Long, quiet ethnic war in Burma

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

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.

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."

Ler Per Her is a camp of simple bamboo huts for about 500 displaced Karens nestled amid the limestone hills inside Burma.

Moo Haw says she's been on the run for three years, since a detachment of 100 soldiers settled in Wah Mi Kla, her village.

She says the soldiers began taking livestock and rice and forcing the villagers to work as unpaid porters, carrying boxes of ammunition and food into the jungle, sometimes for days at a time. Weak or slow workers were beaten. "The worst was when they used the rifle butts on people,'' says the grandmother through teeth stained black from chewing betel nut, a stimulant.

In late 1999, the villagers were given a day's notice to evacuate to a "relocation center," an armed camp where villagers needed military approval to go out and work the fields.

"We had to get out," says Moo Haw. She fled with her family and neighbors, leaving everything behind. "We're still afraid, but I hope that they won't be able to come here again."

The villagers have learned going home is a mistake. Kle Po Khlo, a widow whose husband was killed by a landmine, says her uncle tried to return to gather coconuts from their village, which is only a day's walk away. He was shot out of a tree. "If they see us, they'll just shoot," she says.

Aid workers and activists estimate that more than 2 million Burmese have been displaced by such tactics and are hiding in the jungle inside Burma or living along the Thai border.

Last Wednesday, Karen rebels attacked a Burmese military post in Palhu, a short distance from the Thai border. After the rebels fled, the Burmese retaliated by lobbing five shells into a neighboring Thai village, since the Burmese sometimes accuse the Thais of providing tacit support to the Karen.

The Karen have been fighting central control since 1949, shortly after Burmese independence hero and Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, was gunned down by a rival general.

Karen leaders say they want a stake in a democratic, federal union of Burma led by Suu Kyi. "We support her, because we think we can trust her," says Saw Bathin Sein, who has opposed Burma's rulers since 1949. For now, he says the Karen feel they have little choice but to take up arms. The SPDC's use of forced labor and other atrocities make it "a matter of survival."

Suu Kyi, who is from the country's dominant Burman ethnic group, is aware of the stakes. Within hours of her release from house arrest, she met with ethnic political leaders in Rangoon and pledged to give them an equal seat at the table in talks with the military.

But the country's chances for true reconciliation are being undermined by the military's use of ethnic militias. "It's a classic strategy: Divide and rule,'' says Bathin Sein.

Since 1999, for example, 126,000 members of the Wa minority who traditionally live along the Chinese border have been forced to move south, into a mostly ethnic-Shan area along the Thai border, according to a recent report by the Lahu National Development Organization.

Mr. Chao and others say that might just be the point – to make the country so unstable military rule looks like the best option. "The SPDC are sowing a whirlwind," says Chao.

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