Government forces in Myanmar, also known as Burma, have reportedly captured at least three Karen rebel positions near the Thai border. The fighting in the eastern region against Karen rebels started earlier this month. The rebels, for their part, claim that they have killed or wounded nearly 148 government soldiers in the recent fighting. The reports cannot be independently verified since journalists are not allowed into the area.
The Karen armed resistance is one the longest running rebel insurgencies in Myanmar
Over 3,000 ethnic Karen people have fled across the Moei River in Myanmar amid recent fighting. Most of them are women and children. They have crossed into Thai territory and are living near the border town of Mae Sot. Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, recently met some of them and says that they are in relatively good condition:
“They crossed over from Myanmar and are staying in Buddhist temples, in community halls or with villagers. The aid agencies have provided them rice and cooking oil. They are not in a terrible condition, but this is not any kind of a permanent solution for them.”
The state media says those who fled the country are rebels belonging to the Karen National Union, and their families. Zoya Phan, a Karen herself, who fled the country when she was 14 and now lives in London, insists the displaced people are ordinary citizens:
“The state media is lying to the international community because these people are purely villagers and farmers, who want to live in peace. They have to leave their homes because they are attacked by the Burmese army. The army has a policy of ethnic cleansing and they want to eliminate ethnic people, including the Karen.”
Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in southeast Asia, comprising nearly a dozen ethnic groups. But most of these groups are fighting for greater rights or autonomous status. These include groups such as Shan, Kachin and the Karen, who, in fact, have the longest history of insurgency.
Divide and rule
In early 1990s, the Karen National Union or KNU split and its minority Buddhist faction, also known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army or DKBA, joined the military side.
Critics say the army is using the DKBA in the latest fighting to thwart those who are opposed to the military regime, especially before the junta’s planned general elections due in 2010. “The DKBA co-operate with the Burmese army now and they are even targeting civilians,” says Zoya Phan.
The junta insists the recent fighting is a result of a dispute between the KNU and DKBA and that it played no role there.
An estimated 150,000 Karens have fled the country in the past six decades and are now living in various camps in Thailand. And as the fighting intensifies, the numbers are expected to rise further. Kitty McKinsey of UNHCR says they are working together with the Thai government to tackle the mass exodus:
“A number of people I talked to say, they have nothing left to go home to. We are working with the Thai authorities, who have been very welcoming to them and also with the non-governmental organisations to figure out what would be the best solution for them.”
Karen activist Phan has urged the international community to take immediate action to resolve this conflict:
“The international community should stand up and impose a global arms embargo and ask the UN Security council to pass a binding resolution to pressure the regime to engage in tripartite dialogue, which will include the Burmese regime, the democracy movements and the ethnic groups - because the ethnic issue is the key to national reconciliation, without which there will be no genuine democracy and no national reconciliation in Burma.”
The European Union has meanwhile voiced serious concern regarding the situation and called for an immediate ceasefire. The EU has also urged the junta to comply with international humanitarian law and protect the civilians.
Author: Disha Uppal
Editor: Arun Chowdhury