It may be spread thinly, but the KNLA soldiers on
General Mu Tu is angry. He’s angry at the Burmese military regime for attacking thousands of unarmed Karen villagers and forcing them to take refuge in jungle hideouts. He’s angry with media pundits and academics for deciding the Karen are a spent force and their struggle dead. And he’s angry with the international community for not doing more to free Burma’s 2,100 political prisoners and to stop the displacement of hundreds of thousands of ethnic people.
Gen Mu Tu waves a newspaper clipping and says: “The international community needs to send its ‘experts’ to come and investigate displacements in Karen State instead of relying on what some academics and journalists write. I don’t know where they get their information – it’s not from going inside, and it’s certainly not from us.”
Gen Mu Tu is the leader of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). He looks more like the grandfather he is than the leader of the largest resistance force fighting the Burmese military regime. But looks can deceive. We met in a safe house on the Thai-Burma border where he discussed how the KNLA has had to adapt its battle plans to match its loss of territory and inability to renew its weaponry.
In June, 1,300 government troops attacked Ler Per Her displacement camp, situated on the Burmese side of the River Moei. Thai authorities say more than 4,000 Karen villagers living in the camp and in the surrounding area sought safety in Thailand. Before Burmese soldiers left Ler Per Her, they booby-trapped and land-mined walkways; waterholes, rice stores, schoolyards and homes, making the old village uninhabitable. Gen Mu Tu says the regime uses its soldiers and its militia gangs to force hundreds of thousands of Karen villagers from their homes in an attempt to bring them and their land under its control.
The regime argues that it is a result of the conflict with the KNLA that so many civilians are displaced. It is an argument that Professor Desmond Ball from the Australian National University Defence and Strategic Studies Centre disputes.”These attacks are against civilians, not Karen soldiers. The Burmese military have a total disregard for international law. The Karen army is a fraction of the size of the Burmese army, and can offer little in the way of resistance. Most of its work is spent moving people out of harm’s way.”
Gen Mu Tu says the Burmese army has a third of its forces based in Eastern Burma, and blames displacement on the Burmese army occupation and militarisation of ethnic land.
“We have 5,000 fighting men, they have about 180,000 soldiers in Eastern Burma. They retaliate against villagers if we take action. As a military man I want a fair fight, arms against arms, but what the regime does to our people is not fair. They are using their army against unarmed civilians.”
Gen Mu Tu is keen to explain the Karen’s first priority is to try to find a peaceful solution.
“Burma is a political problem. We want peace and we want equality. All we want is to live as free people. We don’t want to take up arms, but we have to resist if we are to defend our people.”
Gen Mu Tu says the regime has told the Karen they can have peace if they give up their arms, an offer Gen Mu Tu forcibly declines.
“They want us to give up our weapons; that’s surrender, not peace. If we return to their so-called ‘legal fold’ our situation will be more critical than it is now. Now we have weapons and they still do this to our people. Image what they’d do if we didn’t have arms?”
Moe Kyaw, a Burmese army officer who deserted, says the regime does not want peace with the Karen.
“The Karen is the only armed group that we are worried about, but we planned to split and weaken them. The aim is to use the ceasefire groups against the ethnic organisations. We know most of the Karen [people] support the KNLA, they have won the hearts of their people.”
While Moe Kyaw may have a grudging admiration for the KNLA, he only has harsh words for the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).
“We knew that only their top level officers [of the DKBA] were with us. They’re like gangsters out for their own gain. We disliked the DKBA. We don’t respect them. Why would we? They are traitors to their own people. If they are willing to destroy their own people, how could we trust them?”
The general says the Burmese military regime is intent on destroying Karen culture and their way of life.
“The Burmese army burns our schools, cuts down 60-year-old orchards and plantations, poisons our waterways and mines farmland. Is this is the work of people who want peace?”
The Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), in its latest report, Displacement and International Law In Eastern Burma, estimates “that more than 3,200 settlements were destroyed, forcibly relocated or otherwise abandoned in Eastern Burma between 1996 and 2007”.
Between 2006 and 2007, the Burmese army burned down villages, laid landmines and drove more than 76,000 villagers from their homes into jungle hideouts. Many more made the arduous journey to makeshift camps on the edges of the Thai-Burma border.
Naw Haynaytha was one who survived the long journey to Ei Tu Hta camp on the Burmese side of the Salween River. She said at the time that she left because soldiers smashed her home and destroyed her land.
“We grew fruit trees, mango, banana, jackfruit and betel nuts. We caused no harm, we’re villagers. I don’t know why they hate us, but they do.
“We stayed in our village, but still they kill us.”
Naw Haynaytha, 30, has first-hand knowledge of the regime’s military policy towards the Karen. She fled her village when the soldiers set up a base near her village.
“I just took the children and left. I’m afraid of them because they will kill me if they catch me. Every person they arrested is killed. They never come home.”
Gen Mu Tu says stories like Naw Haynaytha’s are the reason the KNLA continues to fight. He sips coffee and points to numerous pock-marks in the doors, walls and ceiling, and says they were caused by three separate unsuccessful grenade attacks on him.
“People need to understand we don’t take our fight to their cities. We fight in Karen State to defend our people. Nothing more, nothing less.”
The general says his army may have lost territory, and may be small, but he considers it deadly.
“Loss of territory is not important at the moment. We’re still holding arms and we’re prepared to fight. It’s true they have taken our lands, but now we know where they are. They are visible and static. That suits us.”
Mr Ball says there are not many armies better at guerilla warfare than the Karen. “Their soldiers are tough, they know how to walk for days, live off the land, they may have limited weapons, but they know how to fight.”
Gen Mu Tu says he has been fighting since he was 16.
“Fighting is to kill, and we know how to kill. We’re like shadows, hard to catch and we will kill specific targets – the officers and the soldiers who are hurting our people.”
Major Ghu Thaw, who is second-in-command of a small KNLA battalion fighting the Burmese army two hours north of Mae Sot and two days walk into Karen State from a River Moei border crossing, confirms what Gen Mu Tu says.
“We’re 60 against 320, we’re low on ammunition, but we’re not going head-to-head, we’re picking our targets. We’ve just killed a platoon commander from their Infantry Brigade 81 and another commander from Light Infantry Brigade 205.” Maj Ghu Thaw says the Burmese army has been raping and abusing people during the conflict.
“Two Karen women, Naw Pay, 18 and eight months pregnant, and Naw Wah Lah, 17, were both raped and murdered by soldiers. The soldiers responsible were from Light Infantry Brigade 205, led by Lt Col Than Hteh and Capt Kyi Nyo Thant.”
The Committee of Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP) confirmed the deaths and rapes.
Gen Mu Tu says the number of clashes over a six-month period between his men and the Burmese army supports his argument that the Karen are capable of killing the regime’s soldiers.
According to statistics collected by the Karen National Union from Jan 1 to June 30 2009, the KNLA and Burmese army fought 532 times. The KNLA killed 341 Burmese soldiers and wounded another 697. The Burmese army killed five KNLA soldiers and wounded nine. The Karen killed 15 officers across the command spectrum – including a brigadier-general, company commanders, majors and captains.
“We want the regime to understand that Burma is a political issue. It cannot be solved on the battlefield. If they really want peace and if they are fair, this issue can be resolved around the political table. To negotiate is not to surrender.”
Gen Mu Tu says the regime needs to take his words seriously.
“I want the regime to understand they cannot win, even if they do have the military might, because we can kill them. They have to understand the only way to solve this problem is by political means.”
Mr Ball says factional splits have reduced the effectiveness of the armed resistance to the regime.
“It’s in their own interests to help each other. If one falls, it will hurt them all. If they cooperate as the Karen and the Pa-O did in Shan State recently, they can be effective.”
To outsiders, Burma is a difficult story to report. The regime has banned international journalists. It’s hard to verify information. Getting access to isolated conflict zones or crimes scenes is almost impossible.
To better understand the rationale behind why Burmese soldiers did what they did to Karen villagers, a Burmese army defector, an officer, explains.
The ex-officer is neat, fit and had the chunky muscles of someone who still worked at keeping them hard.
Maung Aye (not his real name) had been a Burmese army officer for 25 years, 10 as a trainer, before defecting to Thailand. “We indoctrinate our troops, we give them a reason to fight the ethnic people. We tell them we’re fighting to stop the country from disintegrating. The Karen is the enemy. We instil in them fear and hatred. We tell them if a young Karen grows up he will become a soldier and kill you, better to do it now to him.”
Maung Aye talked about civilian deaths in-a-matter-of-fact-voice.
“Our strategy is to destroy the villages and forcibly relocate them. Put simply, if you drain the lake, the fish will die. Relocating villagers disrupts the guerrillas’ capacity to fight, it ties up all their resources trying to get food, medicine and shelter for the thousands of displaced villagers. This is systematic, some villagers resist, so we do some killing to sap their morale and to cow them into submission.”
Maung Aye’s admission reveals a strategy so effective in is simplicity it is mind-boggling. Displace half-a-million people, force them into jungle hideouts without food, education or medical care and then let the opposition eat up their meagre resources trying to keep them alive.
Displacement is regarded as the by-product of armed conflict between the KNLA and the Burmese army, but as Maung Aye explained, it is – regardless of skirmishes with the Karen – the planned-for result.
And it works. Most international governments and NGOs will not deliver cross-border aid and health care to displaced people, often citing “we can’t as it is does not fit our criteria or our mandate”.
Maung Aye says there are some troops who he describes as “no-brain soldiers” who are only too happy to rape, plunder and kill.
“Commanders have to meet their objectives, and if they don’t they know they will be punished by their superiors. So they legitimise this behaviour and will never discipline soldiers for abuses.”
In early June 2009, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School launched its report, Crimes in Burma, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.
Writing in the report, Justice Richard J Goldstone, the first prosecutor at both the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and Patricia M Wald, a former Judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, petitioned the UN Security Council to act on Burma.
“We call on the UN Security Council urgently to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate and report on crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. The world cannot wait while the military regime continues its atrocities against the people of Burma.”
But the world does wait.