From The Economist print edition
ONE of Asia’s longest-running wars gets no less vicious as it gets older. For six decades the Karen National Union (KNU) has resisted the government in Yangon—inaptly known, these days, as the State Peace and Development Council or SPDC, a brutal junta. The biggest of Myanmar’s myriad insurgent groups not to have reached a truce with the SPDC, the KNU’s armed wing is now fighting desperately for survival in the mountainous Thai border region around the town of Umphang.
This month SPDC soldiers razed the base camp of one of its seven brigades: a newish settlement equipped with solar power, piped water, fish-holding tanks and medical facilities. Soldiers are now sleeping rough in dense jungle. Several hundred civilians, their homes in ashes, huddle under makeshift shelters.
Fighting alongside the SPDC are soldiers ostensibly belonging to a rival Karen militia, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)—a loose coalition of KNU defectors, drug-runners and freelance thugs. The armies often mount attacks from Thai soil. That side of the border is more navigable, and is not strewn with landmines. The KNU’s David Thackrabaw accuses the SPDC of pursuing a scorched-earth policy against both fighters and the civilian population. Another KNU commander, Nerdah Mya, his base in cinders, says his army has no “location” any more and is “always on the move”. But he denies the war is in a critical stage. The KNU has been coping with such hardships for years.
Umphang was once home to one of Thailand’s finest teak forests, logged by the KNU, in the days when Thailand tolerated it as a useful buffer to Myanmar. The region is also rich in antimony, gold, zinc and tin. The latest phase of the war began last June, with a concerted battle for control of the area. At times the Thai army has resorted to lobbing mortars at SPDC battalions, whose stray shells have forced the evacuation of Thai villages. Local farmers are “taxed” by both sides to get their produce to market.
Of some 140,000 refugees from Myanmar in camps in Thailand, more than 60% come from Karen state. They may be the lucky ones. Reports from western Karen state say that villages and crops there are often torched. The DKBA is much loathed, and many of its soldiers might join the KNU if it had any scent of victory. But at the moment, it has none.