Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Calling the Shots

The Irrawaddy News

MAE SOT —Intense fighting along Burma’s border with Thailand forced more than 3,000 Karen villagers to flee their homes and livelihood for the safety of refugee camps in Thailand in May and June.

The decision to flee rests with the village leader—and it wasn’t an easy one.

Karen refugees walk along a road on the Thai-Burmese border in Per Nwe Pu village in June. (Photo: Getty Images)

“We are so sad to have left our village” said the leader of Ponyacho village, resting from his journey in a Thai monastery in Mae Salit. “But we had to leave. Now the fighting is more dangerous than ever.”

He recalled that as he was struggling with the decision to abandon their village, the sound of mortar and machine gun fire echoed through the mountains, which have acted as a last line of defense for the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) for more than 60 years.

Hearing the nearby gunfire, he quickly made up his mind.

The village leader ordered people to pack up what they could carry and to leave immediately. Many of the village men had been conscripted as porters in earlier armed clashes, and they were unwilling to risk capture again.

“If we stayed, we would have been forced to be porters,” said a villager who had previously been forced to carry the bed of a Burmese commander through the jungle. “The Burmese commanders want to live like kings, and they want us to live like animals.”

Villagers also feared the Burmese forces would need extra soldiers on the front line and they would eventually be forced to participate in the fighting.

“How can the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) expect me to fight for the Burmese army and kill my Karen brothers?” asked one angry villager.

KNLA soldier s on patrol along the Thai-Burmese border. (Photo: Dai Kurokawa)

In the past, villagers conscripted by the Burmese army have been used as human mine sweepers—forced to walk in front of Burmese soldiers to set off any potential land mines.

“One Burmese soldier used me as a human shield,” said one villager. “As we advanced towards Karen soldiers, he hid behind me and held his gun over my shoulder. If anyone had fired at him, I would have surely died.”

Many of the fleeing villagers had been working hard on their farms and were waiting to enjoy their harvests. “We had been waiting for the mangoes to be ripe for eating” said the leader. “We’ve had to leave it all behind.”

Many of the Karen population retain their animist beliefs despite decades of Christian missionary work. As animists, every mountain, tree and river around a village has a name and spiritual presence.

“They have worshiped the spirits all their lives for protection” explained a Karen Youth Organization worker. “Outside of their village area, they wouldn’t know the spirits as well and for people who believe that spirits can kill, this can be terrifying.”

Some villagers hiked through the jungle for three days, traveling slowly to avoid detonating land mines planted by both sides of the conflict.

“Even if we don’t detonate a mine we are still faced with the risk of catching malaria or being bitten by a snake,” said the village leader. “When you travel with women and young babies, the decision to leave is not an easy one.”

When they finally arrived at the river, the refugees crossed over on boats belonging to the KNLA’s 7th Brigade into the Thai village of Mae Salit. On arrival, they spread out, locating and staying with Karen families who had settled in the area in previous years.

They arrived in torn and ragged clothing. The Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) told the recent arrivals to congregate at a local monastery, where they were given new clothes supplied by a foreign donor, and interviewed by members of various Karen organizations.

“There are so many mothers with young babies here,” said Blooming Night, joint secretary of the KWO. “It’s not right that they should suffer in this way.”

For the children, this latest offensive will have long lasting affects on their lives. The school year had just started and all teaching material was left behind in the schools.

School children actually came under attack in Pa-an District, forcing 89 students and seven teachers to flee through the jungle. In the rush, they had no time to contact their parents. They travelled through the jungle, eventually arriving at Safe Haven Orphanage where nine children were diagnosed with malaria which they contracted on the journey. None of the children have received information about their parents’ whereabouts, or whether they are even alive.

“It’s very tragic. Most of the children’s parents have probably been taken as porters,” said Tasanee, the director of Safe Haven Orphanage, who goes by one name.

Tasanee’s mother established the orphanage in 1994 to look after children in the area who had been orphaned. Located near the Moei River, the orphanage is still close to the fighting and the sound of mortar fire often interrupts the children’s English lessons.

“When the mortars begin, the children stop singing,” said a volunteer English teacher. “They just sit there glazed over and silently terrified. They know what the noises are, and they know what they mean. Sometimes they come and hug us but mostly they just retreat within themselves. It’s like they’re shell shocked.”

The mortar fire worsened on June 10 when four rounds landed in Mae Salit, only meters from the monastery where the villagers had received aid. One round landed near Mae Salit Luang School.

Many villagers were concerned the fighting would spill over onto Thai soil. The Karen Human Rights Group reported that a DKBA officer had sent a villager from the Ler Per Her area as a messenger to contact the recently arrived refugees. The messenger said the DKBA demanded 3,000 baht (US $100) per village to reimburse it for the cost of hiring porters to carry supplies during their offensive.

In response to the security concerns, Thai authorities have strengthened several checkpoints entering Mae Salit and army jeeps with armed soldiers patrol the main road.

Observers say the recent clashes are designed to allow the DKBA to secure its new role as a border guard force under the Burmese army, and the KHRG reported that DKBA officials are already referring to themselves as the Border Guard Force.

If the DKBA and Burmese army succeed in their mission to eliminate the KNLA from the border area, many Karen villagers will be displaced and the survivors will be forced into refugee camps for a long period of time, where they will be restricted.

Fully aware of the present dangers, the Karen villagers still managed to laugh and smile as they sat around the grounds of the Thai monastery.

“Our villagers feel lost and confused, but we are just happy to be away from the Burmese army—nothing can be as bad as living in a village under their control,” said the village leader.

“If I didn’t make the right decision, all our brothers and sisters would have perished in the village,” he said.

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