - when Britain turned down their petition for an autonomous state after granting Burma independence.

The Karens' reputation as shrewd soldiers led to early successes against the newly formed Burmese Army. But under Gen. Ne Win, Burma's current leader, the Burmans finally forced the Karens to retreat to their mountainous enclave, which they call Kawthoolei.

Several months ago, Burmese troops launched a surprise attack on the Karen stronghold of Mah Pokay. An outmanned Karen force, members of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), held off the Burmese, who after four days of fierce combat withdrew. KNLA officials said more than 200 Burmese were killed, while putting their own casualty figure at only 18.

The reason for the Burmese offensive, which was unusual during the monsoon season, was to knock out a Karen radio station, said KNLA officials. Although only a 10-kw. station, the officials claim their broadcasts can be heard in Bangkok and in Singapore.

The Karen revolt is led by more than just an army. Its elected Karen National Union (KNU) runs Kawthoolei as any government might. There are hospitals and schools, a police force and even a form of taxation, with the people usually paying with produce or handcrafted products such as cane baskets to meet their obligation.

Most of the KNU's income, however, comes from its mines and timber mills, which are scattered throughout resource-rich Kawthoolei, and from its 5 percent customs tax, which is levied on smugglers at a number of checkpoints along the border. With this booty the Karens purchase from Thai and Chinese merchants weapons for their war: M-16s, AK-47s, rocket launchers, and motors.

Unlike other ethnic armies nearby, the Karens refuse to get involved in the lucrative opium trade, a policy set down by General Mya. One KNLA soldier confided that this policy may change once the older leaders fade.

''We could buy much better weapons and become a stronger army,'' he said. But while General Mya is in charge, the Karens are certain to stay out of the drug business. Last year a Karen was executed by KNU police for opium dealing.

General Mya also is a staunch anticommunist, which explains why the KNU has refused to join hands with the Peking-backed Burma Communist Party (BCP), Rangoon's most powerful foe. A union between the Karens and the Communists could perhaps pose a serious threat to the Burmese government, as the Communists control a large part of northeast Burma, but Karen Prime Minister Saw Than Aung says that will never happen. ''Our ideologies are too different. They're involved in a class struggle while we're concerned with self-determination.''

Will the Karens have a better chance for success in the post-Ne Win era? ''It will be no different,'' says General Mya. ''General Win has supporters who follow his policies. They will take his place.''

When will it end, the general is asked. ''When we achieve our goal. That's when the battle will stop.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.