While international attention has focused on the protests for democracy in Burma’s cities, a hidden war has decimated generations of the country’s powerless ethnic minorities, who have faced brutality for decades.

The Karen, the Shan and other minority groups who live along the Burma-Thai border have been attacked, raped and killed by government soldiers. Their thatched-roofed, bamboo homes have been torched. Men have been seized into forced labor for the army, while women, children and the elderly either hide out in nearby jungles until the soldiers leave or flee over the mountains to crowded, makeshift refugee camps.

“Many, many thousands of Karen have died in those 60 years,” Karen National Union secretary general Mahn Sha said this week of his people’s struggle for autonomy since 1947.

The military junta has denied reports of atrocities and says the ethnic rebels are “terrorists” trying to overthrow the government.

Burma has more than 100 sub-tribes. Burma’s diverse minority groups make up nearly a third of the country’s 54 million population.

About two-thirds of the country belongs to the Burman ethnic majority. The other ethnic groups include the Shan, the Karen, the Chin, the Mon, the Arakan or Rakhine, and the Kachin.

Thousand of refugees, mostly from a Muslim minority known as Rohingyas, have fled over Burma’s western border with Bangladesh over the years because of persecution by the military junta and economic hardship. The Kachin in the far north, along the border with China, have clashed with the central government, as have the Chin in the central western region bordering India, and the Mon in the south along the Andaman Sea.

But the military is most aggressive in the eastern states along Burma’s 1,300-mile border with Thailand-a frontier longer than the Texas-Mexico border.

The junta has signed 27 cease-fire agreements with rebels, many of them allowing ethnic groups to keep their arms.

The Karen National Union is the only major ethnic rebel group not to have concluded a cease-fire and its separatist struggle is one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies.

The Karen struggle is concentrated in Karen and Kayah states in the middle of the Thai border region, but fighting also flares sometimes in Shan state to the north. Mon stae and Teninsarim division, which border Thailand in the south, have been quiet for more than a decade.

After the junta’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1988, many Burmese fled to the Thai border. The ethnic minorities did not trust them at first, but after years of interaction and intermarriage, some of the students-turned-soldiers settled along the border.

Now minority groups wonder if there will be a new influx of Burmese because they led the recent pro-democracy protests in Rangoon and other cities. The Karen held meetings to express solidarity with the anti-government demonstrators but did organize street protests.

The current protests began August 19 after the government sharply raised fuel prices in one of Asia’s poorest countries. But they are based in deep-rooted dissatisfaction with 45 years of repressive military rule.

“The people have decided never to stop and never to surrender. They (the government) cannot stop all the people all the time,” said Mahn Sha of the Karen National Union.

Burmese protesters will be welcomed by the ethnic groups, but the question remains how both can use the unrest to their advantage.

“We need to work together with the Mon, other groups, the students, to fight the (junta). We have a common enemy and common goals,” Mahn Sha said.

“It is the beginning of the crack that could bring down the dictators. Even if these protests are crushed, it will still be a big block out of that tower. We all look at this with hope,” Dah Say, a Karenni who is a member of the Free Burma Rangers, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.