'Burmese Darfur' The Silent Genocide of Myanmar

It's a conflict that has been going on for decades. The military junta of Myanmar continues to wage war on the country's ethnic minorities. The refugee crisis continues to worsen as horrific violence spreads through the jungle.

By Jürgen Kremb in Mae La Refugee Camp, Thailand

Tha Lei Paw, 32, doesn't respond at first when asked if she would return to her village when peace returns to Myanmar. She just smiles.

Is it an awkward smile? Or is she smiling out of fear or shame? She remains silent for a while, and then she says: "I have never seen peace. My life was an unending disaster, a life of torture and hunger. We were just slaves. Do you understand? We are damned."

Paw smiles again, as if she had not recently escaped a hell on earth -- the constant terror at the hands of government soldiers that shaped her day-to-day life in eastern Myanmar's Karen State. A seemingly unending war has been raging in the state for decades, one that the rest of the world has long forgotten.

Paw, who is a farmer, escaped across the border into northwestern Thailand. It's a region of unreal beauty, of mountains and jungles practically devoid of people, a place where mangoes and orchids grow wild. Working elephants and their mahouts occasionally cross the travelers' path.

Tattered Rags

Every few kilometers, Thai border guards carrying M-16 assault rifles checks travellers' papers. Clusters of simple huts suddenly appear around a bend in the road, clinging like swallows' nests to a steep hillside. The settlement is huge, stretching to the horizon and surrounded by barbed wire.

Mae La is Thailand's largest camp for refugees from Myanmar, also knows as Burma. Originally planned to accommodate 60,000 people, the camp now holds a much larger population that continues to grow every day. According to the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium, a non-governmental organization that works with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are at least 200,000 Burmese refugees living in 10 camps in Thailand. Another 2 million Burmese are in the Southeast Asian kingdom illegally.

Those who have managed to make it behind Mae La's barbed-wire fence are handed a refugee card -- a form of official recognition. They are given enough food to eat, their children receive free education and some of the huts even have television. But the refugees are only permitted to leave the camp once a year.

Paw crouches apathetically on a straw mat in the hut of her brother-in-law, who has been stranded in Mae La for 10 years now. Her wine-red sarong and pink blouse were a gift from the camp administration. Paw arrived here a few weeks ago with nothing but the clothes on her back -- the tattered rags she wore during her escape from Myanmar.

Promises Quickly Forgotten

There are about 50 million people living in Myanmar today. The Buddhist Burman, who gave the country its name, make up a majority of about 70 percent of the population. Paw and her family, though, are Karen, a minority of 7 million people, most of them Christians.

The Myanmar military junta is waging genocide against minorities.

The Myanmar military junta is waging genocide against minorities.

When the Union of Burma, a former British colony, gained its independence in 1948 it was Southeast Asia's wealthiest country. The government in the capital Rangoon awarded the country's dozens of minorities -- like the Shan, Kachin, Rohanis and Karen -- autonomous status. Some were even given the right to leave the federation after 10 years, a promise that was quickly forgotten.

Burma's democratic institutions quickly crumbled, leaving a group of kleptomaniac generals in charge. They plundered the country's natural resources, including teakwood, precious stones, oil and natural gas. Their opponents, dozens of small guerilla armies, soon began waging a losing war to gain self-determination for their ethnic groups.

The army of the Shan State in the northeast Myanmar's Golden Triangle region was led by Khun Sa, a drug baron sought by international authorities. The Wa Army of former headhunters was under the command of the Pao brothers, two former Red Guards who had fled China after the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. As far back as 1950, the Karen rebels went into hiding in the jungle in response to countrywide massacres perpetrated against their ethnic minority. Human rights organizations estimate that Myanmar's ethnic conflicts have claimed more than 600,000 human lives since independence.

Ethnic Cleansing in the Jungle

The world heard little about the conflict. Military dictator General Ne Win long isolated this country of golden pagodas from the outside world, forcing it to pursue an ideology he called the "Burmese Way to Socialism." The international outcry did not come until Ne Win's successors massacred thousands of demonstrators in the streets of the then-capital Rangoon in August 1988, because they had dared to demand democracy. It helped that Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of national hero Aung San who had returned home from Oxford, was the leader of the pro-democracy movement. She was an ideal hero, a woman of great courage and beauty.

The "Lady," as her supporters call her with deep respect, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and has spent much of the time since then under house arrest in Rangoon. Meanwhile, the government's ethnic cleansing operations in the jungles along the Thai border have continued largely unnoticed by the world public, producing victims like Paw and her family.

Paw grew up in Zi Phyu Gon, a small village in the heart of Karen State. She and her husband lived in a ramshackle hut next to their fields, where they grew vegetables and rice. She brought three children into the world, two boys and a girl; a few cooking pots and a robe embroidered with silver coins were her only possessions. The remote village was only accessible by jungle paths, but once or twice a year government soldiers would arrive along those paths to attack and then occupy the village. Zi Phyu Gon, though, was under the protection of Karen guerillas who would strike back at the government troops from their jungle hideouts, driving the troops out again.

Weapons from China

This deadly tit-for-tat continued until the fall of 2005, when it became clear that the soldiers had gained a clear upper hand. Armed with new weapons and fighter jets from China, the junta's troops embarked on a broad offensive into the highland regions. The military established a base in Zi Phyu Gon in November 2005.

From then on the soldiers ruled the village with a heavy hand. They burned the church to the ground shortly after their arrival and later roamed through the streets, firing at the small school with their AK-47s. "We ran from our fields in a panic to take our children to safety," says Paw.

The soldiers repeatedly attacked the villagers, turning them into forced laborers. From sunrise until late into the night, they had to cut down trees and build roads out of forest paths so that the military could bring in reinforcements.


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