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The week's other crackdown: the Karen

In Burma, a violent exodus for US-linked separatists

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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