A political shift - Burma’s democracy movement
The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, an ally of Burma’s State Peace and Development Council, on Saturday (February 7) kidnapped a clutch of Thai villagers near Umphang, northern Thailand, beat them and then released most of them.
But two Thai citizens are still being held, a local Christian leader and his son-in-law.
Their whereabouts are unknown and grave fears are held for their safety.
Since June last year the DKBA and Burma Army units have made repeated intrusions into Thai territory.
Such sorties are now so common that Thai acquiescence, at least at a local military level, is considered the new reality by villagers struggling to make a living amid intense security risks.
And if there is no agreement between the Thai military and Burma Army or DKBA units, then the Thais are simply incapable of defending the Kingdom’s sovereignty.
Either of these scenarios constitutes bad news for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who in December became Thailand’s third PM in four months.
The villagers kidnapped on Saturday were considered sympathetic with the Karen National Union and the Karen National Liberation Army.
The KNU and its armed wing, the KNLA, have maintained an armed opposition to the central Burmese government since 1949.
A KNLA commander, Colonel Nerdah Mya, said the Thai and Burmese military were now “very close, it is very difficult for us along the border now.
“The Burmese [Army] are using the DKBA to clean up along the border,” he said, but stressed units of the State Peace and Development Council, Burma’s ruling military junta, were always nearby.
The Thai Interior Ministry steadfastly maintains that there is no more fighting between the SPDC and the KNLA, but rather the fighting is between the Karen themselves.
But the DKBA gets its weapons and supplies from the SPDC.
Supply lines from the Burmese stronghold of Myawaddy, on the western bank of the Moei River, are easily maintained by SPDC units in rear positions.
Colonel Nerdah said the Thai authorities wanted outbreaks of fighting that have scarred both sides of the border around Umphang in recent months stopped, clearing the way for lucrative business deals.
The frontier region where the most intense fighting has occurred in the past nine months, from Phop Phra to Umphang, is deforested either side of the border.
All sides in this long-running conflict have taken their cut of the hardwood forests that once stood there.
Now the rich, red-clay soils grow bountiful crops.
“Both the Thais and Burmese see great potential in contract farming and rubber plantations,” said Colonel Nerdah.
“And they want to cut a new road from Myawaddy into areas opposite Phrop Phra, because it is much easier on the Burmese side - then they could make a lot of money,” he said.
Transport times for agricultural products would indeed be slashed by the construction of a road skirting the Burmese side of the border, taking advantage of gaps in the formidable Dawna mountain range.
The existing, well-maintained route on the Thai side clings to the side of steep mountains and it takes hours to drive from Umphang to the nearest substantial centre of commerce, Mae Sot.
Any deals being struck between Thai and Burmese military officials in this region would constitute a particularly sticky situation for new Thai PM Mr Abhisit.
Already international observers are alleging the Thai military is operating with impunity from international laws and even Bangkok’s political machine.
In the Kingdom’s deep South, plagued by a Muslim insurgency largely of the military’s own making, Amnesty International accuses Thai soldiers of “systematic torture”, tactics including beatings, electric shocks, suffocation and sexual abuse.
In recent months the world has expressed its abhorrence at alleged mistreatment of Muslim Rohingya refugees by the Thai military.
Mr Abhisit has categorically denied any wrongdoing by his armed forces, but pictures circulated by news organisations and images of people hog-tied on beaches in full sun captured by holiday-makers suggest there may be a problem.
Mr Abhisit oversees a shaky coalition.
On one side of his cabinet there are defectors from the previous administration and on the other, ardent supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which besieged the country’s two biggest airports last year.
The latest PM must tread lightly or any semblance of stability built in this year’s opening weeks may crumble.
After the PAD held Thailand to ransom, demanding the ouster of then PM Samak Sundrajev who they decried as puppet of populist former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, thrown out of power by the military in October 2006, Standard and Poor’s downgraded Thailand’s outlook.
After Somchai Wongsawat replaced Samak, to howls of protest from the PAD and a tightening of the noose on Thailand’s international standing, S&P declared the Kingdom’s outlook had deteriorated from “stable” - which could only be considered optimistic in light of the shambles into which Thai politics had disintegrated - to “negative”.
Mr Thaksin has repeatedly vowed to return to Thailand (there are outstanding warrants for his arrest on corruption charges) and take a leading role in Thai politics.
Suggestions that Thaksin may return does not augur well for a country split into two distinct camps of political persuasion and is worse news for the Karen if regional military cliques are taking advantage of the confusion in Bangkok to do as they please.
The PAD chose yellow to symbolise its campaign against Thaksin, its protesters donning yellow shirts, the colour most closely associated with the monarchy.
Thaksin’s supporters have chosen red shirts to proclaim their support for the former telecommunications tycoon.
Both the yellow and red groupings gather in mobs with the aim of unsettling the country by whatever means until they get their way.
In the meantime the country’s tourism sector is plumbing new depths.
Thailand has just altered its visa laws, cutting from 30 to 15 days the amount of time a tourist may extend their stay.
But all statutory limitations on how long a tourist may stay have been lifted.
So Thailand has effectively doubled its tourist arrival numbers with a simple change of law.
Now anyone entering on a 30 day visa, but wanting to stay another two months, must cross an international border every 14 days, meaning the same person might be registered as an “arrival” four times during a three-month stay.
It is a dramatic ploy to manipulate statistics and present a softer image internationally of the damage done to the tourism industry since 2005, when the PAD first began its anti-government rallies
In a 2001 interview, on January 31, at a massed gathering to mark the 52nd year of the Karen “revolution” Colonel Nerdah reflected on Mr Thaksin’s election to the top post in Thai politics.
That was the year Mr Thaksin overwhelmingly defeated the Democrats’ Chuan Leekpai, who had achieved a Thai milestone by piloting his administration through a full constitutional electoral term without collapse, a hastily-called early poll or a coup d’etat.
At that 2001 gathering Colonel Nerdah, nursing his nine-month-old first daughter (he now has four), told this correspondent that Mr Thaksin’s rein would present new and unheralded challenges for the Karen.
He said the new government’s approach, of populist policies marked by cash handouts for poor, subsistence farmers who make up the majority of the Thai population, would revolve around business.
And that meant the Karens would have to chart a course making it financially advantageous for the Thais to tolerate a Karen resistance force that often resorted to taking refuge within their Kingdom and had more than a hundred thousand of its people spread out in refugee camps along the border.
Now, with the 60th anniversary of Karen armed resistance having passed and Nerdah’s eldest daughter Dah Eh Paw approaching her ninth birthday, it seems the concept of the Karen resistance complementing Thailand’s continued economic growth has been dismissed by powerbrokers.
In fact, short of Thailand being unable to defend its territory, it would seem the elements within the Kingdom have backed Burmese interests as most complementary to growth.
The Burmese want armed opposition groups silenced, obliterated, or transformed into political parties before next year’s planned election and border trade opened up and stabilised.
The Thais, rather more pragmatic, simply want fighting stopped to facilitate border trade.
Burma’s 2010 polls don’t really mean much in a Kingdom so tangled in its own politics that the military seems to have steered a course independent of its civilian administration.
Backing the DKBA and the SPDC does seem the fastest way to stop border skirmishes, but such a move might also destroy the KNU, which has waged the world’s longest-running insurgency.
Since 1949 the KNU has fought against a terrible regime proven guilty of ethno-centric atrocities that the world, feeling its way out of the horrors of World War II, swore would never be allowed to occur again.
A Burmese Army-backed militia is terrorising areas of northern Thailand and the Thai military seems either unable or unwilling to do anything about it. Daniel Pedersen reports from the border on a political shift that could have far-reaching consequences for Burma’s democracy movement.