Thursday, July 2, 2009

Looking in a Broken Mirror

“Born to Fight”
“Give the land back to the Karen people Democracy now!”

The Irrawaddy News

MAE SOT— Moo Say lay lethargically on the bed, his face hollow and pale. His arms and body were woefully skinny and he was missing one leg, amputated below the knee.

“I’ll never give up,” he croaked.

KNLA soldier Moo Say (right) enjoys a joke while two injured DKBA soldiers (in white pajamas) eat rice soup at Mae Sot General Hospital in June. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing/The Irrawaddy)

Moo Say is—or was until recently—a Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) soldier who was injured while clearing landmines on a road where Karen villagers were fleeing to escape military assaults by the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) ceasefire group.

He was carried for three weeks in a hammock from the KNLA Brigade 7 area to the Thai border, put in a truck and finally driven to Mae Sot General Hospital.

Twenty-year-old Moo Say is one of about 4,000 Karens who have crossed into Thailand since the DKBA and Burmese army launched a successful assault on KNLA Brigade 7 early last month.

Caught in the crossfire or forced to flee their villages in fear of marauding soldiers, the displaced villagers headed across the Thai-Burmese border to Tha Song Yang District in Thailand’s Tak Province.

Most were from the Brigade 7 area, but many had traveled from areas as far as Pa’an District, some four days’ walk.

“I must return to the fight as soon as I get out of hospital,” said Moo Say. “I have to avenge my sacrifice.”

Despite his pledges of revenge, he appears quite calm and smiles at anyone who passes by. He is tattooed on his thighs and his hands in both English and Karen, sporting mantras such as “Born to Fight” and “Give the land back to the Karen people now!”

Moo Say said he has lost 14 kg in weight since he arrived at the hospital. Minus a leg and painfully thin, he is down to just 43 kg.

Moo Say estimated that he had received six bottles of blood since he arrived at Mae Sot General Hospital.

While in hospital, Moo Say he has had a unique opportunity to speak to injured soldiers of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which has been fighting the KNLA since 1995.

He spoke to a 17-year-old DKBA soldier who was also injured by a landmine and lost a leg. He told Moo Say he was injured when he returned home after cutting bamboo in the forest.

Moo Say said the DKBA soldier told him that he was fed up of being a soldier and would not serve the DKBA when he leaves the hospital. He said he was involved in the recent attack on Brigade 7 because he was forced to and was paid by the DKBA leaders.

Karen sources say DKBA soldiers were given 100 baht per day to join the attack on KNLA Brigade 7.

Moo Say left Mae Sot hospital on June 28, but eight DKBA soldiers and five KNLA soldiers are still being kept there. One DKBA soldier died in hospital. Most of them were injured by landmines, not by gunfire.

In the hospital, relatives of the DKBA soldiers also go around and chat with the KNLA soldiers. Likewise, friends and family of the KNLA soldiers chat and share food with hospitalized DKBA soldiers.

Karen sources in Mae Sot have claimed the DKBA soldiers were given more favor by Mae Sot General Hospital. There is one injured Burmese soldier in the hospital and he is guarded by two Thai policemen.

Karen sources around the border also said that DKBA spies are all over Mae Sot these days and that they may even be in the hospital.

The same sources estimate that while the DKBA remains the dominant influence on the border, the relationship between Thai businessmen, the Thai police and the DKBA members will be much more cooperative than in the past.

Leaders of the DKBA also own thriving businesses in the Mae Sot area and are known to have smooth relations with the Thai authorities.

Sources said that a few days after the fall of the KNLA Brigade 7 headquarters, members of the DKBA crossed into the Thai village of Mae Salit in Tha Song Yang District where Karen refugees were being housed and made a loud and public statement of eating and drinking in the local restaurants.

Some of the DKBA soldiers also lobbied the newly arrived Karen refugees to return home. They told the refugees that the situation in the fighting zone is now stable, said Karen relief sources.

However, Karen sources said there are disagreements between DKBA soldiers and their commanders. There is a common perception that the leaders have only sided with the Burmese regime in order to expand and protect their business interests.

The commander of the DKBA Battalion 999, Col Chit Thu, is now believed to be the most influential man in both the DKBA administration and its military wing. The recent attacks on KNLA Brigade 7 were planned by Col Chit Thu with the aim of operating an economic zone after the battle was won, said the Karen sources.

DKBA sources reported that Col Chit Thu owns several large businesses, including logging, drug trafficking and a trade in motor vehicles from overseas. He regularly flies to countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong to facilitate his car importing business, the sources said.

One DKBA business source said that the DKBA leaders were aiming to increase their business activities in the region, with a view to constructing a road connecting DKBA headquarters Myaing Gyi Ngu and the Thai border, as well as expanding ventures in logging, mining natural resources such as zinc and tin, and building an infrastructure of factories and business enterprises.

Trade will be controlled directly by Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said the businessman.

However, he noted that not all was plain sailing with the DKBA leadership.

“The DKBA leaders have been fed by the Burmese regime, so now they have to serve the regime,” he said. “They have become servants of the junta.”

KNU General-Secretary Zipporah Sein said the DKBA is being used as a tool of the Burmese regime to oppress Karen people, and she urged the DKBA to reconsider its military activities against Karen civilians.

“The DKBA soldiers are clearly being used by the Burmese army. During fighting, the DKBA soldiers must stay in the front line and serve as minesweepers while the Burmese soldiers stay back and fire mortars,” said Zipporah Sein.

If the influence of the DKBA continues to grow in the border areas, the riskier it will be for the KNU, Burmese opposition groups in Mae Sot and refugees, said Burmese observers and Karen sources.

After the DKBA split from the KNU in 1995, the splinter group staged daring attacks on several Karen refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border with the help of Burmese troops.

In 1997-98, Huay Kaloke refugee camp, about 10 km (6 miles) from Mae Sot, was attacked and burned down by DKBA soldiers.

After the breakaway of the DKBA and another splinter group, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council led by Maj Gen Htain Maung, assassinations between the splinter groups and KNU occurred frequently.

The most significant assassination was that of former general-secretary of the KNU, Mahn Sha, who was gunned down in his home in Mae Sot on February 14, 2008.

In an interview last year, the commander of KNLA Brigade 7, Brig-Gen Johnny, told The Irrawaddy: “All this fighting between Karens is enough to make the Burmese government very happy. We Karen people should be united.

“If we are divided, we will never achieve self-determination and the rights we demand,” said Johnny.

In Tha Song Yang, the 4,000 newcomers to the world of refuge sit around listlessly, looking confused and anxious.

Hsa Moo, a young Karen volunteer who is helping process the new refugees, said, “I don’t want Karen people to fight each other any more. All we want is peace. We are hungry for peace.”

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