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The week's other crackdown: the Karen

In Burma, a violent exodus for US-linked separatists

Karen National Union (KNU) soldiers parade during celebrations marking the 57th anniversary of the army's rebellion against the Myanmar junta at the Mu Aye Pu base at the Thai-Myanmar border Jan. 31, 2006. (Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

BANGKOK — It is among the world’s longest-running civil wars, waged between Burmese forces and separatist guerillas with strong ties to U.S. Christians.

Now Burma appears to be waging a last stand against the Karen, an ethnic group of 7.5 million people largely based in a hilly sliver of land bordering Thailand. Burmese forces have launched a fresh mortar-shelling offensive in Karen territory this month, sending an estimated 3,000-plus refugees scrambling across the Thai border.

These attacks follow the widely publicized imprisonment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy figurehead supported by Western leaders. Burma’s military junta, experts say, are systematically crushing dissent to help rig next year’s highly anticipated national elections.

Many of the Karen villagers are fleeing junta-allied forces that are dragging villagers into forced labor or worse. The Burmese military has been repeatedly accused of forcing conscripts to plod through paddies and detonate mines with their own bodies.

“It’s not clear where these refugees will return,” said Poe Shan, a coordinator with the Thailand-based Karen Human Rights Group. “If they go back, they’ll be used as porters, forced laborers or mine-sweepers.”

Karen highlanders have maintained ties to Western Christians — notably American Baptists — since missionaries arrived in the region in the 19th century. Christian foreigners established a network of schools and churches, which eventually helped coalesce various Karen tribes into a united struggle for Karen statehood.

The Karen National Union, formed in 1947, has since battled better-equipped Burmese soldiers with its ragtag armed faction: the Karen National Liberation Army. Six decades later, the conflict is ongoing. With the aid of Christian organizations, many Karen have settled in the U.S., largely in the St. Paul, Minn. area.

The Karen hills even provided the setting for 2008’s "Rambo IV," which depicts Sylvester Stallone as a wayward mercenary mowing down Burmese soldiers to defend Karen villagers and stranded missionaries from Colorado. (Stallone claimed to USA Today that, while filming on the Thai-Burma border, Burmese forces fired shots in his direction.)

The Karen situation is also complicated by infighting. In addition to uniformed Burmese soldiers, many attacks against the Karen come from within. A splinter faction of government-allied Karen militants — believed to accept junta bribes of vehicles and weapons — routinely extort and attack their fellow Karen. Called the “Democratic Karen Buddhist Army,” they often fight as Burmese military proxies.