Burma Special: The forgotten war

Burma has other woes besides a cruel dictatorship. The country is a patchwork of ethnic groups which

On 24 July 1988, journalists racing towards Rangoon leafed through their dossiers to revisit the main players of Burma's history. They read of how the "Thirty Comrades", led by Aung San, father of modern Burma as well as of Aung San Suu Kyi, had allied first with the Japanese and then with the British during the Second World War in order to gain independence; of how Aung San's life was cut off in its prime by political rivals; and of how General Ne Win, one of the Thirty Comrades, had seized power in 1962.

The bellicose demonstrations that sprang up after Ne Win resigned in the summer of 1988 showed the world the violence of a junta that has been at war with its minority groups for four decades. But getting rid of the junta and achieving democracy will not be enough to bring prosperity to Burma. The question of ethnic identity and conflict has vexed leaders of the country for centuries. With the Karen, Burman, Chin, Kachin, Pao-O, Karenni, Kayan, Shan, Salone, Rakhine, Mon and Naga all living side by side, the picture is complex and often drenched in tears.

The first main group to settle in what became Burma were the Mon, moving into the area as early as 1500BC. Theravada Buddhists, the Mon are thought to have converted the Thais and Cambodians from Hinduism and Mahayana tendencies to this strict form of the Buddha's teachings. Many westerners know of them because of the temple at Angkor Wat, which is of Mon/Khmer construction. This group's last kingdom, Hongsavatoi, was captured by the Burman leader U Aungzeya in 1757, and they have been harshly repressed ever since. In the past few decades the Mon have risen in revolt against the central Burmese government on a number of occasions. Resistance continued until 1995, when the Mon and the military agreed a ceasefire. However, government troops continue to operate in defiance of the agreement.

By 1287 a new group, the Shan, had gained control over Upper Burma. The Shan ruled until 1604 when the Burman king Anaukpetlun invaded, and they remained important players in Burmese power politics: centuries later, Burman rulers still felt it expedient to take a Shan queen. When Thibaw, the last Burmese king, took a Burman queen instead, the Shan gentry, known as the Saophas, called their villages to arms and rebelled, precipitating the British invasion in 1885. Under colonial rule the Shan states were administered under a separate system as protectorates, and the British recognised the authority of the Saophas, who enjoyed a high status. But the rule of Ne Win and the dreaded State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) brought ethnic cleansing and economic collapse to the Shan, who number approximately six million. Many of them now live across the border in Thailand.

But it is those groups that have never featured as rulers of Burma that have played the most active part in insurgency against the tatmadaw, or armed forces. The largest of these is the Karen. Many British servicemen who fought during the Burma campaign remember the Karen as effective and loyal fighters against the Japanese. When the Karen revolted in 1948, following what they saw as a British betrayal of their loyalty, they used these fighting skills to great effect. Under the leadership of the Karen National Union (KNU), they soon became the largest of 20 minority groups participating in an insurgency against the military dictatorship in Rangoon. During the 1980s the KNU fighting force numbered approximately 20,000; by this year that number had shrunk to fewer than 4,000, opposing a Burmese army more than a hundred times that strength.

Living mostly in the hilly areas on the eastern border of Burma, the Karen may number up to seven million, although no accurate census has ever been produced. (The junta regularly uses population data to underestimate the importance of ethnic groups and promote the significance of the Burmans.) There are many divisions within the Karen, but the Kayan, or Padaung, have drawn particular attention for their women's custom of wearing long brass coils around their necks. In the 1990s widespread oppression by the military regime forced many Padaung to flee into neighbouring Thailand, where they live with uncertain legal status in the border area.

Group mentalities

Similar, smaller groups such as the Kachin and the Karenni have all fought wars of attrition with the junta. The Kachin people are an ethnic affinity of several hill-dwelling groups, known for their fierce independence, disciplined fighting skills, complex clan interrelations, Christianity, craftsmanship, herbal healing and jungle survival skills. The name Kachin is a Burman term for these groups, the vernacular term being Jinghpaw. Many 19th-century British sources describe them as being descendants of Kublai Khan who moved from the Tibetan plateau between the 10th and 13th centuries. In the early part of their history they fought the Shan among the hills around the upper waters of the Irra waddy, Burma's main river, which starts in the Himalayas and drains eventually into the Andaman Sea. As the sprawling Shan kingdom broke up, the Kachin established themselves further south and south-east. Like the Chin, another of Burma's big ethnic groups, and the Karenni, the Kachin have fought against tatmadaw oppression since independence.

Ethnic strife is common across the former colonies of south and south-east Asia, but geopolitics and national postwar negotiations have made the fighting particularly savage in Burma. Initially many of these groups, particularly the Karen, thought that guarantees by the British government would be enough to deliver strong positions in any post-independence settlement. The Karen harboured hopes for a "back-door" road, running from the "frontier areas" through a separate Karen state and onwards to the sea, which would reduce the economic dependence of all the ethnic minorities on the Burman-controlled Irrawaddy Delta.

While the group of nationalists led by Aung San had regular contact with British officials, the minority position slipped away. The preoccupations of the incoming Attlee government were elsewhere, and the Labour government wanted to get Burma off its hands quickly. Despite promising protection to the Karen soldiers who had remained loyal during the Second World War, the British now abandoned Burma's minorities. By the time Aung San was assassinated in 1947, hope of any détente had passed. The Karen took up their guns and went to war - a war that would last half a century.

By the time of the coup in 1962, most of the ethnic groups which had suffered at the hands of the Burmese army, and by now wanted autonomy, were in open rebellion. To some degree, despite a widespread push by the tatmadaw, that situation continues today.

However, the simple picture that pitches the evil Burman army against the good folk of the hills is singularly unhelpful. The politics of ethnicity in Burma is complicated. Although the tatmadaw is largely Burman, it is not exclusively so, and neither is its brutality. In 1974 the junta ordered Chin and Kachin soldiers to quell street protests in Rangoon. Directly copying the British tactic of using soldiers from one part of the country to crush protest in another, these soldiers foreshadowed the iron fist of 1988. The ethnic insurgencies likewise suffer from factionalism, both ethnic and political. External political influence has also had an influence, with the Chinese funding the Communist Party of Burma's war from the 1940s to the late 1980s, and CIA and Kuomintang involvement further complicating the picture.

The political economy of the rebellion has fuelled both the rebel armies and the counter-insurgency tactics of the Burmese generals. In the limited economy of the 1950s, corruption became rife. The rebels controlled the land borders where smuggling could take place. Jade supplied funds for the Kachin army; teak, cattle and luxury goods from Thailand provided tax revenue for the KNU; medicine and rice helped the Rohingyas, Muslims from Arakan; opium helped the Shan groups. This provoked the savage-sounding "four cuts" policy or Pya Ley Pya. Designed (as with the US "strategic hamlets" policy in Vietnam) to cut the main links of the ethnic armies to food, funds, intelligence and recruits, it involved horrendous suffering for local people that persists.

In this forgotten war families have been torn apart, children butchered, mothers raped and fathers tortured. The ghosts of the conflict are the living as well as the dead. Villagers, occasionally disturbed by western photojournalists, look up with sunken eyes - whole generations knowing nothing but war; refugees who do not know whether their relations are still alive. Tatmadaw soldiers remain trapped in this seemingly endless cycle of violence where drug barons jostle with ethnic insurgents to cultivate the poppy that funds every side.

Many of the groups, worn down by the tactics of the tatma daw, have drawn up ceasefire agreements. But in the light of the constant transgression of the most basic human rights, hopes of peace seem slim. No indigenous institutions reflecting the aspirations of the people themselves have ever been permitted to develop. Instead, as far back as Anawrahta, the first Burmese king, who was famously killed by a buffalo, rulers have seen the ethnic minorities in Burma as an inconvenience or a threat to national security.

Suu Kyi has said: "Unity in diversity has to be the principle of those who genuinely wish to build our country into a strong nation that allows a variety of races, languages, beliefs and cultures to flourish in peaceful and happy coexistence. Only a government that tolerates opinions and attitudes different from its own will be able to create an environment where peoples of diverse traditions and aspirations can breathe freely in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust." All those who desire a peaceful Burma must hope such a government can be formed. At present, however, it is a distant goal.

History notes

1887: Third Anglo-Burmese War ends. The monarchy is deposed and Burma fully incorporated into the British empire.

1947: Aung San signs agreement with Attlee allowing for self-rule within a year. His party wins elections, but in July he is assassinated.

1962: Ne Win takes power and begins his disastrous "Burmese Way to Socialism".

8/8/88: Auspicious date when it was hoped Burma would become free. Pro-democracy marches meet with violence: 3,000 people are killed over the next six weeks.

2005: The former Czech president Václav Havel and Desmond Tutu call on the Security Council to demand change