Northern Thailand, August 2000.
The remnants of a people cling to a mountainside near Mae Sot in Thailand’s northern Tak province.
At Umpheim Mai refugee camp, the Karen people subsist in a camp carved from clay, an endless series of steps which they ply daily in a hopeless search for normality.
Across the border the KNLA is fighting to liberate their homeland and at the same time protect those who have not yet fled.
The people are paying dearly for the relentless quest for an independent state.
The camp’s most senior monk, Na Ware, shakes his head he disapproves of the peace deals signed by other ethnic minorities.
“Look at the Mon, they have made an agreement with the SPDC and what good has it done them?
“All they have done is surrender their right to negotiate, they have totally surrendered their rights.
“And it is not the people’s will for such agreements, the people have no say in such agreements.”
The peace deals in other frontiers have also freed many of the junta’s troops which means greater attention is paid to destroying the Karen resistance movement.
Na Ware believes Aung San Suu Kyi has no hope of negotiating peace alone.
“There must be intense pressure from the international community, otherwise all attempts at a negotiated settlement will fail.”
“While some ethnic groups have entered negotiations with the junta, it will do them no good - refugees still keep spilling over the border,” he said.
“The junta it is always at the ready, always on the alert.”
In Umpheim Mai refugee camp, home to more than 16,000 people, conditions are harsh.
For the Karen however, there is one aspect to the camp that means people will walk for more than a month through heavily mined jungles to reach it.
And that is that life may go on . . . in whatever degraded form it might take.
For in this camp, separated by just one peak from the Karen homeland, there is a greater chance of survival.
The Karen people are the victims of an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing the likes of which caused horror in former Yugoslavia and Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea.
In camps spread along the border anaemia and malnutrition are widespread, malaria endemic.
Inside Burma the Karen people are forced to construct roads for no wages, used as porters to carry munitions and armaments for months at a time, and sometimes just simply murdered.
There is no attempt to hide murders from the general populace, it is simply another tactic to force submission, or to create such fear that people take flight to Thailand, say the Karens.
At Umpheim camp as many as 20 new families arrive monthly, but at times of intense military activity, such as in January 2000, when SPDC troops attacked two villages in the Myeik and Dawei areas, 1100 people fled across the border in just a couple of days.
Those who remain in Karen state, on the “inside”, must battle an epidemic plaguing their community amphetamines.
The Thai government knows there are between 40 and 50 amphetamine factories along the Burmese border.
The military estimates 600 million amphetamine pills were last year brought into the country from Burma.
The drugs are predominantly produced in Shan state, further north, once by the Mong Tai army, under the command of the notorious opium lord Khun Sa.
Khun Sa surrendered to the junta in 1996 and now lives under house arrest in Rangoon.
The factories are now widespread along Thailand’s northern border and smuggling routes have spread along its length. And drug production has increased.
Many of the pills are destined for Thailand, but around the factories inside Burma extremely cheap drugs are made available to the local populace.
The future for the refugees is at best bleak, many say they are quite content to simply stay in the camp.
They cannot imagine a time of peace in the Karen state; they have never known such.
Ley Thaw, 34, was a student at the time of the 1988 uprising, during which thousands of students were slaughtered in Rangoon.
At the time he fled to the capital of Karen state, Pa-an, then onto the border to play a co-ordinating role for students taking refuge in Thailand.
He helped many young people flee and then began teaching at Huay Kalok refugee camp.
Teaching with a gun at his side, he instructed his students to stick together should the camp be attacked, he would guide them to a safe place.
Ley Thaw eventually abandoned his role as a teacher, deciding a more direct involvement in the war was necessary, began fighting with the KNLA, headed by General Bo Mya.
In 1993, however, he was wounded by troops from the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, renamed the State Peace and Development Council in 1997 with cosmetic hierarchical rearrangements).
Copping shrapnel from a blast from an M-79 grenade launcher, Ley Thaw was hospitalised in Mae La camp, the largest camp near Mae Sot, now home to more than 36,000 people.
Would he again take up the fight against the junta?
“I don’t want to kill anybody,” he said.
“But if the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) asks the refugees to return without adequate security arrangements I will not go, I will again take up a gun.”
For people such as Ley Thaw, life is tough, but Karen subsistence farmers that remain in Burma are facing increased difficulty just simply surviving as they have for hundreds of years.
The junta’s troops, once content with simply stealing farmers’ rice at harvest, have begun burning rice paddies before harvest.
The field is then generally sown with landmines to prevent a new crop being planted.
Ge Ra and his family began walking out of Karen state on July 12, 2000, they arrived at Umpheim Mai camp on September 8 later that year.
The rice farmer had had enough, he didn’t want to end up like his father Kin Ma, who had been killed 10 years earlier while working as a porter for Burmese troops.
He’d seen what a landmine had done to his father, both his legs were torn off by the blast and he died a slow agonising death.
For three years Ge Ra had lived under the constant stare of Burmese military intelligence officers.
In 1997 each SPDC battalion handpicked five of its most militant number to shed uniforms and become the eyes and ears of the military in the regional villages.
These groups, said Ge Ra, have more power than the military, albeit localised.
If they dislike a particular villager, or they know people have relatives in Thai refugee camps, they are at liberty to kill them.
There is nothing clandestine about their activities.
“The military comes into the villages and takes people at random to act as porters, we are forced to carry munitions and communications gear, but then there is no-one to look after our farms.
“Sometimes we are forced to work for the soldiers for three months at a time, and if you become too exhausted to keep moving they just kill you and walk on.”
And so Ge Ra left, he walked through the forest with his wife and two children, guided by local villagers.
He has made a small bamboo shack, parts of which have a flattened bamboo floor suspended above the ground, and now spends his days with his family “at home”.
Ma Cho is a 31-year-old refugee who arrived at Umpheim Mai on September 13, 2000.
She stayed in her beloved Pa-an as long as she could.
She had been paying the military 200 Kyat often (about US 45 cents at the ever-changing unofficial market rate which rules in Burma), so she was not forced to act as a porter.
But daily her family could earn only 150 Kyat, selling fried fish from a small cart.
Then the military began to come more often.
“They always took at least five people from each village per battalion, but then some batallions demand more money than others, some ask for 200 Kyat, others for 300.
Ma Cho lost her brother to a landmine while he was working as a porter.
She has two children, one who is nine she has brought to the camp.
Another, just seven, she left in Pa-an.
She is staying with people she knows until she can somehow begin to build her own life in the camp.
A moment’s silence follows her story and she begins to weep.
One of the camp’s senior men, in his 60s, offers her some comfort and a Karen language book.
It is titled “We Cannot Forget”.
To be discovered with a copy of the volume inside Burma is punished by death.
Ma Cho may be able to get work in Thailand, the economies of scale in Thailand certainly demand cheap labour.
And the Karen are certainly a cheap source of labour.
A Karen labourer will work for Bt70 daily, as opposed to the minimum wage for Thais of Bt162.
Thai authorities estimate there are more than one million illegal Burmese workers currently in Thailand.
But regular crackdowns by the Thai military and police force hundreds of people back into Burma at a time.
People are loaded into trucks and shunted back along “special” routes inside Burma.
They are prodded like cattle with long poles into the trucks because they lack appropriate identification.
For them the future is uncertain, but SPDC authorities will be waiting to greet them when they arrive home.
Late at night, sipping weak black tea in a shelter-cum-cafe a refugee in his mid-twenties succumbs to his frustration at life as a refugee since he was just eight years old.
There is a cold wind blowing through the makeshift walls and he is braced against it.
“They chose this place, because one thing the refugee knows, they want us to go home, that is why they chose this site.”
He hates the camp, he hates the Thais, he hates the junta.
He is Karen and his people are dying.
Burma, November 2000.
The refugees do not want to be in Thailand, but on the “inside” conditions are far worse.
When I first visited an Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) late last year the people were nothing short of terrified.
Landmines surrounded the camp, an attempt by the KNLA to stop marauding SPDC troops from entering.
The camp’s leader, 37-year-old Ta Su Nya, animated and speaking rapid Karen, thrust a rocket propelled grenade into my face.
“Look this one didn’t explode, it came down over near the clinic,” he said.
The clinic was a makeshift thing with a dirt floor and drafty walls – inside a baby less than a year old howled with pain in the throes of a malarial bout.
At Ta Su Nya’s behest I gripped the RPG in both hands, then tried to hand it back to him expressing my concern that it hadn’t exploded – yet.
“Don’t worry, we think we’ve disarmed it,” he said, taking it from me.
Then he dropped it.
The camp first sprang up in May 2000, and at the time of my visit in November 2000 was home to 2247 people; numbers were steadily increasing.
The people were first dislocated when SPDC troops walked into Mae Le Poe Ta village and razed it to the ground.
Some of the villagers fled to Mae La refugee camp, home to 36,000 people and the largest in Thailand, but others remained behind.
It was a tough decision with mighty ramifications.
By the New Year the refugees hoped to relocate the 350 dwellings in which they were living because they were then within mortar range of an SPDC encampment.
In September 2000 the Burmese troops walked into the camp and burned down the school.
In October the camp was shelled with 160mm mortars.
And in the first few days of November, troops passing on a nearby ridgeline fired rocket-propelled grenades into the camp.
Ta Su Nya said villagers were forced to flee to the jungle, while others made it across the river to Thailand.
“We’re going to have to move again, there’s nothing else to do, this will be our third move, but we are very worried we could be killed,” he says.
At the camp’s clinic medic Soe Moe Aunt, 34, is caring for the malaria stricken baby.
The young medic believes the baby will live, because he is there to treat it.
He volunteered to come back to the camp from where he was working in Thailand.
That forced labour will end under this military regime is a difficult concept for the local populace to grasp.
They consider it more a culture of behaviour and a necessity of life for the SPDC troops to survive in this rugged land whose people despise them.
That Karen villagers would choose to willingly work for the junta to “build the nation”, as has been so often claimed by the junta, is ridiculed by the camp leader.
“They kill people who refuse to donate food to them, they take the young men to carry their munitions and their wounded and they rape the women,” he said.
An agitated and nervous Ta Su Nya intervened as a long line of refugees waited to relay their horror stories of how they eventually arrived at the camp.
“The SPDC are about three miles from here, we have just received word, they are carrying heavy artillery and we think they are going to attack the camp.”
Some people immediately began making preparations to flee into the surrounding jungle.
Others intended to make for the Thai side to spend the night in a foreign, yet friendly, country.
And so began another offensive in an ongoing conflict in which members of the Karen ethnic minority are considered enemies of the Burmese state.
Northern Thailand, November 2000.
The fear of villagers close to the border in both Thailand and Burma is wholly understandable.
In about 1995 the KNLA abandoned positional warfare and reverted to guerrilla warfare, small bands of highly mobile units making pre-meditated strikes at their enemy from positions of obvious advantage – ambushes.
But at the same time, the traditional weaponry of positional warfare remained an asset that was far too valuable to reject.
And so from time to time either side resorts to shelling heavily the positions of their opposers.
When such conflict occurs the terror of border dwelling villagers is complete.
In a mountainous region, with valleys barely a kilometre wide and peaks stretching to 1000m or more, it is impossible to know from where the shells are coming.
We had heard a Thai village was daily copping stray shells, so myself and Canadian photographer Steve Sandford rode there on rented motorbikes.
The tiny village of Win Ne Ta was indeed being shelled, just minutes after we rode into town.
The Thai military sprang into action, running around wildly, villagers were rapidly evacuated to a nearby village on higher ground.
About a kilometre away I spoke with the community’s leader, 50-year-old Saw Dabu.
Win Ne Ta was home to just 110 Karens living in 22 rudimentary bamboo dwellings and all were daily taking refuge at a neighbouring village; this had been going on for a week – everyday the same, running for their lives.
“I think it is the SPDC’s [Burmese military’s] intention to take the village,” said Saw Dabu, adding that he wasn’t surprised by their action.
“The KNLA has a lot of support in these parts, particularly from our village, we are all Karen after all – we all want an independent Karen state.”
“During the past 12 months the situation has deteriorated, the SPDC has crossed into the village a few times.
“Now with the dry season offensive underway I am convinced this village will fall.
“We don’t know what to do . . . all we can really do is call the Thai military if they come at night.
“We have no weapons with which to protect ourselves.
“We are worried we will all be killed.”
Mae Sot, Thailand, September 2000.
General Bo Mya, the commander of the KNLA, hates the Burmese.
The 74-year-old has been integral to the Karen struggle since it was decided to take up arms and fight for an independent homeland.
He believes any country that actively engages with the Burmese junta is directly supporting its campaign of genocide against Burmese ethnic minorities.
He carries a walking stick much of the time, and always has a large hunting knife tucked into a scabbard on his belt.
At one point as we speak he rips the knife from its sheath and fingers it in front of his face: “If I could, I would kill every one of them [Burmese soldiers] alone and with my hands.
“They [countries actively engaging in Burma] are simply killing people, people are dying and the drugs keep coming.
“The country is poor, but the military is not, the country is poor because the SPDC refuses to stop fighting,” he said.
“Serious sanctions by the international community can certainly help, already the Burmese have accumulated debts that they cannot pay.”
The general is the Defence and Foreign Affairs Minister of the Karen National Union, the government of which the KNLA constitutes the armed forces.
He believes military defeat of the Burmese junta’s troops was quite possible and he intends to be the tactician behind the task.
I questioned the general about generally quoted numbers of KNLA troops, about 3000, to which the General replied simply: “You must go and meet some of our men”.
That marked an abrupt end to our interview, but meant immediate approval to travel inside Burma clandestinely to meet a brigade of soldiers handpicked by the General.
We were, within two weeks, the first journalists to the meet KNLA’s Sixth Brigade Battalion 202.
‘The fighting may be long hard and cruel, but we are prepared for all eventualities. To die fighting is better than to live as a slave. But we firmly believe that we shall survive and be victorious, for our cause is just and righteous, and surely any tyranny so despised as the Burmese regime must one day fall.’
From a Karen National Union propaganda handout.
Burma, October, 2000
We travelled in a dugout canoe through the rapids of the Moei River that marks the border of Thailand and Burma.
Thick jungle shrouded the banks and all eyes scanned for Burmese troops.
In the slow barely manoeuvreable canoe we were sitting ducks had a soldier decided to take a pot shot at us.
And we knew they were out there somewhere.
The canoe was laden down with dry food and canned fish.
On arrival at a KNLA base camp I spotted a child squatting near a small fire.
He was just 10 years old, his name was Pa Law Meh, and two months earlier he had watched, terrified, as Burmese State Peace and Development troops kicked his father to death because he refused to give them one of his chickens.
As SPDC troops killed his father in Yaw Bo village, in central Karen state, they screamed at his family members that they were nothing more than animals and deserved to die.
Now the Karen child is going to be a soldier and kill Burmese troops.
He made his way to a unit of Battalion 202 of the Karen National Liberation Army’s Fifth Brigade.
Pa Law Meh hates the Burmese and his childhood has ended.
His family does not know where his is, only that he has been gone for more than a month.
He says he will not return home, he is not afraid of being shot and that KNLA soldiers are very brave.
Pa Law Meh will soon be handed a gun, the newest generation of soldier in a long line of freedom fighters.
Commander Saw Charles, 61, presides over battalion 202.
He has been fighting against Burmese troops since 1957, has been wounded twice, and still carries shell fragments embedded in his skull.
His established this river camp in May 2000.
Battalion 201, commanded by Ner Dah, and 202 have been specially formed; members have been hand picked by the upper echelon of the KNLA command, each soldier personally approved by General Bo Mya.
Spread out along the river there are more than 350 of Saw Charles’ troops, they operate in bands of about 10.
They live in what is described as a “free fire zone”.
The thousands of villagers that once lived in the area have been forcibly relocated to a northern region of Karen state along the Salween River, hundreds of kilometres away, they were escorted by SPDC and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) troops – a breakaway faction of the KNLA which has signed a peace deal.
With the general populace displaced, SPDC and DKBA troops consider anyone moving through the area to be a member of the rebel army.
It is through this free fire zone that 10-year-old Pa Law Meh walked, picking his way through each army’s mine fields to reach the commander’s base.
The stories of the soldiers that live in this camp are peppered with the same horrific tales.
Most have witnessed their father’s death at the hands of Burmese troops, all have lost members of their families and all see no other way to help their people than to take up arms.
As the ageing KNLA commanders plan their next offensive deep into Karen state they pore over British maps that date back to the 1920s, they have great difficulty with the English language yet can identify various peaks and valleys with their intimate knowledge of the landscape.
SPDC troops are stationed less than one kilometre away and at night their changing of perimeter guards, sounded by clacking bamboo cups together, can be heard resonating through the mountains.
Commander Saw Charles answers only to Bo Mya.
Of the 202 battalion’s hierarchy, next in line are Ohn Khla, 41, and chief officer Hla Ma Ku, 51.
Land mine use is extensive by all sides fighting in this protracted conflict.
Ohn Khla laments the fact the KNLA’s mines last only about three months underground, while the SPDC’s last about a year.
The mines the KNLA guerillas use are made in the camp and are powerful enough to blow off a person’s foot.
“We don’t want to kill them, just slow them down a little,” says Ohn Khla, smiling.
But there are drawbacks to land mine use, the only KNLA casualty from this unit in six months occurred when a soldier stepped on one of the KNLA’s own mines.
He lost his foot and is now in Thailand.
The guerilla tactics adopted by the KNLA have been effective, Battalion 202 commanders claimed they had killed more than 30 SPDC soldiers in October and November of 2000.
“But you would not believe it, just last week they requested a cease-fire, via the Thai troops across the river,” says Commander Saw Charles.
“I apologised, and explained that only the general could agree to such a thing,” he said.
The Karen state is a militarised zone, when villagers are asked from what region they hail, they inevitably reply as to which KNLA region, from first to seventh brigade, they originate from.
General Bo Mya is widely regarded as having united the various Karen military factions to form the KNLA.
But he was unable to stop one small breakaway faction of between 300 and 400 soldiers that had dire consequences for his army.
In 1994 the group, which was to become known as the DKBA (the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army), defected and began working with the Burmese junta.
The defection was an absolute disaster for the KNLA, which maintained what was generally considered an impenetrable headquarters at Mannerplaw, surrounded by river and cliffs and protected by substantial mine fields that blanketed the one land entrance.
DKBA defectors lead SPDC troops through the minefields and Mannerplaw fell in 1995.
With it went the KNLA’s halcyon days, days of gem mining and logging operations – they had even managed to make a documentary about the Salween River “The Dead River”.
“The DKBA are nothing more than bandits, they are generally uneducated and know nothing of the politics of the situation in Karen state,” says Saw Charles.
“They are soldiers for no reason.”
Most of the defectors were under Saw Charles’ command, they were members of his old battalion, the 104th.
But many DKBA soldiers have since returned to the Karen fold.
Saw Thee Maw is one of those soldiers, he returned to the KNLA because he says he witnessed too many atrocities at the hands of DKBA soldiers.
Saw Thee Maw has a message for the world: “When I was 15 the DKBA said if I did not join them they would kill me, but then I realised that the DKBA was controlled by the SPDC and they hated the Karen people and treated us like animals.
“And so I have begun to fight with the KNLA, because I want my country’s freedom.”
Northern Thailand, December 2000.
The DKBA soldiers began rounding up the Christians in Burma’s Aong Daw village in August 2000.
As the Christians were identified, they were separated from the Buddhists and marched out of town.
The villagers that have been allowed to stay at Aong Daw - some Christian and lying about their religion, others Buddhist - have no idea to where their neighbours have been marched, only that they have not been allowed to return and are not expected to be seen again.
Ye Ye Aye, a Christian, is 25 and the mother of three young children, she used to lie to the DKBA soldiers about her religious beliefs and prayed only when she knew she would not be discovered.
The soldiers that controlled her village were strict vegetarians and Buddhists.
They outlawed consumption of meat and each night searched from house-to-house looking for eggs, chickens or fish paste, a Karen staple.
Should villagers be discovered hiding meat products they were jailed in a compound they had been forced to build at gunpoint.
Ye Ye Aye fled her home with her husband, 32-year-old Saw Lah Ka Paw, on December 12, 2000.
They carried their three children through mountainous terrain in the hope of a new life, free of fear and oppression.
Their eldest, 5, was hospitalised on arrival at Mae La, suffering severe dehydration and diarrhoea.
They had been unable to stop to boil water for three days, for fear of being discovered by roaming Burmese troops.
Ye Ye Aye says she is very glad to have escaped, and has no intention of returning if the situation inside Burma remains the same.
And she doubts very much whether anything will ever change in Burma.
She has no reason to believe it will.
Dan Pedersen Journalist
As the world’s focus shifts tentatively once again towards Burma, the spectre of myriad ethnic minority armies at war with the ruling junta and, at times, factions of their own races, there is an alarming human rights tragedy playing itself out. Dan Pedersen spent much time with the Karen ethnic minority and communicates with the leaders to this day. He says any solution for Burma must involve the ethnic minorities intimately, otherwise the fighting will continue, regardless of who holds the country’s reins. And this is why. This, Part 2 of Dan Pedersen’s years of reporting the tragedy of Burma are drawn from articles written for The Courier Mail and the South China Morning Post.