Fri 31 Mar 2006
Filed under: News,On The Border
In much of Asia a dry season could mean a break from monsoon rains and intermittent floods but for the Karen ethnic community, settled along Burma’s eastern borders, it means a season of death, destruction and flight.
The current dry season has seen over 5,000 Karen villagers flee their homes, after the Burmese army launched another military campaign, say humanitarian agencies working along the border Thailand shares with Burma.
Some of the victims have had to walk for days over rugged, hilly terrain to seek refuge in Thailand, while hundreds of others are â€œliving in fearâ€ in the forests.
â€œWe have had more than a thousand come across since December,â€ Sally Thompson, deputy director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, told IPS. â€œThere are over 400 who have come down the Salween River and are waiting to cross.â€
Women like Naw Paw Paw, 53, are among the Karen villagers at the receiving end of the on-going dry-season offensive that was launched by Rangoon in October last year. â€œThey (the Burmese army) looted our houses and took our money,â€ the mother of six says in a documentary film on the Karens, â€œSeason of Fear,â€ that was screened in Bangkok this week. â€œThe next morning they burnt our village and left.â€
Rangoon’s military assault in the Karen areas of Burma is an annual feature in its attempt to defeat the country’s oldest ethnic rebel group, the Karen National Union. But the current onslaught has been particularly intense, completely shredding the gentlemen’s agreement that Rangoon and the KNU struck in January 2004 to end hostilities.
â€œThey have been shelling and shooting villages and they have attacked our camps,â€ Mahn Sha Lah Phan, general secretary of the KNU, said during a telephone interview. â€œThere were over 15 attacks last month, and in March there has been more fighting.â€
The terrain under siege comes within an area that Rangoon wants to bring under its control because it borders the new administrative capital, Pyinmana, which the junta has just unveiled in central Burma.
The other reason, say environmentalists, is that it is part of the junta’s bid to secure territory to build roads that are needed to help construct a series of large dams on the Salween River, which flows through Karen State. The five planned dams have already run into controversy, with groups in Thailand and exiles from Burma protesting the destruction they would cause to the pristine forests and the village lifestyles in the area.
For Burma’s neighbors in South and Southeast Asia, the plight of the Karens, forced out of their homes, offers ample testimony about why this military-ruled country will continue to remain a source of refugees. Rangoon’s brutal policies against the country’s ethnic communities hav, since the early 1970s, seen thousands of men, women and children from Karen, Karenni, Shan, Chin and Rohingya minority communities flee to neighboring countries for safety.
Thailand hosts the largest number in its northern provinces, an estimated 335,000 refugees, followed by Bangladesh, which has some 122,000 refugees, and India, which has over 52,000. Malaysia is also home to some victims of Burmese military onslaughts.
But the picture is as troubling inside the country, states the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a Geneva-based agency affiliated with the Norwegian Refugee Council. By the end of 2005, Burma had the â€œworst (internal) displacement situationâ€ in Asia, the IDC revealed in a report published in mid-March.
There are nearly 540,000 internally displaced people in Burma, it added, a number that tops Bangladesh, which has 500,000 IDPs, Sri Lanka, with 341,175, Indonesia, with 342,000 and Afghanistan, with 153,000.
â€œ[There are] an estimated 92,000 IDPs hiding in the forests (in Burma), where living conditions are extremely harsh,â€ adds the report. â€œThey are exposed to hunger, inadequate shelter and lack of medical services.â€
The period May 2004 to May 2005 saw 87,000 villagers swelling the ranks of the displaced â€œdue to conflicts or human rights abuses,â€ according to the report. â€œThe military government’s objective of increasing control over minority areas through a policy of forced assimilation and repression of autonomy movements has resulted in decades of conflict that has displaced and devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians.â€
Burma’s notoriety about IDPs and refugees are but two in a long list of violations the military regime has perpetrated. The other violations include forced labor, forced relocation of communities, rape, torture, imprisoning of political activists, conscripting children into the Burmese army, extortion and the suppression of free expression.
â€œAll kinds of systematic human rights violations continue, and the internal displacement of minorities is among the [most] serious of them,â€ Bo Hla-Tint, a minister in the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the democratically elected Burmese government in exile, told IPS. â€œThere have been six dry-season offensives against the Karens, which is part of the oppression directed at the ethnic forces along the border.â€
Yet, such suffering appears furthest from the mind of Burma’s strongman, Snr-Gen Than Shwe. On Monday, as the country marked an anniversary to celebrate the army’s achievements, Armed Forces Day, he praised the stability that the nearly 400,000-strong active-duty soldiers had achieved in Burma.
The Burmese army, said the head of the junta, should be praised for consistently striving to achieve â€œcommunity peace and tranquilityâ€ and â€œfor the prevalence of law and order in the country.â€