Karen rebels under the gun along Thai-Burma border

180px-karen_national_union_flag1Sunday, 11 January 2009 12:49

Mae Sot (Mizzima) – Burma’s ethnic Karen rebels are facing another daunting challenge, as a Burmese military campaign designed to hunt out opposition forces and put an end to the world’s longest running civil war is intensifying along a sliver of land opposite northwest Thailand.

The Sixth Brigade of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed-wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), is presently engaged in a desperate battle for survival near Thailand’s mountainous Umphang region, south of the border town of Mae Sot.

Their base camp, which was a relatively new settlement once equipped with solar power, a medical clinic, potable water and fish holding tanks, has been razed to the ground by Burmese soldiers.

From a secret location on the Thai-Burma border, KNU Vice-Chairman David Thackerbaw said government soldiers were maintaining a “scorched earth policy” against not only the KNLA, but also Karen civilians.

The KNLA, waging the world’s longest running civil war, has been battling successive Burmese regimes over six decades in a bid to win self-determination.

While the KNLA steadfastly maintains it has avoided casualties during the Burmese Army’s latest offensive, its soldiers are now sleeping rough in dense jungle that provides a modicum of security under the cover of darkness. In the daytime they move.

Working alongside Burmese Army troops in the hunt for KNLA troops are soldiers from a splinter Karen faction, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). The Burmese Army and the DKBA, working in tandem, are reportedly using Thailand as a launching pad for attacks because the terrain is more navigable and void of the danger of landmines.

The DKBA was established in 1994 following the bloody fallout between rival KNU and KNLA leaders; Buddhist commanders said to have upset over the perceived dominance of leadership roles doled out to Christians within the organization.

On the evening of Saturday January 3, 2009, the latest offensive by the Burmese Army and DKBA – reportedly consisting of more than 200 men – wrested control of the rebel base camp from the KNLA, who found themselves hopelessly outnumbered and forced to withdraw.

The camp had provided the only medical facility for more than 800 villagers clustered in two nearby settlements.

Also as a result of the latest offensive, more than 300 people, their homes reduced to ashes, are now purportedly huddled under makeshift shelters, protected from marauding Burmese Army and DKBA troops by Thai soldiers.

On Sunday and Monday of the previous week, low-flying Thai military helicopters plied the skies between Mae Sot and the Umphang region, delivering reinforcements and materials to both border forces and the latest batch of refugees to flee the contested region.

In a nervy interview in Mae Sot last Tuesday night, the KNLA’s Colonel Nerdah Mya said his base camp was in cinders and that he was heading back into this war’s newest theatre on Wednesday in a bid to “put everything back together again.”

“We have to find a new location. We have no location at the moment and are always on the move,” expounded the Colonel.

Nerdah Mya, the son of recently deceased Karen leader Bo Mya, said about 20 DKBA and government soldiers had been wounded by landmines and that while some were being treated in the field, others had been sent to Umphang and Mae Sot hospitals for amputations.

However, he insisted the situation was not critical for his men.

“We have been coping with this type of situation for many years now, sometimes they send many soldiers to occupy the entire area, but if we keep moving we can get around them,” Nerdah Mya added.

The KNLA’s hold on the area has for years been tenuous at best.

The region in question, which surrounds a stretch of land between Thailand and Burma known as Phop Phra, is rich in minerals, including antimony and gold mines as well as zinc and tin deposits.

Taiwanese and Thai businessmen are constantly seeking to exploit the resources but are generally defeated by the fact that no matter which side they deal with, adequate security cannot be guaranteed.

The battle for control of this region began in earnest last year in late June, when torrential rains were still pounding the area almost daily. Since then Thailand’s sovereignty has reportedly been repeatedly compromised by both DKBA and Burmese government troops.

At times the Thais have resorted to lobbing mortars at Burmese battalions whose stray shells have forced the evacuation of Thai villages.

Phop Phra was once home to one of Thailand’s finest teak stands. It was logged by the KNU in decades past, when the organization was on good terms with Thai authorities and viewed as a convenient buffer force between Thai and Burmese troops. Now the region’s red clay soil, utterly deforested, is home to fields of corn.

But the farmers who grow the corn to sell to Thai businessmen are now forced to pay taxes to both the DKBA and the KNLA for safe passage through their respective territories.

December and early January, regarded as the cold season along the Thai-Burmese border, is the best time to reap corn seed, which fetches a higher price than fresh cobs. However, much of the current crop figures to go to waste as the latest round of hostilities enters into its seventh month.

Sergio Carmada, a co-founder of the Italian non-governmental organization Popoli, which provided seed, ploughshares and motorcycles toward the KNLA’s current crop and also helped fund Colonel Nerdah’s destroyed base camp, previously offered his view of this war that began in 1948.

“In my opinion war for identity is not very popular around the world,” stated Carmada.

“War for democracy is very popular. You can destroy towns and kill hundreds of thousands of people for that. For democracy you can kill everyone. For identity – it’s not allowed anymore,” he said.

A founder of the Free Burma Rangers, U Wa A Pa – a nom de plume of a former foreign soldier, disregards the DKBA as uneducated oafs who don’t know what they are fighting for, or why.

He further agrees with the KNU’s David Thackerbaw that the Burmese Army is employing a scorched-earth policy. He says the situation is even worse for inhabitants of western Karen state as compared with those nearer to Thailand, with villages and crops being constantly torched.

Free Burma Rangers provides medical support for villagers on the run from Burmese Army troops in remote areas.

“I think given a realistic option they [the DKBA] would change sides in a day”, he said. “But they need to see that the KNLA can win. They want to be on the winning side.”

But alas, today, a KNLA victory seems the most unlikely of scenarios. http://www.mizzima.com/news/inside-burma/1529-karen-rebels-under-the-gun-along-thai-burma-border.html



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