“We don’t agree so much with Aung San Suu Kyi. She is Burmese, she already has her own country” …

Karen refugee Naw Hellerpaw Bhutto, over the noise of rain pounding Umpheim Mai refugee camp, Thailand, about four kilometres removed from Burma’s Karen state.

And so the complexity of politics downtrodden in Burma is revealed.

Westminster is razed and the ravens are dead.

Hellerpaw was a translator and a dynamic Karen political activist imbued with the resilience of youth.

She was just 19 when I met her.

In those few words she explained a people’s inherent mistrust of the Burmese race.

During parts of 2002 I hid Hellerpaw in my Bangkok townhouse as, with her husband, she negotiated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees her new life in Sweden.

She is in Sweden now, forced to leave her verdant home of picture-postcard settings that she can barely recollect.

Hellerpaw endured.

She made it, turning her back on life in a refugee camp, turning her back on her beloved Karen state and armed with a working knowledge of four languages and more to come.

Hellerpaw’s situation is a consequence of history.

In 1948, a Colonel Stephenson penned a despatch warning the British administration that if they walked away from Burma without granting independence to the Karen, a war for independence would begin.

Those rebelling were British trained and the war began that same year.

When I arrived on the Thai Burma border in 2000 there were 38 ethnic minority armies of various calibre fighting the Burmese.

When I left the melee’s vicinity, in 2006, there may have been less, there may have been more, no-one could tell you for sure.

Because on any given afternoon another army might have sprung up and one other dissipated, just another rift among the senseless cock-ups that reign supreme during wartime.

In Burma, ethnic minority armies come and go as fast as Hobart weather changes.

In Burma, a congregation of more than five people constitutes a threat to state stability, ownership of a mobile phone can send you to jail for decades, as can receiving an illicit fax.

Commanders change sides constantly, they have nothing to lose.

Wads of cash change hands and truckloads of guns change ownership along the bitumen border road between Mae Sot and Mae Sariang, even as far north as Chiang Mai or thereabouts.

People are bought and sold, so too cigarettes in perfectly-pirated packaging containing sticks stuffed with vile tobacco and DVDs from China. Perishables don’t cost more than a dollar.

And if you’re really broke, there will be someone standing around who bought a packet of cigarettes with the last of his money and is now eking out a living selling that packet as individual cigarettes.

There is no theatre to the sale, he’s the guy selling cigarettes to people who can’t afford a whole packet.

The Thai military promotes this trade, not as an entity, there is nothing condoned, but as individuals or groups, the Thai military gets things done.

They are in it up to their necks, just as Khmer gun-traders were before them.

And the disparate ethnic armies get cash from wherever they can to buy arms.

Their tools to raise cash are piracy in the Straits of Malacca, illegal logging, gemstones, people and drugs.

That’s how they pay for the guns they give to whoever is standing around with nothing to do, for instance children, to maintain an armed presence hostile to the Burmese military junta.

The Karen are but one of the ethnic minorities that detest the Burmese and consider themselves among history’s most-lonely and stoic refugees, having walked out of Tibet a long time ago and arrived in modern-day Burma in the 1600s.

Then the Burmese arrived, likely remnants of the declining Khmer empire responsible for building the Angkor Wat.

A warring race, beholden to class etiquette of centuries-old dynasties, the Burmese began enslavement and oppression of the ethnic minorities, chasing them up into hills that would barely grow food.

Hill tribes, a term used loosely and thrown asunder by travel agents, were formed in terrified flight.

And so a pattern was set, and continues to this day, of disparate races deeply mistrustful of each other, some armed and some, just some, growing drugs, because opium grows well on Burma’s poor hillsides.

And ephedrea is a native, a grass from which ephedrene, a precursor of methamphetamine, is drawn.

Hellerpaw was four when her father died fighting the State Law and Order Restoration Council troops, Burma’s military clique of the day.

The family had been identified, and so the process of a stifling military regime’s persecution of the innocent, those with links to an insurgence bent on ruination of the status quo, began.

That was when her mum took her and her brother from their simple village life on an epic and dangerous journey that would transform Hellerpaw’s destiny.

They walked out of Karen state and into neighbouring Thailand, seeking refuge from the killing.

So they walked, and killed a bear and ate it along the way, and they took their youngest, a man, to safety.

She was eight when her neighbours’ two little girls, her playmates, burned to death underneath their bamboo house in an insecure Thai-border refugee camp taking cover from a bombardment by SLORC troops.

Hellerpaw said the two little girls’ parents died shortly after the attack of broken hearts.

Such is the acceptance of violent death as unfortunate, the simple nature of the Karen determines that this story is conveyed matter-of-factly.

The Karen were pretty much as a whole converted from animist and Buddhist beliefs to Christianity by Baptist missionaries, most notably during the 1860s. A tough, resolute people, their belief was by nature unshakeable and, by village dynamics, devout belief in God was embraced by generations.

This was an exaggeration of existing major divisions between the Karen and the Burmese.

There is little documented history of the Karen until the British arrived.

The British quickly identified the pliable and honest nature of the Karen and their belief in God soon had them serving in colonial administrative positions.

Generally shy and retiring, in part probably because of their oppression by Burmese overseers, so empowered did the Karen people feel they began to compare themselves with “gallant little Wales”.

The Karen felt they had finally found their place and an ally in their quest for self determination.

But the British departure left the Karen high and dry, outnumbered, and the source of their empowerment gone.

They took up arms.

And they wrote a charter that, short of heresy to their forefathers, locked everyone into not laying down arms until they are given their independence by anyone so empowered, but preferably with the good grace they feel they deserve for having been so patient.

Hellerpaw would mutter in times of undue stress, “the Karen, they just want to be left alone, in peace.”

The Karen National Union (KNU) and it’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), are the people to talk to when it comes to a united front representing the guiding principles of the Karen people. They have committees, there is order of sorts, they can find you a car, or an armed escort to get you close to where human rights abuses prevail, into the villages proper.

There are donors, they have businesses earning money, they send their most promising young candidates to international universities burdened with the weight of their people, they do business with the Thais and order, of an uncertain and treacherous ilk, prevails.

The Karen are just one (maybe the largest, depending on who you talk to) of the ethnic minorities.

The Karen are divided into sub-groups, the red Karen, white Karen, black Karen, striped Karen and the Karenni.

So when the “hill-tribe” women with rings upon their necks in Thailand are called Karen, they are border-dwellers, more likely than not far from home, belonging to a probably quite insular sub-grouping of the Karenni people.

These people do not trust Aung San Suu Kyi.

They do not trust Suu Kyi because her father, Aung San, flirted with the Japanese rather than the British in a treacherous diversion during World War II.

This conflict is past mistakes clanging together and there’s no space for the elephants in the room anymore.

And the Karen take umbrage that Suu Kyi has lived a life cosmopolitan and privileged, beyond their wildest dreams, and that everyone makes such a fuss about her because, after all, she’s Burmese and they’re the enemy.

The Karen don’t trust the Shan and the feeling is mutual.

The United Wa State Arm run the drugs for their Chinese criminal masters.

No-one trusts them.

The Wa were headhunters marking the entry of their villages with shrunken skulls less then a century ago, maybe three generations with such short life expectancy.

Some of the Wa’s criminal masters are descendants of remnant Chinese Kuomintang troops that lost the war to Chinese communists and have, since defeat, managed life by a peculiar blend of negotiation and threat.

There are many places to grow opium in Burma, but there are always supply route problems.

The best places are the least accessible and so inter-ethnic deals had to be made to get the product out.

The deals didn’t go so well, so the Kochin looked elsewhere for money and eventually signed a peace deal with the junta.

But the “deals” struck are generally with a select group.

When a Thai administration hostile to drugs and running a law-and-order platform under Thaksin Shinawatra put pressure on the borders along Shan state, the Wa struck a deal with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a splinter Karen group allied with the junta, to get drugs across the border.

But they kept getting caught by KNU patrols.

The Thai government has in the past paid ethnic armies by the pill seized.

Unless they had been paid off and pesky minority armies intervened, costing the involved officers cash.

Such is the farce of politics downtrodden in Burma.

In 2001 I was in Wah Lay Kee camp, a well-fortified observation and organisation post, when the commander suggested I might meet some prisoners, Burmese troops outnumbered and captured in a recent patrol and chained to posts in the ground.

I had arranged a meeting with the camp’s supreme commander and he was horrified I had even known prisoners were at the camp. He wandered off in a foul mood.

Second-hand, by another journalist, I was told that night they were given cigarettes and an average meal and then executed.

I later heard the camp commander had “retired”, citing a conflict of interest and had changed to the “other” side and was using his armed group to courier drugs.

He was mainly aggrieved that his wife wasn’t allowed to live with him at Wah Lay Kee.

Daniel Pedersen
Journalist.


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Daniel Pedersen Journalist Dan Pedersen’s overview of an impossibly complex world

In Burma, a congregation of more than five people constitutes a threat to state stability, ownership of a mobile phone can send you to jail for decades, as can receiving an illicit fax.

Then the Burmese arrived, likely remnants of the declining Khmer empire responsible for building the Angkor Wat. A warring race, beholden to class etiquette of centuries-old dynasties, the Burmese began enslavement and oppression of the ethnic minorities, chasing them up into hills that would barely grow food.