Friday, January 21, 2011

Refugees live in fear as war on DKBA continues

Friday, 21 January 2011 14:00 Thomas Maung Shwe

(Mizzima) - Since fighting began in the Myawaddy area the day after the November 7 Burmese national election, scores of villagers who were displaced from Dooplaya and Pa'an districts in Karen state are now trapped in a narrow band of fields located on the Thai side of the international border.

A long-running, low-intensity conflict that has plagued this area for years has dramatically shifted gears, bringing with it a much higher level of violence, deaths and large scale abuse of civilians–a clear sign that war has broken out in eastern Burma.

Unable to return home because their villages and farms are battle grounds in an increasingly bloody conflict between a breakaway faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Burmese junta’s army, the refugees–threatened but unable to move–are caught in a virtual no man’s land.

From their hiding places one can regularly see, or hear, the Burmese army’s attempts to dislodge the renegade DKBA commander, Naw Kan Way (aka Mister Mustache), and his band of heavily armed and seasoned fighters.

The outlook for the refugees is bleak, Thai authorities won’t allow them to go further into Tak Province, and they have repeatedly forced the refugees to ‘voluntarily’ cross back into the war zone. Once in Burma, many of the returned refugees opt to immediately work their way back across the border, despite the threats of the Thais, because of the very real fear that the Burmese army will forcibly recruit them to serve as porters or human mine sweepers.

Aid groups and well-wishers seeking to deliver food and medical supplies have difficulty even locating the displaced villagers because of the repeated harassment by the Thai authorities, who have forced the refugees to abandon the large temporary camps and spread out in the bush, hiding in small groups in farm huts or forested hill tops. The result is that many of the refugees are hungry, sick and terrified of being returned yet again to Burma.

Moments after a Karen refugee from Palu told Mizzima, “Even though we are in Thailand, we worry that the artillery and bullets will hit us,” a barrage of small arms fire mixed with the sound of mortar shells erupted, as if ordered on cue to reinforce her point.

Remarkably, however, among the refugees Mizzima spoke to, the overwhelming majority of whom are Karen, most still retain a hopeful outlook, despite the fact that the resumption of fighting has obviously destroyed the people’s lives. Forced from their homes and driven from their land, many left behind their meager harvest and their livestock, knowing full well that the hungry Burmese soldiers would steal it all. Adding insult to injury, a large number of the refugees have learned that in their absence their homes will be demolished. Poorly equipped Burmese soldiers strip the wood off and carry it away to fortify their defensive positions.

Last week, while meeting with a small group of refugees who were living in an abandoned farm storehouse, this correspondent couldn’t help but notice that the refugees’ newly found shelter contained several large drums of poorly sealed pesticide. The large warnings posted on the side of the container in English and Thai read, ‘Danger contents Poisonous’. The refugees were unable to read both languages.

A 10-minute walk from the toxic pesticide shed, was the border with Thailand. Standing on the riverbank that marks the border, in the space of less than half an hour, Mizzima observed at least five mortar shells land on Thai soil. Despite several official complaints from the Thai government, the Burmese army, whether out of defiance or sheer incompetence, has continued to launch shells into Thailand over the past several weeks.

One refugee said that while they were afraid of being killed by stray shells, the Thai soldiers and border police appear to be even more scared and rarely could be seen in the area when the shells were landing in Thailand.

Numerous reports that the Burmese army is using convict porters as human shields to march through minefields was confirmed by escaped prisoners who spoke to Mizzima. According to one of the porters, in the 48 hours before his escape, he witnessed at least 30 porters and soldiers felled by landmines as Burmese officers continued to press ahead with their reckless advance across heavily mined DKBA positions.

A porter from Bago Division told how he been arrested at random by army recruiters in December while he was having dinner at a restaurant. He was quickly taken to the frontlines, forced to carry ammunition through heavily mined territory alongside dozens of starving prison convicts. His relatively brief period of detention meant that he was strong enough to escape one night when the soldiers guarding him were asleep.

He walked for two days before reaching the border and was fortunate to encounter a group of displaced Karen refugees from P’laua, who despite having almost no possessions, were kind enough to take him in and share what little food they had. The fact that this porter from the Burman majority may very well have been forced to carry the ammunition that destroyed the villager’s homes did not prevent the refugees of Palau from helping a fellow farmer in need. It was a heartening example of kindness in the midst of a lengthy ethnic-based conflict.

The escaped porter had no documents and no idea how or when he would return home to his 9-year-old daughter. He lamented that his daughter, who lost her mother to illness only last year, likely doesn’t know where her father is or what happened to him. Fearing that he could be deported into the hands of his army kidnappers at any moment, he said, ‘I just want to go home’. Before he can be reunited with his daughter, he faces an extremely difficult journey that could easily result in his return to enslavement or summary execution.

It is unclear when the latest round of fighting will end, but it is hard to see the Burmese army dislodging the renegade DKBA brigade anytime soon.

Reports from the fields suggest that despite the fact that the Burmese junta has more men and more weapons, the outgunned guerrilla faction has an advantage in being very familiar with the terrain, and they have inflicted significant causalities on the poorly trained Burmese conscripts.

On the way back from the front line, Mizzima literally bumped into a DKBA soldier who claimed to have just killed four SPDC soldiers with a rocket propelled grenade. A few minutes later, the rebel was able to point to a group of SPDC soldiers, barely visible to the naked eye, who he said were burying his victims. Sure enough a camera zoom lens revealed that the soldiers were indeed burying what appeared to be the bodies of their fallen comrades.

Justifying his lethal actions, the DKBA soldier explained that he did what he had to do to protect his land and his people. He summed up his group’s guerrilla strategy as, “We never shoot first. If they shoot the big guns, first we evade and then we fight back.”

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