- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

RANGOON, Burma — Leaning on a wooden crutch, Saw Pa Pwe, 48, a short, muscular man, hobbles on one leg from his brother’s exposed platform to the raised hut where he now lives. The makeshift bamboo and plastic shelter rises more than three feet above the ground at the low point of a wet hill where 1,300 displaced villagers are starting from scratch at Ei Tu Hta refugee camp.

His wife sits silently in the midmorning heat of the rolling hills of eastern Burma. She has not spoken since a land mine maimed her farmer husband as he walked to his fields in 2002.

Saw Pa Pwe is one of the many thousands of displaced villagers who spend their lives on the run, choosing to wander through the jungle rather than live under a Burmese military regime intent on crushing opposition groups such as these from the Karen ethnic minority of eastern Burma.

“Living under their control means forced labor,” said Saw Pa Pwe’s sister-in-law, Naw Pi Htoo, 44, who lost three of her seven children to disease in the malaria-infested hills. “They use the people to clear land mines and women and children to carry the military’s supplies.”

On U.N. agenda

Their plight and that of millions of other Burmese is gaining greater international attention since the U.N. Security Council agreed Sept. 15 to put Burma on its permanent agenda, despite objections from Russia and China, the latter being Burma’s largest commercial partner with a billion dollars in annual trade.

China is the world’s No. 2 consumer of energy, and this year signed a memorandum of understanding with Burma for a large sale of offshore natural gas. The estimated 10 trillion to 14 trillion cubic feet of gas could bring Burma $37 billion in revenue.

British and U.S. authorities lobbying for international pressure against Burma’s military dictatorship welcomed the 10-4 vote of the U.N. Security Council. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton said that drug smuggling, a refugee crisis and human rights abuses are ongoing threats to the region.

“This vote is a major step forward to getting the U.N. to accept its responsibility to act on Burma,” said Yvette Mahon, director of the London-based charity Burma Campaign UK. “This is a case of the United States and United Kingdom acting on principle, while China and Russia are putting trade and profit before the interests of ordinary Burmese people.”

Burma used to be one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia, with fertile land, precious teak wood and gems, and abundant natural gas. Since 1996, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on the Burmese military regime, citing the house arrest for 10 of the past 17 years of democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the argument used for persuading other members of the Security Council to put Burma on the agenda was that Rangoon is a regional threat because of its unchecked spread of AIDS, narcotics and the constant flow of refugees into neighboring countries.

ASEAN slams regime

Even foreign ministers from the normally deferential Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rebuke Burma’s foot-dragging on promised reforms. In the past few months, the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia have criticized Rangoon’s ruling generals for being slow on reforms.

President Bush tightened the ban on doing business with Burma in 2003 and the U.S. often takes the lead at the U.N. on dealing with Burma. But the regime is notoriously unresponsive to outside pressure, and signs point to its becoming more reclusive. This year it moved the capital upcountry to Pyinmana, a jungle town about 200 miles north of Rangoon, the former capital and Burma’s largest city.

Government employees were given no warning and were expected to relocate with their families immediately.

“It’s bizarre,” said a senior Western diplomat in Rangoon. “It wasn’t designed to be a workable city. It was designed to isolate. This is a country that’s trying to close itself in,” he said. “This is a regime impervious to outside influence — whether positive or negative. They don’t care what the world thinks of them.”

The government monitors telephone calls, censors Internet mail services such as Hotmail and Gmail, and sites used by Burmese democracy proponents. It asks Internet cafes to take periodic snapshots of customer monitors.

Attacks on Karen worsen

The U.N. vote last month came as human rights advocates based along the border in Thailand said the military offensive against the Karen ethnic minority under way in eastern Burma was the worst they had seen in a decade. The Thai-Burma Border Consortium, an advocacy group based in Bangkok, said about 18,000 Burmese had been uprooted so far this year.

“The military’s strategy for the last 10 years has been to bring the entire civilian population under direct control for forced labor and monitoring,” said Kevin Heppner of the Karen Human Rights Group in Thailand. “And everyone who lives beyond that immediate control has to be relocated or killed. For years they’ve been trying to do this, but the villagers don’t want to live under military control. They leave their villages before the soldiers arrive. They live with very little or no relief or aid.”

About 1,300 recently displaced villagers live in the squalid Ei Tu Hta refugee camp in eastern Burma, along the Salween River bordering Thailand. Most of its inhabitants are from the Karen ethnic minority, long accustomed to living free of foreign rule.

But Zaw Thein Win, 43, and his family belong to the country’s dominant Burman tribe. He was imprisoned for three years in 2002 when he was accused of collaborating with the Karen National Union (KNU), a resistance group, which he denies. Zaw Thein Win was beaten by a group of soldiers and lost his left eye; in prison, the guards tattooed statements of Burmese military conquest on his arms and chest.

“The Burmese soldiers should be attacking their enemy, the KNU soldiers,” he said. “But instead, they attack the villagers.” Fourteen families arrived in Ei Tu Hta on Aug. 24 after a 12-day trek, surviving on an occasional handout of boiled rice and foraging for bamboo shoots and vegetables.

A ‘gentleman’s agreement’

Saw Pa Pwe said that since Thailand closed its border camps to incoming Burmese in March, there has been a “gentleman’s agreement” between Thai and Burmese authorities allowing refugees to congregate at Ei Tu Hta. There, Thai-based aid groups are allowed to deliver limited amounts of food and medicine to the camp, just across the river from Thailand.

Bringing rare statistics to the health crisis in eastern Burma, a report by the Back Pack Health Worker Team, a mostly Burmese cross-border medical-relief group in Thailand, this month painted a picture of a humanitarian crisis as bad as any in an African war zone.

Based on several surveys since 2000, it found that at any given time, 12 percent of the population is infected with malaria, the most common cause of death, and that more than 15 percent of children are malnourished.

“Sometimes people don’t want to talk about politics, but we are health care providers, so must look at the big picture,” said Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Cynthia Maung, who chairs the Back Pack Health Worker Team. Dr. Cynthia, a graduate of the medical school at the University of Rangoon, also runs the Mae Tao clinic along the Thai-Burma border, which gave medical aid to 45,000 people last year, mostly Burmese refugees. She estimates that her backpack teams have access to about 150,000 of the half-million displaced persons in eastern Burma, ravaged by drug-resistant malaria and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

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