Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Putting Karen against Karen in a Bloody War

A DKBA soldier and a KNLA soldier lie side by side with leg injuries at Mae Sot Hospital. (Photo: Alex Ellgee/ The Irrawaddy)

The Irrawaddy News

MAE SOT — The tragedy of the Burmese army forces and Karen clashes over the past month can be seen here in Mae Sot Hospital where many Karen soldiers lie injured, many the victims of land mines or artillery fire.

Having fought against each other on their own land, they now rest next to each other in hospital beds on foreign soil

Blood soaked bandages and faces grimacing in pain can be seen in the hospital’s orthopedic ward.

The injured are soldiers in the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the Karen breakaway cease-fire group, and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

Muzzo, a 26-year-old KNLA soldier, lost both hands when a land mine accidentally went off during a rainstorm. (Photo: Alex Ellgee/ The Irrawaddy)

“I had to fight for peace and to look after my people” said Muzzo, a 26-year-old KNLA soldier. “We cannot live under the SPDC killing and hurting our people; we never want to get to that situation, so we must fight to stop them.”

As DKBA and Burmese regular army troops advanced on the KNLA 7th Brigade recently, Muzzo said he was laying down a landmine in a last line of defense. The rain was so heavy that an accident occurred and the mine ignited, causing him to lose both of his hands and the sight in his left eye.

Despite his wounds, he said that he wasn’t sad and that any blood a KNLA soldier gives “is with his heart for the peace and love of Karen people.” His hatred of the Burmese army runs deep. He said his brother and sister were starved to death by the Burmese army and despite his wounds he owes it to them to continue to do whatever he can for the KNLA.

Lying in the bed next to Muzzo was a 23-year-old boy, his face clearly in agony. Part of his foot had been destroyed by a landmine, and he had just gone through his second round of surgery to repair the limb. As his left foot was bound tightly in bandages, his right foot was exposed and his father gentle caressed the foot.

When asked how he felt to see his son in such a condition, he said he was proud that his son was a loving man.

“He gave his foot for the people of Karen State so they could live in peace,” he said.

Nearby were wounded DKBA soldiers, also casualties of line mines. Like the KNLA soldiers, they had first gone to Mae Tao Clinic where they were referred to Mae Sot Hospital for surgery on their limbs.

One DKBA soldier clutched his right knee to ease the pain from the recent amputation of his leg. His wife helplessly looked on, her face in total exhaustion.

Having fought with the KNLA for 25 years, the soldier said he was forced to switch sides to the DKBA when his family’s village was overrun by DKBA soldiers. He said he had no choice.

“If I didn’t go to the DKBA, my family would have starved,” he said quietly.

In another area of the ward, a DKBA soldier lay in a bed beside a KNLA soldier. They chatted like old friends. The DKBA soldier, 43 years old, had serious injuries to his thigh, having stepped on a landmine while collecting bamboo to make a shelter.

“I didn’t want to join the DKBA” he said. “I was forced into the army. I don’t want to shoot Karen people, but I am ordered to do it so there is nothing I can do. All I really want to do is to farm and grow rice in peace”

Many of the wounded KNLA soldiers empathized with the DKBA soldiers. The KNLA soldier lying next to the DKBA soldier said he didn’t hate DKBA soldiers.

“DKBA soldiers only change from KNLA because they are hungry and need food,” he said. “I am not angry at them. They are KNLA in their hearts, but their leaders tell them what to do. Their leaders just want money, power and hero status. The soldiers just want food and peace, but because the leaders give them food they have to listen to them.”

The tragedy of Karen fighting against Karen mirrors the futility of war everywhere, and underscores the utterly desperate condition of many of the Karen people who oftentimes will switch armed allegiances because of the access to food.

It's uncertain what lies ahead for the DKBA and the KNLA troops. Many analysts are predicting that the KNLA will lose the area it has controlled. Some observers are also talking about dark plots against the DKBA leadership by the Burmese army itself. Many people speculate that the Saturday ambush of a senior DKBA commander, Saw Beyot, was carried out by Burmese forces.

“It’s not above what the Burmese are capable of, and they may have done it to create more misunderstanding between the KNLA and DKBA,” said David Thacrabaw, vice president of the KNU. "There were no KNLA troops in the area. But there were many Burmese."

A Karen soldier who was nearby when the ambush occurred said he only remembers hearing bullets flying everywhere. He now lies on a hospital bed with bullet wounds on his arms.

He is surrounded by fellow Karen, soldiers caught up in a complex conflict that exploits their love for their people while pitting them one against the other.

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