Forgotten War in a Forgotten Country

August 12, 2000 • Commentary

From a distance the jungle at Kawthoolei, Burma, looks peaceful. Dense, green plant growth covers hills that march endlessly onward. Primitive villages emerge in simple clearings: wood and bamboo buildings, covered by thatched roofs, sitting on stilts, and open to rain, animals and mosquitoes.

War is everywhere. Two million ethnic minorities have been displaced by 50 years of conflict: 243 of them lived in Law Thi Hta, located just across the Moi River from Mae Sot, Thailand.

Underrepresented in ethnic Karen villages are young males. Many of them are serving in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

War consumes their lives. One 22‐​year‐​old told me he had been fighting “for many years,” perhaps 10. But Gen. Bo Mya, who also serves as vice president of the Karen National Union (KNU), joined the Karen revolution when it started in 1949. Gen. Saw Htey Maung, the 70‐​year‐​old commander of the 7th Brigade, described how he started with the Karen Rifles, then part of the British Army, in 1946.

Gen. Ne Win seized power in Burma, now officially Myanmar, in 1962. Mass democracy protests in 1988 were crushed with martial law backed by bullets. The ruling junta foolishly called elections two years later, which were won by the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. The self‐​styled State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) annulled the election, put Suu Kyi under house arrest, and arrested many of her followers.

Although international attention has focused on Suu Kyi, the more serious threat to the ruling junta comes from the Karen and other ethnic groups, which have been fighting for autonomy since Burma won independence. During the last decade several of them have come to terms with Rangoon. In areas like that populated by the Shan, the government seems to have traded acquiescence in a booming narcotics trade for a cease‐​fire. But the Karen, who are resolutely anti‐​drug, and several other ethnic groups fight on.

In response, the SPDC has expanded its military to some 400,000. Conscripts are simply dragged off the streets. Two years ago 13‐​year‐​old Yei Shweh took a bus to Rangoon to see the big city: He was arrested by the army when he arrived. Pay is irregular, training sparse and morale low. Yei Schweh, who has defected to the KNLA, says the military “never told us why we were fighting.” In fact, he says, most Burmese soldiers favor the democracy movement, but brutality and fear keep them in the ranks.

Rangoon maintains numerous bases in eastern Burma and periodically strikes at villages suspected of harboring rebels. SPDC forces impress civilians, women as well as men, as porters for months at a time. Hungry soldiers take villagers’ crops and livestock. Refugees also report frequent beatings, rapes, and murder, stories confirmed by Yei Shweh and other defectors.

As a result, the Karen fight desperately. One 38‐​year‐​old guerrilla, whose long brown hair made him look more like a Bohemian resident of Greenwich Village than a dedicated defender of Burmese villages, figures he has killed some 200 SPDC soldiers.

The battle remains sadly uneven, however. The KNLA fields 4,000 to 5,000 ill‐​equipped guerrillas. The troops I met tended to run from teens to 30s. They mix fatigues and boots with ethnic Karen wraparound skirts, flip‐​flops, and American‐​language shorts, T‐​shirts and baseball caps. Soldiers carry a motley assemblage of arms, ranging from antiquated M1 carbines to captured Ma rifles to AK‐​47s to home‐​made teak landmines.

The KNLA usually inflict far more casualties than they suffer -they claim a 20‐​to‐​1 kill ratio. But they can rarely stop a determined SPDC offensive. The Karen lost their capital of Manerplaw (“victory field”) four years ago and are increasingly pressed against the Thai border.

The dry season is known as the “killing season” because steep jungle trails dry out and rushing streams run low. Military action typically ends midyear, but SPDC troops arrived at Law Thi Hta before the rain. Just six weeks after my visit earlier this year, Burmese forces advanced, burning the village, including a small hospital constructed by Christian Freedom International (CFI), a relief group based in Front Royal, Va. A second clinic to the north, along with an entire refugee camp housing 4,000 people, also was destroyed. “This happens every year,” observes CFI head Jim Jacobson, but this is one of the worst years.”

Gen. Htey offers a positive spin: Since the Karen rely on “guerrilla tactics, hit‐​and‐​run,” it looks “to the outside world that we are losing. But every month we can see that the casualties of the SPDC are more than before.”

In fact, the Burmese government’s victories are usually costly and often temporary. The SPDC cannot garrison the rugged and isolated jungles. But it doesn’t have to. All it has to do is terrorize and displace the Karen. As Gen. Htey acknowledges, “the SPDC try to fight the grass roots, our backbone, the villages,” so the people “don’t have the morale to support us with food or anything else.”

The plight of the Karen is only likely to worsen. Thailand recently announced that with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees it hopes to move 100,000 refugees back into Burma within three years. Khachadpai Burusapatana, secretary general of the Thai National Security Council, claims “the current situation in Myanmar is favorable for repatriation.”

Yet fighting continues to rage. Karen National Union (KNU) President Saw Ba Thin says “only a political settlement can make peace last.” Karen representatives have met with the central government several times, most recently in 1996. But “on all of these occasions it told the KNU to lay down its arms instead of trying to reach an understanding through political discussion.”

Earlier this year Rangoon rejected an offer from the KNU to negotiate at neutral location outside of Burma transmitted by Jim Jacobson to Tin Winn, Burma’s ambassador to the U.S. Mr. Winn suggested instead the KNU send representatives to Rangoon. But there is no evidence the SPDC is prepared to end its murderous depredations, let alone offer the autonomy for which the Karen have been fighting for a half‐​century.

Which leaves Suu Kyi and the Karen alike hoping for outside support. In a video smuggled out of Burma earlier this year, Suu Kyi called for greater international. Gen. Htey says “If we had a chance we would request that the American people help us to get our freedom state.”

But what can be done about a repressive and isolated regime like the SPDC? It is supported by China, which covets naval access to Burma’s long coastline and began arming and financing Rangoon in 1990. U.S. and European Union sanctions inconvenience the SPDC, but have not shaken its hold on power. Unfortunately, though, warns Robert Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations, as a result of sanctions Rangoon “has drifted toward Beijing.” Economic restrictions also impoverish those who languish under SPDC jackboots.

KNU President Saw Ba Thin says “we’d like to see the U.S. government increase pressure like trade sanctions and diplomatic sanctions, and other pressures.” But most countries believe sanctions have failed and are moving in the opposite direction. At meetings in Seoul earlier this year Asian, European and U.S. officials met to consider new approaches to Burma.

Some Karen pine for Western military intervention. Last year a top KNU official told Rich Miniter, a journalist colleague of mine: “Do like you did in Kosovo.” Saw Ba Thin concurs: “If the American government could do it, it would be helpful.” Similarly, Gen. Htey says “You are from the U.S. You can come and help us.” However, America’s interest in the Karen’s struggle is humanitarian, not strategic, and does not justify risking U.S. lives.

A better alternative to current policy is probably a mix of diplomatic pressure, which can most effectively be applied by Japan, India and the ASEAN states, and economic engagement, primarily by private individuals and organizations. Over time, broader contact with the West might strengthen internal democratic forces. But this will be an uncertain and long‐​term process at best.

The West’s most important role may be to help the Karen and other ethnic peoples cope with the SPDC’s brutality. That largely means private assistance, such as that provided by CFI, since neither the U.N. nor Western governments will work in Burma against Rangoon’s express wishes.

Scores of wars dot the globe. Occasionally one captures newspaper headlines — Kosovo last year, for instance. Most languish in obscurity, like Burma.

“Remember the Karen people. Don’t abandon us like the British did,” Saw Ba Thin pleads. But most of the world doesn’t know enough about the Karen to abandon them. The Karen’s only hope seems to lie in groups like CFI, which are helping oppressed peoples survive until the so far illusive political solution is found.

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