These are the darkest days we have ever faced,’ says Colonel Nerdah Mya of the Karen National Liberation Army – the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) – as we sit at base camp. Here in the mountain jungles of Karen State in eastern Burma, he talks about the world’s longest running civil war and the international community’s apparent blindness to it.
Since 1949 the Karen have been fighting a war of self-determination, first against the Burmese Government and then against the military dictatorship now ruling Burma – the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The SPDC maintain an overwhelming presence in Karen State – there are 20 well-equipped Government soldiers for each Karen guerrilla. On 29 June they launched a major offensive against the key strategic outpost of Wah Lay Kee. The pitched battle lasted for several weeks. At Mae Sot General Hospital in Thailand wards filled up with wounded from all sides.
But it is off the official battlefields that the carnage has been most terrifying. When Government soldiers go on ‘search and destroy’ missions, males from Karen villages are kidnapped and used as porters, forced to carry the soldiers’ packs and walk in front as human shields and minesweepers. Villagers are routinely and often arbitrarily subjected to torture, execution, imprisonment and forced labour. Women are frequently gang-raped and infected with HIV.
Cyclone Nargis left over 140,000 dead and ‘missing’ in the Irrawaddy delta region to the west. Colonel Nerdah questions whether it was just a coincidence that aid did not arrive. Could it instead have been part of the military regime’s programme to eliminate the Karen and quell dissent?
With over 120 ethno-linguistic groups, Burma has an extraordinarily diverse culture and a history of division. After Burma became an independent nation in 1948, the Karen – one of the largest ethnic groups in the country (with 6.2 per cent of the population) – were just one of the minorities seeking to live autonomously. Sixty years later, Colonel Nerdah believes that his people must create a viable and sustainable economy if they are to win recognition as a state and exist as such.
This means another fight: to work every day to build a new nation. The Karen’s corn will be sold in Thailand and the profits used to fund construction and provide direct aid to the villages. And as part of a programme to encourage those who have come back to their homeland, the KNU is building attractive ‘model villages’ for currently displaced Karen.
But the economic war is being fought from both sides. The military regime is constructing three major hydropower projects on the Salween River, a UNESCO world heritage site, to provide power and income for the regime. Reservoirs created by the dams will flood large rebel-held areas. The completion of the dams would be a devastating blow to the Karen in an already devastating war.