- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

(Associated Press reporter Denis D. Gray recently finished a 550-mile trip to interview refugees along the border of Thailand and Burma, and in rebel-held territory in Burma.)

NA SOI, Thailand — Lu Khu Paw, 16, said soldiers shot her father as he gathered bamboo in the forest, lay waste to the rice fields and burned down their home three times. The orphan vividly remembers her native village in flames, survivors fleeing and her mother dying of disease in a jungle hide-out.

Nang Poung, 33, a farmer, told how troops dragged 30 males, three of them relatives, to an execution ground and herded everyone else out of her village. What finally impelled her to escape from Burma recently, she said, was working as a conscript laborer six days a week, and then having to surrender half the harvest, plus taxes, from family fields.

Such stories are commonplace among refugees fleeing a decades-long campaign by Burma’s ruling military to suppress rebellious ethnic minorities. Under the present junta, which aborted an opposition election victory, gunned down demonstrators and kept opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, the campaign against the rebels appears to be escalating in scope and ferocity.

A million refugees

The violence has spawned an estimated million internal refugees, many cowering in bleak hovels deep inside malarial jungles or on bitterly cold mountainsides. It has also prompted an accelerating exodus to neighboring countries, including more than 400,000 to Thailand, where thousands arrive each month, according to the Burma Border Consortium, the main refugee aid group.

The consortium says the conflict wracking eastern Burma has destroyed about 3,000 villages and displaced 80,000 people a year in most recent times.

Occasional international protests have failed to stop atrocities like those described by dozens of refugees in interviews: Mass relocations of civilians, girls as young as 5 raped, people shanghaied into acting as human mine detectors, villagers nailed to doors or burned inside their houses, livestock shot, cooking pots smashed.

Such charges are described by the junta as fabrications by Westerners and “internal destructive elements” plotting to dismember Burma. Like previous governments in Burma, the generals think they have a sacred obligation to hold the nation of 43 million together and stamp out separatist rebellions among its 135 officially recognized races.

“I have suffered for many years, and it’s only getting more desperate now,” said Sai Teng, who fled recently from Burma’s Shan state, fearing yet more forced labor and a worse fate for his wife. Late last year, he said, a patrol near his village tied a 35-year-old woman to a tree and gang-raped her to death after catching her “illegally” feeding her cows and buffaloes.

Fears of worsening conditions are echoed by outside advocates.

Hard-liners prevail

The 2004 ouster of Gen. Khin Nyunt, who negotiated cease-fires with 17 insurgent groups, reinforced hard-liners within the junta and “resulted in increasing hostility directed at ethnic minority groups,” noted U.S.-based Human Rights Watch in its 2006 report.

Some cease-fire agreements, notably with the Shan State National Army, have broken down and others are expected to fracture, inevitably leading to an upsurge in fighting and reprisals against civilians suspected of sympathizing with the rebels.

The conflict is waged in the rugged mountains ringing the heavily populated plain. In the latest military operations, at least four government battalions have been shelling and attacking villages and internal refugee hide-outs in southern Karenni state and areas of neighboring Karen state since Dec. 23, forcing about 3,000 people to flee their homes, according to reports from the Free Burma Rangers — ethnic and Western relief workers who trek into the war zones to aid the homeless.

Under international sanctions and faced with a bankrupt economy, the generals are also expanding road networks into once remote ethnic areas to exploit forests, minerals and farmland. Those fleeing marauding troops, refugee workers say, will soon be hemmed in.

All hope for change seems dead and “almost all new refugees tell us that life is unsustainable in Burma,” said Jack Dunford, the British head of the Burma Border Consortium. “They either live under junta control where they are subjected to incessant forced labor and other human rights abuses, or they have to be constantly on the move, trying to avoid the Burmese army. But in the end there is no place left for them to run.”

British human rights researcher Guy Horton said the specific targeting of ethnic people goes well beyond the bounds of counterinsurgency campaigns and should expose the government to a U.N. charge of genocide. Mr. Dunford doesn’t go that far, preferring to speak of “a systematic effort to physically control their area — and if someone is in their way they just shoot them.”

Troops like ‘tigers’

Such debates are lost on the victims, many of them illiterate farmers who have never even heard of Aung San Suu Kyi and who say the military never explains its actions to them.

“It’s like meeting a tiger in the jungle: You never know if it will attack you or not. Having some official permit is no guarantee of safety. Every unit does what it likes. Living with Burmese soldiers is like a never-ending nightmare,” said Sai Teng, the Shan farmer who fled with his wife and 4-year-old son.

Among refugees at this village in northwestern Thailand, the mood of hopelessness is expressed in a song performed by 50 Karen orphans: “Mummy is in heaven, Daddy is in heaven. When shall I see my home again? When shall I see my native land?”

The conflict dates back to 1948, when Britain gave the country independence and promised a degree of autonomy to the ethnic groups, which make up about a third of the population.

When the new government failed to deliver on the British pledge, some groups rose up in arms, fighting to preserve their culture and way of life, not to mention their smuggling routes and drug crops.

The insurgents include the Karen, Karenni and Shan groups in eastern Burma and others along the borders with India and Bangladesh.

In more recent times, the demand for autonomy has been modified to seeking a federal, democratic system, but the 500,000-strong army continues to seek victory through what it calls a “Four Cuts” campaign — cutting off guerrillas from the civilian population which provides them with recruits, information, funds and supplies.

Some take no sides

Knowledgeable sources such as the Free Burma Rangers say many civilians are clearly sympathetic to the rebels’ cause and sometimes support it. However, a number of the refugees interviewed insisted they took no sides, yet were still accused of wrongdoing and beaten or worse.

Charm Tong, a young Shan human rights worker, said the military uses rape “to control, humiliate and demoralize the community” — a charge she relayed to President Bush when they met at the White House last year.

Colleagues at the Shan Relief and Development Committee say harsh policies have slashed rice production in Mong Nai township, the rice bowl of Shan state, by 56 percent since 1994 and led to the flight of a third of the population to Thailand.

They say more than half the cultivated area has been abandoned as the regime relocates villages, conscripts farmers for state agricultural projects and confiscates land.

It then rents the acreage back to farmers and forces them to sell a percentage of their rice harvest to the military at one-fourth the market price.

Human rights groups call it “agrocide.”

Nang Poung, who says she was forced to work on a vast fruit plantation until she fled in desperation to Thailand, defined it tersely: “They’re destroying the very agriculture on which our lives depend.”

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