Fri 28 Jan 2011
Filed under: Inside Burma
THE face is that of a nine-year-old boy but his eyes reflect the burden of following his father through the Burmese jungle with an assault rifle.
The child, whose name is Po, was caught up in fresh fighting last week between the Burmese junta and rebels of the Karen ethnic group. His father, Saw Mun Sah, is a veteran of the Karen’s long fight for independence, which has just entered a desperate new phase.
“My son is too young but he wants to be a soldier,” he said. “He can learn how to shoot the gun even though he is just a kid. If the enemy attacks, he knows how to shoot back.”
Their enemy has attacked in force over the past few weeks. The searing arc of mortar shells and the flash and distant boom of artillery are nightly occurrences for refugees watching from camps across the border in Thailand. The Karen, a rag-tag guerilla army, are outgunned.
“My wife stays on the other side,” said the boy’s father. “He doesn’t want to go back to stay with his mum. We will continue with our struggle until things get back to normal.”
There is a new normality in Burma. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, late last year won international credit for the generals. Its new parliament, chosen in flawed elections, is about to form a civilian government. There are calls to lift Western sanctions. Confident of its political position, the regime has launched an offensive to defeat the last bands of ethnic rebels defying its calls to enlist in a government-sponsored “border force”.
The rebels face annihilation, while Suu Kyi struggles to reconcile the deep divisions between the rebels and the country’s Burman majority. For the army, it is a win-win equation.
The ferocity of the fighting has been captured in rare images of Burma’s hidden war smuggled out by the Karen in recent days. In footage handed to a husband-and-wife video team, Steve and Am Sandford, the rebels are carrying a dead comrade away from a skirmish. Other video shows the bodies of half a dozen guerillas who, it is claimed, were shot dead by the army in betrayal of a truce.
The Sandfords, who found the boy soldier on a clandestine trek inside the war zone, also discovered hundreds of civilians fleeing their villages to wade across a river to sanctuary in Thailand.
Until last week the raw images of the six-decade-old war had been eclipsed by photographs of a smiling Suu Kyi greeting happy crowds in Rangoon. But less than an hour’s flight away from the capital, a jungle conflict is raging and the young on both sides are paying a heavy price.
The stress of war is telling on the Burmese army, too. It has resorted to recruiting underage boys into the ranks – two-thirds of them either press-ganged or tricked into signing up, according to an authoritative assessment.
International officials have been trying – with limited success – to get senior officers to stop the abuse and to discharge young teenage boys. In some cases, terrified boys who have run away from battle have been caught and charged with desertion, even though they are too young to serve legally as soldiers.
There is also compelling evidence that the army is making civilians toil as porters for units on the battlefield.
Hundreds of criminals have been shipped out of the country’s biggest prison in Rangoon to the eastern battlefronts to carry supplies and ammunition, according to exile groups.
In the worst alleged abuses, civilians have been forced at gunpoint to walk ahead of troops as human shields in areas infested with landmines.
In a Thai hospital, one man who recently escaped from Burma described how one of his legs was blown off as he tried to flee. He was rescued and taken across the river. But he could face deportation back to Burma once he recovers. Last year more than 110,000 villagers in eastern Burma were displaced through military action, according to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, a monitoring group.
Whatever the new politics in Rangoon, their daily lives are as precarious as ever.