Thu, May 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Burmese hide in the jungle as junta prepares to eradicate rebels


As soon as Sayc Pler Paw saw her brother's body, she knew that everyone in her village would have to abandon their homes and flee to the relative safety of the surrounding jungle-covered hills.

"I found him in the family's vegetable plot," she said. "He had been shot in the bottom, the navel, badly beaten in the back of the neck and forehead and then shot in the face."

Sayc Pler Paw, an ethnic Karen, has no doubt that the perpetrators were the Burmese army. And she knew the meaning of her brother's brutal death.

"Only the [army] could have done this and the fact that he had been killed meant they were coming to attack us," she said, clutching her three-year-old daughter, Snowda Sayc. "From what we'd heard, they no longer ask questions when they come into villages. They just shoot all the men, rape many of the women and then kill them too. We could not wait to face them."

After years of barely noticed and largely piecemeal operations against the Karen National Union (KNU), the ethnic minority's resistance movement, Myanmar's junta has launched its biggest offensive in Karen state since 1997. The army's operations are seen as a bid to annihilate the largest of the half-dozen ethnic minority fighting forces ranged against it.

Since seizing power in 1962, the military has turned Myanmar into one of the most repressed and reclusive nations on earth. The only time the generals allowed an election, in 1990, they were soundly defeated by the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She was never allowed to take office and since then the repression has increased dramatically. Forced labor is common, Suu Kyi is among the estimated 1,300 political prisoners and all democratic institutions have been emasculated.

Inside Myanmar: fear and repression

* A year after Myanmar won independence from the UK in 1948, the Karen National Union (KNU) took up arms for a homeland in the eastern Karen state through its Karen National Liberation Army. Its estimated force of up to 6,000 is the largest fighting Myanmar's military dictatorship, which has ruled since 1962.

* More than 1 million people from Karen's population of 7 million have fled since 1988, many into Thailand, and more than 2 million endure forced labor and extortion.

* Civilian support for the KNU is strong but more as a means to resist Myanmar's junta than out of a desire for independence.

Source: The Guardian

As the economy has collapsed and international demands for change have mounted, the junta's paranoia has also risen markedly. Last year it moved the capital from Yangon to a purpose-built, heavily fortified city near Pyinmana, deep in the jungle.

The junta's information minister, Brigadier Kyaw Hsan, admitted last week that the army was attempting to "clear up" the last of the KNU "terrorist'" resistance, and recent media reports have labelled events in remote eastern Myanmar as a war or conflict.

But in fact the under-equipped, poorly trained forces of the Burmese army are refusing to take on the several thousand-strong Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which has perfected its guerrilla tactics over 57 years of resistance. The forces are instead trying to eliminate the KNLA by starving it of money, food and recruits through the systematic razing of all Karen villages in the predominantly highland areas they do not control.

Fewer than 100 civilians have been killed since the offensive began in November because as soon as villagers are tipped off about an attack, they flee. This year the operation has spread, and recently the number of destroyed villages has climbed to more than 60, with more than 16,000 people on the run, according to reports from advocacy groups such as the Free Burma Rangers and the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG).

Aid groups say tens of thousands of civilians are under imminent threat because the junta appears to be forgoing its usual withdrawal for the monsoon season, which has just begun.

"Our sources tell us the [army] are now transporting more food rations, ammunition and reinforcements to the frontlines," said Gilbert Shu of the Karen Office of Relief and Development.

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