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1 May 2008

Forgotten Burma

Burma is back in the news in the wake of the terrible cyclone. Ahead of this tragedy Rachel Aspden v

By Rachel Aspden

As the sun sinks over the steep jungle hills of the Thailand-Burma border, a saffron-robed monk walks towards his temple’s golden shrine. Across a shallow gully, four grey- uniformed Burmese soldiers watch him through binoculars, their rifles poised. Below them is a huddle of abandoned, burnt-out houses.

“Six years ago, they destroyed the temple and ran the new border straight through the middle,” says the monk. “On the Thai side we are safe for the moment. On the other . . .”

Pra Preecha is a refugee from Shan State in eastern Burma. Last September, when his fellow monks led 50,000 street protesters against the military government in Rangoon, the international media heralded a “saffron revolution”. It seemed that one of the world’s most brutal and insular regimes was about to crumble. But the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) clamped down hard on protesters and sympathisers – “scores, perhaps hundreds, of monks were abducted, tortured and killed”, says Pra Preecha – and the moment for change passed.

Since then, for Pra Preecha and his monks, the situation has only worsened. They have fled the world’s longest-running civil war, a 60-year conflict between the Burmese government and armed ethnic groups led by the Shan, the Karen, and the Karennis of Kayah State, who all live along the eastern border.

When the British left Burma in 1948, they promised its ethnic minorities – one-third of the population – the option of independence within ten years. But the promise was not honoured and fighting broke out immediately. Since 1962, ethnic-minority civilians have borne the brunt of brutal repression by successive military regimes. While Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy are known worldwide, this is the forgotten face of the Burmese resistance.

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In a concession to international criticism of its vicious suppression of the September protests, the SPDC has scheduled a referendum on a new draft constitution for 10 May. But international observers have already been banned, dissidents rounded up and imprisoned, and a vast “Yes vote” propaganda campaign launched. Few believe the referendum offers any real prospect of change.

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I ask Pra Preecha if there will be more protests in May and he glances towards the watching soldiers.

“Now, our people’s first thought is fear,” he says.

A mile from the temple, the owners of the burnt-out houses live in the ramshackle bamboo huts of the Goong Jor refugee camp. For civilians like these, the impact of the regime’s “Four Cuts” policy – designed to deprive rebels of access to information, supplies, recruits and food – has been catastrophic.

“The SPDC steal crops, burn villages, enslave villagers as army porters or roadbuilders, sow fields with landmines, rape women and children and murder villagers and anyone connected with the resistance,” says Charm Tong, a 26-year-old Shan activist, as she leads the way along the camp’s red mud paths, past children playing in the dirt and boys washing at a pump stencilled “Rotary Club”. Aid agencies estimate that at least half a million people have been internally displaced in eastern Burma, and that a fifth of them live in hiding in the malarial border jungles. The 160,000 living in Thai refugee camps are the lucky few – many, including most Shan, are denied asylum and must either return to Burma or fend for themselves as illegal immigrants.


Life in Goong Jor is hard. Prohibited from leaving the camp by the Thai authorities, refugees are trapped in a limbo, dependent on aid from a handful of courageous small NGOs such as the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (Hart), which works for those trapped in conditions too hazardous, remote or obscure for the large agencies. But the conditions the refugees have fled are far worse than life in the camp. Sitting outside her hut under a spiderweb shade of bamboo and thatch, 40-year-old Ba Yoong remembers the warm May day, six years ago, when SPDC soldiers came to her village. During heavy fighting between government and rebel troops, her farmer husband, Loong Mayta, was seized by a drunken officer who demanded money. As Ba Yoong ran to him, holding her six-month-old baby, the officer shot him in the chest. As Loong Mayta lay on the ground begging the officer to spare him, he shot him in the throat, killing him instantly. Tears spill over Ba Yoong’s deeply lined face as she tells her story. “I cannot forget,” she says. “We cannot go back, but there is no future for us here.”

Refugees such as Ba Yoong are a growing embarrassment to the new Thai government, which took power in February after 17 months of military rule. The administration is keen to build links with a regime that offers an alluring abundance of natural resources to energy-hungry neighbours. In 2007, Burma provided Thailand with $2.7bn (£1.4bn) worth of natural gas – 45 per cent of its total exports. But Thailand is increasingly forced to compete with China and India for access to Burma’s reserves of gas, hydroelectric power, gems, teak, heroin and methamphetamines. The Salween River, which flows through Shan, Karenni and Karen lands, is being harnessed in huge hydroelectricity projects such as the Law Pi Ta power station, co-sponsored by Chinese and Thai companies.

Early this year, construction started on a 900-mile pipeline carrying Middle Eastern and African oil from the Burmese naval port of Kyaukphyu to Kunming in southern China. With such strategic projects under way, the SPDC must secure complete control of the rebel areas – and there is no one, except the impoverished, desperate local militias, to stop them.

“We are completely disillusioned with the UN,” says Saw Ber Htoo, a stocky 39-year-old Karen activist. We are sitting in the grubby one-room office of a Karen aid organisation in the Thai border town of Mae Sariang, where he receives new refugees. “[International] representatives like Ibrahim Gambari promise to help us, but when they go back nothing happens. Not just once but again and again.” He shows me a map of eastern Burma. The border states are divided into “white” (government-controlled), “black” (rebel-controlled) and “brown” (disputed) areas; the black areas are shrinking rapidly. As the rebel armies have splintered into an impenetrable tangle of acronyms, each with its own interests, increasing numbers have accepted ceasefire agreements with the SPDC. The roughly 6,000-strong Karen National Liberation Army is the largest ethnic force left, and it is chronically short of money, arms and supplies.

“We don’t have enough of anything,” says Saw Ber Htoo. “I am a relief worker, but if our army had enough equipment I’d be a soldier. I’ve seen my home destroyed and so many people killed – my brother, my uncle, my cousin. I want revenge.”

Desperate villagers

Deprived of any political recourse, the Karen and Karenni refugees, like the Shan, channel their energies into activism and development. Within the camps, myriad self-run organisations attempt to provide health care, education, skills training and even youth leadership, democracy and IT classes funded by international NGOs. The frustration is palpable.

“We are trying to prepare our people for freedom and democracy, but as long as the SPDC is in power there will be no change,” says Saw Ber Htoo. Yet they cannot give up, says a tough, wiry Karenni who goes by the alias Lot Kata – “the Vulture” – and works in the border jungles with the relief agency Free Burma Rangers (FBR). Four-man FBR patrols risk their lives to cross the border and deliver food, medicine and clothing to the desperate villagers hiding – and often starving – in the Burmese jungle.

“Every time we go, I am afraid,” he says. “But even if the SPDC come, the Rangers will stay with them. If we’re going to die, we must all die together. We have to bring them hope.”

Baroness Cox, founder of Hart, agrees: “The most important thing we can offer the refugees is the reassurance that they haven’t been forgotten – whatever happens with the UN and the international community.”

With the resistance on its last legs, the options for Burma’s battered minorities are limited. Some groups, following Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burman opposition, are risking imprisonment and torture to campaign for a No vote this month. Others are calling for a boycott and further protests. But the junta will never be toppled by a peaceful “saffron revolution”, says the political commentator Thant Myint-U. After decades of impoverishment, abuse and neglect, the army is the country’s only viable institution. Under more sanctions and isolation, its paranoid generals, holed up in their new multibillion-dollar jungle capital of Naypyidaw, could drag Burma into anarchy. For the international community to help the Shan, Karennis and Karen it must, paradoxically, start a real dialogue with their oppressors.

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