Dave Tacon reports from the Thai-Burma border, where the world’s longest civil war continues against a backdrop of human rights atrocities and political double-dealing
It was midday on the Thai-Burma border. The tropical sun beat down from a cloudless blue sky, as my ‘fixer’, Anthony Sein, a young ethnic Karen, gestured across the muddy Moei River, a 50-metre-wide liquid no man’s land. Stretching out from the opposite banks is the mountainous jungle of Burma’s Karen State – the scene of the world’s longest civil war.
‘That hill over there – SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] base,’ Anthony said, indicating an outcrop shaped like a camel’s hump about three kilometres away. Pointing directly across the Moei, he continued, ‘See yellow flag? DKBA [Democratic Karen Buddhist Army]. Another DKBA base on that hill,’ he said, swinging his arm back towards jungle somewhere between the yellow flag and the first landmark. Then he gestured in a 180-degree arc towards a river bend less than five kilometres downstream. ‘Behind that hill, KNLA [Karen National Liberation Army] and landmines, landmines, landmines.’ In two hours, Anthony would be taking me across the river to visit the KNLA base commanded by his uncle, Colonel Gringo.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
I had first crossed into Karen State two days earlier via a 10-minute longtail boat journey, to visit a camp called Ler Per Her. Here, in a dusty clearing scattered with hastily constructed bamboo huts, 860 Karen have become displaced persons within their own country, driven to the very edge of Burma’s territory.
Like many other Karen people there, Dee Shaw, a 65-year-old farmer, was coerced to carry equipment for Burmese forces. He was tortured and ultimately fled to Ler Per Her with his four children after the DKBA razed his village in March 2008.
Another weapon employed by Burma against Karen villages is punitive taxation. Nawpaw Law, 35, claims that the dictatorship taxed her already impoverished village’s crops at 50 per cent. Five of her 13 children have died because she could not afford to take them to hospital.
In Karen State, children are the greatest casualties of Burmese government policy. One in four children die before their fifth birthday.
Ler Per Her’s only security is provided by the KNLA base. Nevertheless, the camp was attacked and burned to the ground by Burmese military and DKBA on Christmas Day, 2002. Mines placed by the KNLA served as an early warning system in this fourth and most recent attack on the camp, killing seven of their attackers and allowing the refugees to escape over the river into Thailand. Since then, the camp has been evacuated twice, when SPDC/DKBA troop movements were ‘danger close’.
Each time, the camp’s huts, crops and animals were destroyed. Anti-personnel landmines, planted amongst the ruins by the aggressors, render large swathes of land uninhabitable. ‘Atrocity de-mining’ by the Burmese military – the use of civilians to walk in front of patrols as human minesweepers – has been well-documented.
‘We cannot guarantee your safety’
The next day, Hlangwe explained that the plan for me to accompany KNU officials on a medicine run to the KNLA’s Seventh Brigade outpost was now impossible. ‘Karen State is a war zone. We cannot guarantee your safety. Not just the Thais watch you, but also SPDC, DKBA.’
Privately, I suspected that the real reason behind this change of plans was the KNU’s relationship with Thai authorities. The KNU’s presence in Thailand is tolerated partly because its army, the KNLA, has traditionally been a buffer against the Burmese military. Still, its legal status in its host country is tenuous. If the Thais did not want the KNU to help a foreign journalist, the KNU would have to acquiesce. Instead, arrangements were made for me to visit Mae La, a sprawling refugee camp that stretches for three kilometres along Highway 105, north of Mae Sot.
When I finally got to gaze across the river into Karen State, I was nervous. If I crossed into Burma again, I would be thumbing my nose at Thai military intelligence. At this moment, one of Anthony’s friends, Sunday, joined us on the river bank with the news that he had just spoken to a DKBA officer who was willing to be interviewed.
We met in Sunday’s bamboo shack. To my surprise, the DKBA officer was accompanied by three friends from the KNLA – one of whom was a Karen intelligence officer. By virtue of being in Thailand, the soldiers were unarmed and in civilian clothes, although the DKBA officer wore a military-style green jacket.
The officer eyed me suspiciously. ‘He thinks you might be an SPDC spy,’ explained Anthony. Despite this concern, he still wanted payment for the interview. After I had done my best to convince him that I was indeed a journalist, we struck a compromise. I handed Sunday a few hundred Thai baht and he soon returned with a plastic bag full of Leo Beer.
It was a bizarre situation. The DKBA initials are littered throughout human rights reports detailing attacks on Karen civilians. The testimony of the Ler Per Her Karen had cemented their role as villains in my mind.
Hwlangwe had contemptuously dismissed the DKBA as ‘SPDC stooges’ who had betrayed their Karen brothers in return for a piece of the lucrative teak trade. Although the religious divide between the predominantly Christian-led KNLA and Buddhist Karen guerrillas was exploited by the Burmese, it has played a secondary role in the split. Evidence also suggests that the DKBA are involved in the Burmese military’s business of drug manufacture and trafficking, while the KNU and KNLA are staunchly anti-drug.
The DKBA officer, aged in his late 40s, explained that he had joined the KNLA in 1979, then defected to the DKBA in 1996 after being caught behind enemy lines. ‘I was tired of fighting,’ he said. ‘I feel that I am a member of SPDC staff, but the SPDC is like a stepfather. The Karen are my first father and it is your natural father who will love you the most.’ The officer blamed atrocities against villages on young DKBA soldiers unaware of Karen history, who carry out orders to seek promotion.
The afternoon wore on. Everyone was in high spirits, laughing, sipping beer, smoking green cheroots, chewing betel nut. The DKBA officer revealed that he had been friends with the intelligence officer since DKBA/KNLA peace talks in the early 2000s.
Once the interview was over, it was time to meet with Colonel Gringo and his men. Anthony and I climbed on the back of two motorcycle taxis and headed for the river border crossing.
We disembarked along with the only other passenger – a middle-aged woman in a traditional straw hat – and climbed one of several criss-crossing paths up the steep embankment to reach the base.
The base of the 22nd Battalion was a collection of bamboo huts surrounding a clearing that functioned as both parade ground and volleyball court. It was a Sunday, and while many of the soldiers were out on patrol, others dozed on bamboo mats or in hammocks, with weapons – mainly M16s and AK-47s – close at hand.
We were led to Colonel Gringo’s building and entered. The Colonel, a quietly spoken man of 64, was dressed in a US Army T-shirt and sat almost motionless in a chair, with a blanket over his knees. Anthony sat at his feet and spoke with him in Karen.
From Colonel Gringo’s window, one could see the wide sweep of the Moei River. The base’s natural defences and heavy use of homemade Claymore-type landmines had protected it from attack thus far. The Lord’s Prayer hung above the door to the Colonel’s bedroom; a light machine gun was stowed under his desk.
‘I joined the KNLA in 1966 to protect Karen villages,’ said the Colonel through his nephew. ‘I have faith that there will be an independent Karen state one day. Now, we are weaker than the SPDC, but we are not dispirited. We don’t fight to defeat them, but. to have equal rights.’
Outside on the parade ground, soldiers had been marshalled into a loose formation by a captain in his late 40s. Their uniforms were mismatched; some wore boots, others thongs. The oldest might have been in their 50s, while several soldiers looked barely 18.
Colonel Gringo insisted that the KNLA only recruited soldiers over 18 years of age. Indeed, in 2000, they increased their minimum recruitment age from 15 to 18. In contrast, the SPDC abducts children as young as 11 to fight in their army. According to Human Rights Watch, Burma has the world’s highest number of child soldiers.
After almost two hours with the KNLA, it was time to return to Thailand. That night at Sunday’s village, Anthony and I agreed that it was too risky to draw attention at the paramilitary checkpoint for a fourth time on the way back to Mae Sot.
In the morning, I managed to persuade a young Norwegian couple who ran an orphanage to transport me in their ute to the next town. The vehicle was a familiar sight to the checkpoint guards, but my heart was in my mouth when the driver paused to wind down his tinted window. The guard did not think to look in the back seat. The rest would be easy. I remembered how the DKBA officer had said he could travel freely within Burma. When asked what would happen if he tried to do the same, his KNLA friend had drawn a finger across his throat and made a ‘Shhhhhhh’ through grinning, betel-stained teeth.
I could leave, but those at Ler Per Her, the displaced and their protectors, were stranded, trapped on the Thai-Burma border.
BACKGROUND TO THE CONFLICT
Burma’s SPDC, with South-East Asia’s second-largest standing army, has been at war with the KNLA – a guerrilla force of perhaps 5000 – for 60 years. The DKBA, a KNLA splinter group, sided with the SPDC in 1994.
The Karen, an ethnic group of Sino-Tibetan origin, account for an estimated seven million of Burma’s 47 million people. Together with minorities such as the Shan and Mon, the Karen suffered under centuries of Burmese feudalism, supplanted by British colonialism in 1886. When the Japanese invaded Burma with the help of the Burmese Independence Army during the Second World War, the Karen aligned with the British. Burman-led reprisals against Karen civilians were so savage that the Japanese intervened to halt the wholesale slaughter.
The Karen hoped that their victorious British allies would reward their loyalty with an independent state. To the disgust of many British officers who fought alongside them, word from Whitehall was that the Karen should, ‘throw [their] lot in with the Burman’. By 1949, the Karen were at war with the Burmese – a ‘low-level conflict’ that continues to this day.
Meanwhile, over the past three years, Karen civilians have endured a relentless military offensive that both the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International have condemned as a crime against humanity. The result of this campaign to cut KNLA supply lines and force Karen from their villages is almost 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and a catalogue of systematic human rights abuses ranging from murder and rape to slavery.