Their base camp, a relatively new settlement once equipped with solar power, a clinic, reticulated water and fish holding tanks has been razed to the ground by State Peace and Development Council soldiers.

From a secret location on the Thai-Burma border KNU vice president David Thackrabaw said the SPDC soldiers were maintaining a “scorched earth policy” against not only the KNLA, but also Karen civilians.

While the KNLA steadfastly maintains it has avoided casualties in this latest offensive, its soldiers are now sleeping rough in dense jungle that provides a modicum of security under the cover of darkness.

In the daytime they move.

Working alongside SPDC troops is a slave militia, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

The SPDC and the DKBA work in tandem, using Thailand as a launch pad for attacks because the terrain is more navigable.

And the Thai side is not blanketed with landmines.

On Saturday January 3, in the evening, the latest offensive of more than 200 men wrested control of the KNLA base camp as the hopelessly outnumbered rebels withdrew.

The camp was the only medical facility for more than 800 villagers clustered in two nearby settlements.

More than 300 Burmese nationals of the Karen ethnic minority, their homes reduced to ashes, are now huddled under makeshift shelters, protected from marauding SPDC and DKBA troops by Thai soldiers.

On Sunday and Monday low-flying Thai military helicopters plied the skies between Mae Sot and the Umphang region, delivering reinforcements and materiels to defend both the border and the latest batch of refugees to flee the contested region.

In a nervy interview in Mae Sot on Tuesday night the KNLA’s Colonel Nerdah Mya said his base camp was in cinders and he was heading back into this war’s newest theatre on Wednesday in a bid to “put everything back together again.

“We have to find a new location, we have no location at the moment, we are always on the move.”

Colonel Nerdah said about 20 DKBA and SPDC soldiers had been wounded by landmines and while some were being treated in the field, others had been sent to Umphang and Mae Sot hospitals for amputations.

He insisted the situation was not critical for his men.

“We have been coping with this type of situation for many years now, sometimes they send many soldiers to occupy the entire area, but if we keep moving we can get around them.”

The KNLA’s hold on the area has for years been tenuous at best.

The area, which surrounds an eccentricity of border demarcation between Thailand and Burma known as Phop Phra, is rich in minerals.

There is an antimony mine, a gold mine and there are zinc and tin deposits.

Taiwanese and Thai businessmen are constantly seeking to exploit the resources, but are generally defeated by the fact whichever side they are dealing with, be it DKBA, SPDC or KNLA, cannot provide adequate security.

The battle for control of the region began in earnest this year in late June, when torrential rains still pounded the area almost daily.

Since then Thailand’s sovereignty has been repeatedly compromised by DKBA and SPDC troops.

At times the Thais have resorted to lobbing mortars at SPDC battalions whose stray shells have forced the evacuation of Thai villages.

Phop Phra was once home to one of Thailand’s finest teak stands.

It was logged by the KNU in decades past, when the organisation was Thailand’s sweetheart and a convenient buffer force to Burma.

Now the region’s red clay soils, utterly deforested, grow bumper crops of corn.

But the poor farmers who grow the corn to sell to Thai interests are forced to pay taxes to both the DKBA and the KNLA for safe passage through their respective territories, although the KNLA is far more modest in its demands.

December and early January, regarded as the cold season here, is the best time to reap corn seed, which fetches a higher price than fresh cobs.

Much of the current crop will go to waste as the latest hostilities stretch into their seventh month.

Sergio Carmada, a co-founder of the Italian non-governmental organisation Popoli, which bought seed, ploughshares and motorcycles for the KNLA’s current crop and also helped fund Colonel Nerdah’s destroyed base camp, offered his view of this war that began in 1949.

“In my opinion war for identity is not very popular around the world.

“War for democracy is very popular. You can destroy towns and kill hundreds of thousands of people for that. For democracy you can kill everyone. For identity - it’s not allowed anymore.”

The founder of the Free Burma Rangers, a former US soldier who uses the Karen moniker U Wa A Pa (father of the white monkey) to hide his true identity, disregards the DKBA as uneducated oafs who don’t know what they are fighting for, or why.

He agrees with the KNU’s David Thackrabaw that the SPDC is employing a scorched-earth policy.

U Wa A Pa is currently in western Karen state, about a month’s walk from the Thai border, disseminating information by satellite phone.

He says the situation is worse for inhabitants of western Karen state than those nearer Thailand and villages are constantly burned down and crops torched.

FBR provides medical support for villagers on the run from SPDC troops in remote areas.

“Really, I would say 10 per cent of the DKBA have some dispute with the KNU, 10 per cent are outright criminals [drug runners] and the other 80 per cent are just along for the ride,” he said.

“I think given a realistic option they [the DKBA] would change sides in a day.

“But they need to see that the KNLA can win, they want to be on the winning side.”

Today, a KNLA victory seems the most unlikely of scenarios.

Daniel Pedersen Southeast Asian correspondent. Mae Sot, Umphang, Thailand. First published in The Economist
KAREN National Liberation Army soldiers are being hunted by Burma’s ruling military junta in a sliver of land opposite northern Thailand.

The KNLA’s Sixth Brigade, one of seven brigades of the armed wing of the Karen National Union, is engaged in a desperate battle for survival near Thailand’s mountainous Umphang region.