Features

Durable opposition

International | In the Karen "flower country," Christian rebels carry on a war with the Burmese government

Issue: "Life after Clinton?," Aug. 26, 2000

in Kawthoolei, Burma - The minister's house stood on stilts, a bamboo and wood structure with a thatched roof. It was open to rain, animals, and mosquitos; the floor served as a large communal bed, with animals sleeping on the ground below. Not your typical parsonage, but it is standard for the ethnic Karen in the midst of a brutal guerrilla war in eastern Burma. Another standard characteristic of the Karen's struggle is Christian faith, something that emboldens both soldiers and clergy. "The Burmese soldier kills with a gun, we kill with a Bible," said one 38-year-old who has been fighting most of his adult life. Gen. Saw Htey Maung, the 70-year-old commander of the Seventh Brigade of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), said simply: "Jesus is with the Karen soldier." But faith does not insulate these soldiers from oppression and slaughter. A half century of war has left tens of thousands of dead and wounded, a million internally displaced persons, and 200,000 current refugees in Bangladesh, China, India, and Thailand. Burma, also known as Myanmar, has long been an international tragedy. Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962 and, though formally retired, remains the leading force in Rangoon, the capital. When mass protests for democracy began more than a decade ago, the Rangoon junta foolishly called for, and lost, elections. It then ruthlessly suppressed its well-known opponent, the National League for Democracy, and its leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. International attention has remained focused on Suu Kyi-daughter of independence leader Gen. Aung San-whom the military put under house arrest from 1988 to 1995, after her landslide victory at the polls. The Karen and other ethnic groups, however, pose a more durable threat to the junta's self-described State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Karen forces, operating under the Karen National Union (KNU), have been fighting for an autonomous state since 1949. Britain promised the KNU autonomy, but did little to put that commitment into action before Burma became independent in 1948. The insurgencies have waxed and waned over the last 50 years. During the last decade several groups have come to terms with Rangoon. Ethnic groups like the Shan, for instance, have traded a ceasefire for government concessions to its booming narcotics trade. But the Karen, who resolutely oppose trade in illegal drugs, fight on. While most Burmese are animists or Buddhists, the Karen, many of whose ancestors converted after missionaries over a century ago brought them the gospel, are primarily Christian. The government views Christianity as a foreign import, and expelled all missionaries in 1966. In response to the Karen, the SPDC has expanded its military to over 400,000. Conscripts are simply dragged off the streets. Pay is irregular, training sparse, and morale low. Fifteen-year-old defector Yei Schweh says that the military "never told us why we were fighting." In fact, most Burmese soldiers like the democracy movement, but brutality and fear keep them in the government's ranks. Rangoon's SPDC maintains numerous bases in eastern Burma. Periodically the government strikes at villages suspected of harboring rebels. SPDC forces coerce civilians, women as well as men, into working as porters for the troops for months at a time. Hungry soldiers take villagers' crops and livestock. Defectors report frequent beatings, rapes, and murder among the SPDC's tools of control. As a result, the Karen fight desperately. But the battle is sadly uneven. The KNLA fields 4,000-5,000 ill-equipped guerrillas. Troops run in age from teens to over 30. They mix fatigues and boots with ethnic Karen wraparound skirts, flip-flops, shorts with American logos, T-shirts, and baseball caps. Soldiers carry a motley assemblage of arms, ranging from antiquated M1 carbines and homemade teak landmines to AK-47s. For them, the war is a long-term commitment. One 22-year-old soldier said he had been fighting for 10 years. Gen. Htey began military life in 1946 with the Karen Rifles, part of the British Army. KNLA forces claim a 20-to-1 kill ratio over the SPDC. But the guerrillas rarely halt SPDC offensives, which increasingly trap the Karen against the Thai border and destroy Karen villages like Law Thi Hta, just across the Moi river from Mae Sot, Thailand. Early this year, simple bamboo homes rested there on stilts, like sentinels among dense foliage. Among the homes was a small clinic called Freedom Hospital Number One, supported by Christian Freedom International (CFI), a relief group based in Front Royal, Va. Several hundred Karen called Law Thi Hta home, after the Burmese military displaced them. But in April, Burmese government forces captured and burned the village and the hospital. They also destroyed a second clinic to the north, also built and administered with CFI help-along with an entire refugee camp housing 4,000 people. "This happens every year," observes Jim Jacobson, head of CFI, but this is "one of the worst years." Gen. Htey puts the best face possible on such disasters: "Every month we can see that the casualties of the SPDC are more than before." The Burmese government's victories are usually costly but often transitory in the rugged and isolated jungles. But the SPDC need not garrison the territory; it simply has to terrorize and displace the Karen. Then, as Gen. Htey acknowledges, 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 plans-with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)-to move Karen refugees back into Burma within three years. Khachadpai Burusapatana, secretary general of the Thai National Security Council, claims that "the current situation in Myanmar is favorable for repatriation." But repatriation is impossible without peace. Karen National Union (KNU) President Saw Ba Thin says "only a political settlement can make peace last." The Karen political organization wants a "system of federal union," and its representatives have met with the central government several times, most recently in 1996. But, he explains, on all of these occasions government officials told the KNU to unilaterally lay down its arms. Karen leaders say they have no evidence that the SPDC is prepared to end its murderous depredations. Earlier this year the SPDC rejected an offer transmitted by Mr. Jacobson of CFI to Tin Winn, Burma's ambassador to the United States, calling for negotiations at a neutral location outside of Burma. Suu Kyi and the Karen hope for outside support. "If we had a chance we would request that the American people help us to get our freedom state," says Gen. Htey. The United States banned trade and investment in Burma in 1997; the European Union denies Rangoon duty-free access to its market. Such restrictions inconvenience the SPDC, but have not shaken its hold on power. Sanctions are two-edged, however. The Western economic embargo, according to Robert Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations, has pushed Rangoon toward China, its major arms supplier. Karen activists contend that stronger punitive measures, not weaker, would bring the regime to terms. 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." Alternatives to current policy include a mix of diplomatic pressure, applied by regional powerhouses like Japan and India, combined with economic engagement by private individuals and organizations. The only material help for the Karen, in the meantime, is likely to come from private organizations, since neither the United Nations nor Western governments will work in Burma's Karen regions against Rangoon's wishes. CFI supports several "freedom hospitals" in Kawthoolei ("flower country," as the Karen call the territory under their control) and sends teams of medics to provide basic medical care and distribute drugs, food, Bibles, and hymnals. Observers believe there is little that Christians can do to overthrow Burma's military dictatorship. They can only help the Karen survive it.

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