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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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