'Burmese Darfur' The Silent Genocide of Myanmar

By Jürgen Kremb in Mae La Refugee Camp, Thailand

Part 2: Stepping On Your Own Mines

"When a man was taken to work as a porter," says Paw, a delicately built woman, "it was like a death sentence." Fearing that they would reveal the soldiers' plans to the guerillas, the laborers were often beaten to death in the jungle as soon as they had finished their work.

By early this year Paw and her family decided that they had had enough. It was the day the soldiers attacked the house of her uncle. Five farmers were sitting in the hut drinking tea. The junta thugs, assuming the men were a group of insurgents, dragged them off. The men's screams echoed through the village the entire night, and Paw and her family fled in a panic. After an exhausting two-week trek along jungle paths -- where they often stumbled across the bodies of murdered Karen -- they finally reached the Mae La camp.

"We hear these kinds of horror stories every day," says Simon Saw, 58. Before moving to Thailand 17 years ago, Saw was a professor of protestant theology at the University of Rangoon. As a member of Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy movement against the military regime, fleeing the country was his only option other than prison.

'Burmese Darfur'

Saw now heads the camp's Bible school. He chooses his words carefully. "Large-scale ethnic cleansing is taking place in the mountains over there," he says. "In truth, it's a Burmese Darfur."

UN inspectors have determined that 540,000 people who have fled government forces in eastern Myanmar have become internally displaced, refugees in their own country. But what is taking place in the Burmese jungle is something far more sinister -- genocide in installments.

The Myanmar military junta is waging genocide against minorities.

The Myanmar military junta is waging genocide against minorities.

The war has turned this part of the country into a poorhouse and the healthcare system has almost completely collapsed. "Seventy percent of all deaths are attributable to preventable diseases. Men rarely live past 50," says Cynthia Maung, a doctor who runs a private free clinic for refugees. "Burma is still Asia's leader when it comes to malaria deaths, the incidence of tuberculosis and AIDS and the number of mine victims," she adds. However, there are no reliable statistics for Myanmar, partly because the junta has just expelled all International Red Cross teams from the country.

The organization Free Burma Rangers in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, supplies the few reliable reports that are available about Myanmar's forgotten war. The Rangers are a group of volunteers of various religions and ethnicities who penetrate deep into the Burmese jungle to treat the wounded and help them escape.

Rapes and Executions

The group's reports read like dispatches from a civil war. Here are a few samples:

  • On April 28, the Burmese army attacked and destroyed the village of Kay Pu. All 400 residents had already fled the approaching troops.

  • On May 12, Burmese soldiers with Infantry Regiment 542 attacked the village of Der Ka Lay Ko and took a woman prisoner, who they subsequently raped and killed.

  • On May 15, the same unit attacked other village residents. A deaf-mute farmer who was unable to get away in time was shot at close range.

  • On June 2, rebels attacked the LIB 540 army unit near the village of Ya Kaing Taung. The army arrested six villagers, accused them of being in contact with the rebels and killed them on the spot.

The reports and pictures of the dead fill many Internet pages each week.

Mar Grie Minn, 21, decided that she could no longer be a bystander to the refugees' suffering and joined the Karen Refugee Committee to help defuse mines. Minn is a slight young woman and her parents fled from Myanmar two decades ago. She was born in the Mae La camp, where she grew up and went to school.

Aid organizations estimate that up to 2 million landmines are buried in the war zone, with new shipments constantly coming in from China, Russia and India. The rebels, for their part, protect their hideouts with homemade mines, which they often hide in bottles. The mines kill and maim hundreds of people a year.

Minn was only on her third mission on behalf of the refugee organization when she too became a mine victim. "You could hardly hear the explosion," she says, staring at the stump below her knee. "I stepped on a mine put there by our own people."

For Saw Ba Thin Sein, 80, tragedies like Minn's are not a reason to change his policies. A man with snow-white hair, known as Ba Tae, he is the chairman of the Karen National Union and a legendary figure. He was once a feared guerilla leader who inflicted crushing defeats on the Burmese generals. He now spends his days lying on a lounge chair, no longer able to lift himself up with his own strength. He has traded his uniform for a washed-out, white undershirt and a brown longyi, the traditional sarong worn by men in Myanmar. He says: "We have lost our human rights, our prosperity and our culture. We have lost simply everything."

No Interest in Peace Talks

Ba Tae insists that he could still command 10,000 armed guerilla fighters. After the junta, with the help of Chinese fighter jets, bombed his jungle headquarters in northern Karen State, he led the resistance movement from a tiny house on the outskirts of Mae Sot. He has no interest in peace talks with the junta. "As long as there is no democracy in Myanmar, we are outlawed," he says.

It is less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the front from Mae Sot, where many illegal refugees live, working at poorly paid jobs in rapidly growing industrial zones. Mae Sam Laeb, a tiny market town, is tucked into the dunes along the banks of the Mae Nam Moi, which forms the border here. Thai troops with automatic weapons are barricaded behind sandbags, while the men from the resistance movement lurk behind a line of hills on the other side. More than 3,000 refugees live here in a narrow valley that feeds into the river. But the border to Thailand, on the other side of the river, is closed, which places the Karen in a trap.

The refugees have built rickety bamboo huts into the hillside that at least provide protection against the rain. But there is no protection against malaria, which first ravages children and then the elderly.

One of the refugees is a 44-year-old man with the poetic name Starlight. He is despondent. He says that he was happy not too long ago, growing sweet potatoes, rice and beetle nut on his small farm in Karen State. He lived with his wife and their four children in a hut next to their field. In the summer of 2004, soldiers entered the village and burned it to the ground.

Starlight's family first fled into the forest behind the village. His wife soon died of exhaustion, followed by one of his sons. When the soldiers began shooting into the areas where they saw smoke rising from the villagers' cooking fires, a group of refugees quickly left and fled to Thailand.

There were 58 refugees at first. Ten died walking through minefields. Starlight and his seven-year-old son are the only surviving members of his family of six. If they don't make it to the border they will either die of malaria or be shot by the soldiers. What they need now is a lot of luck.

But luck seems to have abandoned the Karen a long time ago.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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