- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

KAWTHOOLAY, Burma Aung San Suu Kyi and Gen. Bo Mya have spent their entire lives fighting for self-determination in Burma, yet they have never met and probably never will.
When asked if he has ever spoken to the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Gen. Bo Mya shook his head. "She doesn't dare contact our armed groups," he told The Washington Times.
As the military head of the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the largest and last of the armed ethnic groups in Burma, Gen. Bo Mya has been at odds with various regimes in Rangoon since the birth of modern Burma in 1948. That opposition only hardened when the current military junta took control in 1988, and renamed the country Myanmar the following year.
Gen. Bo Mya says in his autobiography that he never trusted Mrs. Suu Kyi's father, a prominent independence leader who was assassinated in 1947. More recently, Gen. Bo Mya and Mrs. Suu Kyi have been on different wavelengths. Shortly after she was released in May from her latest house arrest this one lasting 20 months the Burmese junta persuaded Thai authorities to exile Gen. Bo Mya from his headquarters in Thailand, his first official exile in a half-century of insurgency.
As Gen. Bo Mya sneaked back to a KNU stronghold in Burma, Mrs. Suu Kyi was relatively free and on the road to Mandalay.
Mrs. Suu Kyi, founder and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), is no stranger to seclusion, having spent much of the last decade under house arrest. In 1990, the NLD won more than 80 percent of the national vote, but was prevented from forming a parliament. Soon after, she was put under house arrest.
Educated at Oxford, she follows in the nonviolent tradition of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King. For many Burmese, she is their only hope for democracy. By contrast, Gen. Bo Mya's classroom was the jungle, where as a teenager, he and most of the ethnic Karens remained loyal to Britain after Burma welcomed the Japanese occupation.
Since then, the Karens, an ethnic group of 7 million in eastern Burma, have been fighting for independence in what may be the world's longest-running conflict. Indeed the shooting only stops when the rain starts to fall, as it does for three months starting in late June.
The junta in Rangoon wants "to Burmanize" its ethnic minorities, said Gen. Bo Mya. "They want to take away our language and our culture and make us just like them," he said. "We have no choice but to fight for our survival."
Meanwhile, Rangoon has accused Thailand of feeding, arming and assisting the rebels from the KNU and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S). As a result of these tensions, the border between Thailand and Burma has been closed since early June.
By any definition, the KNU is a ragtag guerrilla army barefoot or in sandals, short on supplies and long on morale. Gen. Bo Mya claims he has 10,000 troops, but that number hasn't been verified. Independent sources put the number at anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000.
Even so, Gen. Bo Mya, now well into his 70s, predicted that victory was nearly at hand as he sat in his receiving room behind a poster of "Rambo" and a yellowed newspaper clipping from one of Thailand's English-language dailies bearing the headline: "Against all odds the Karen continue their struggle."
Even in the monsoons of late July and early August, the KNU held training exercises at 7th Brigade headquarters a group of huts on stilts amid muddy pathways just across the Moei River from Thailand.
Dressed incongruously in military fatigues and the traditional Karen skirt, the longyi, the rebels fired M-16s, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. But the KNU's homemade firing devices don't always function on demand and on this humid day it took several tries before the grenade, in fact, became rocket-propelled.
Along with other ethnic groups rimming Burma's border, the Karens, a third of whom are Christians, have endured decades of persecution. A recent Amnesty International report detailed the deliberate human rights abuses committed by the junta's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) against Burma's ethnic minorities, which make up approximately 30 percent of the country's 42 million inhabitants.
The report concluded: "The government needs to show it is serious about human rights improvements throughout the country by taking urgent steps to protect civilians from forced labor, extortion and land confiscation at the hands of its armed forces."
Official spokesmen in Rangoon quickly dismissed the Amnesty International report, suggesting that it "emanated from armed ethnic terrorist groups."
The fighting between the 400,000-man SPDC and Burma's ethnic insurgencies takes it toll on the junta as well. In July encounters between the SSA-S and the SPDC, the junta lost about 500 men, the BBC reported from Rangoon.
In many ways, Burma's ethnic tribes are similar to those of northern Afghanistan. They control a fraction of the country's border regions, are outnumbered and outgunned and without outside intervention, they face imminent defeat.
Many tribes have known only famine, war and drugs for generations. And just as Tajik and Uzbek warlords distrust each other as well as they do Pashtuns from the south, Burma's ethnic leaders are not inclined to trust each other, nor a moderate from Rangoon like Mrs. Suu Kyi.
Since seizing power in 1988, the junta has exploited these differences. Almost immediately it signed a cease-fire with the Wa, but not the Shan. The junta has also greased the conflict between the Shan and the Wa by relocating Wa communities into Shan territories.
In 1995, when a split in the Karen leadership gave birth to Christian and Buddhist factions, the junta was quick to form an alliance with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. Now, these two groups of Karen are at war with each other, just as they were once united against the SPDC.
But some ethnic political leaders are hopeful that these disparate groups, with their distinct languages and traditions, will unite against Rangoon instead of each other.
Among the many exile groups based in Thailand is an offshoot of Mrs. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy the NLD-LA (for "Liberated Area"). The leader is an ethnic Shan and its governing council has representation from the Karen, Kareni and Mon people. But they concede that their hopes lie more with Mrs. Suu Kyi's nonviolent approach than with the border insurgencies.
That may be a matter of common-sense realization. Having signed cease-fires with 24 ethnic armies, the junta can concentrate on the holdouts most notably, the Karen and the Shan.
Meanwhile, the junta is making a play for international support with an eye toward the lifting of sanctions in return for its ending restrictions on political prisoners. Still, an estimated 2,000 political dissidents remain restricted.
Early last month, U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail visited Rangoon to discuss the release of political prisoners and to broach other human-rights issues. He met with Mrs. Suu Kyi as well as with SPDC officials.
August and September mark the 14-year anniversary of the junta's slaughter of pro-democracy protesters in Rangoon. According to independent reports, about 3,000 demonstrators were killed when troops shot into the crowds.


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