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.
In statements through state-owned news outlets, the Burmese junta said the recent “scuffles” only amount to internal Karen strife. Echoing a familiar claim, the junta insisted that outsiders have mischaracterized the fighting and singled out the European Union, which has issued an anti-junta condemnation.
The condemnation “obviously reflects the total ignorance of the EU presidency on the true facts and main causes of clashes,” Burma’s foreign ministry said in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper. (The junta renamed the nation “Union of Myanmar” in 1989, though many foreign nations refuse to recognize the name change.)
Burma is, in essence, a patchwork of varied ethnic groups forcibly held together by a military government since 1962. Under persecution, many have fled. An estimated 3.5 million people — roughly 7 percent of Burma’s total population — live in neighboring countries, according to Washington D.C.-based Refugees International.
Because Burma’s various ethnicities are indiscriminately killed, extorted or forced off land, the larger ethnic groups maintain their own guerilla armies for protection.
With looming 2010 elections, which rulers hope will lend the nation an air of legitimacy, the junta hopes to co-opt separatist armies willing to sign ceasefire agreements — and chase out groups that prove stubborn. The Karen National Union, the junta said through state media, still refuses to “enter the legal fold.”
The latest attacks have crowded Karen-friendly camps in Thailand. Many villagers fear the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army will slip across the border — a narrow river — and attack them in Thailand, according to the Karen Human Rights Group.
Thai army leaders have also complained of the strain caused by the Karen influx. But with no longterm right to remain in Thailand, and with war raging in their home territory, many Karen are being rendered stateless. “The Burmese coming into Thailand are seen by the army as a national security threat,” said Jackie Pollack, director of the Thailand-based Migrant Assistance Program.
Extortion and attacks in Karen territory began to intensify last year, according to the Karen Human Rights Group. The group expects the Burmese military, allied with Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, to ratchet up the war against Karen separatists as elections draw nearer.
These attacks are not “isolated events,” said Stephen Hull, a researcher with the rights group. “They happen in a clear political context.”
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