Rangoon Readies to Smash Dissent

Burmese junta plans offensive against ethnic insurgents entrenched on border with Thailand

SHELTERED in a dusty camp near this key Thai-Burmese checkpoint, Mon Sein is a refugee from Burma's tightening economic and military stranglehold. ``We left because of high prices and no work. We could not save and cover the cost of living,'' says the farmer as he packs up his family to search for work in Thailand.

``On the way here, an officer of the Burmese troops forced me with a knife to carry weapons, cartridges, and food. But I got no food,'' he says. ``After a few days, the Burmese soldiers let us go.''

Burma's political tumult is once again churning its volatile frontier with Thailand.

In its campaign to smash political dissent, the junta in Rangoon is widely believed to be readying a new offensive against long-time ethnic insurgents and its political foes entrenched on the rugged Thai border.

Militarily, this year's attack during the winter dry season could be more turbulent than ever, observers say. Already, hundreds of refugees are fleeing through the jungles and over the hills into Thailand, refugee officials add.

They are seeking safety from forced service as porters and mine sweepers for the mobilizing Burmese Army. The stream could become a flood amid expected heavy fighting by the Army, equipped with an huge arsenal of new arms.

Border's rich resources

The border also is highly charged politically and economically. The cash-strapped military regime, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, has mounted increasing pressure on the ethnic insurgents to wrest control of lucrative teak wood and fishing resources.

For years, the ethnic insurgents have funded their decades-old revolts by taxing the heavy cross-border trade and selling timber and fishing concessions to Thailand in exchange for refuge.

But Thai companies have also begun to work directly with Burmese officials to set up economic ties, despite traditional animosities. The Thai companies, many with military ties, play Rangoon against the ethnic minorities in the scramble to exploit resource-rich Burma.

With their importance to Bangkok waning, the ethnic rebels and Burmese political exiles, who have taken refuge since the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, find their welcome in Thailand cooling and the outlook for political change in Burma grim.

``All areas in Burma are being squeezed,'' says Naing Aung, a former student from Mandalay who lives in a border jungle camp. ``We're working within a short-term strategy, but we're prepared for the long-term.''

For more than four decades, Rangoon has been struggling to control its unruly hinterland and borders. Since independence from Britain in 1947, the Mons, Karens, Kachins, and an array of other ethnic minorities have been in revolt against the Burmese, who comprise three-fourths of the country's 40 million people.

Democracy suppressed

The confrontation took a new twist in 1988 when pro-democracy demonstrations swept the country and triggered a vicious Army suppression in which thousands of people died. Thousands of student activists fled to the Thai border, linking up with the minority groups and drawing them into the uprising.

This year, the border has become a haven for political leaders escaping the military clampdown following last May's national elections. In the poll, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won an upset victory and stunned the junta which is controlled by shadow strongman, U Ne Win.

But the military has refused to surrender power and retaliated with new sweeping oppression. Virtually all the NLD leaders, including the charismatic Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, are under arrest. This fall, the military quashed an uprising by militant activist monks in Mandalay, the spiritual center of Burma.

Last month, a handful of elected leaders made their way to the border and established a parallel government in Manerplaw, the Karen jungle base. Western diplomats in Bangkok said the move will hurt, not help, and draw new retribution from the Burmese military, heavily armed with new weapons from China, Yugoslavia, and Poland.

Officials also privately admit the Thai military, for years a solid ally, is split and unpredictable. In recent years, the Burmese Army used Thailand as a staging area for attacks on the ethnic groups.

Most prominent was the Mon defeat at Three Pagodas Pass in which, Mon officials say, Burmese troops attacked from Thailand and used the trucks of Thai logging companies.

``The Thais have been very successful in playing off the sides against each other,'' says a Western military analyst in Bangkok.

Still, along the border, bravado masks the air of uncertainty. Ethnic leaders expect the brunt of the Rangoon offensive to be against Manerplaw, the headquarters of the Karen and of the new interim government.

``This time the attack will be on a larger scale than in the past. They want to show the coalition government is not stronger,'' says Ne Htaw Mun, who is head of the Mon guerrilla Army. ``But we are also prepared for the coming of the Burmese Army and have joined hands with the democratic forces within Burma.''

But, of late, underlying tensions have flared anew. In November, militant Burmese students hijacked a Thai aircraft to Calcutta and stirred Thai anger.

As a result, Thai authorities are pressing ahead with plans to place dissident Burmese students in camps near the border. The students' military training camps, many run in conjunction with the ethnic armies, are being forced across the border by the Thai military, the students say.

The fallout from the hijacking also is affecting the ethnic groups which have assisted the students. Anticipating an influx of 5,000 new refugees during the expected offensive by the Burmese Army, the Mons want to establish three new refugee camps. There are currently about 9,000 Mon in five camps in Thailand. The Thai authorities, however, are insisting the camps and the refugees be limited to border areas.

``The ethnic groups have a commitment to their cause and to national unity among the oppressed people,'' says Naing Aung, who is now among 3,000 activists along the border. ``But they are also wondering what to do about the students.''

Disagreements also have arisen over the ethnic minorities long-standing policy of exploiting teak, fishing, and other resources to finance their insurgencies.

Critics say the policy is seriously depleting Burma's forest cover although ethnic officials defended their actions.

``If the Burmese regime stops cutting down the trees, then we will stop. We have to compete,'' says Chit Nyunt, who works in timber concessions for the Mon administration. ``If the natural resources in Burma are used up, this government can't last.''

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