Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Body count in battle zone

by Don Talenywun

Mae Sot (Mizzima) - It was just another day for the surgeons at Mae Sot General Hospital, in Thailand's north.

Overnight, on July 18, a dozen Democratic Karen Buddhist Army soldiers had arrived. They are allies of Burma's ruling military junta.

They had all stepped on landmines across the Moei River on Saturday and on Sunday morning they were in Thai hospitals.

By afternoon the amputations had begun, and doctors dressed in ankle-length rubber splash coats carried around power tools that resembled small chainsaws. Even the doctors have lost count of the mangled, discarded legs.

In little more than two weeks, from June 2 to June 19 -- 98 DKBA soldiers were wounded and 38 killed.

During the same period, just eight Karen National Liberation Army soldiers were injured.

Yet DKBA soldiers are still arriving at Mae Sot General Hospital and the private Porvor Hospital.

The DKBA has money to pay the bills and at times armed guards have been posted outside Porvor Hospital, to protect the wounded inside from potential attacks.

There is no accurate overall count of how many DKBA or Burma Army soldiers have been maimed during this year-long offensive.

This is the human consequence of the State Peace and Development Council's (SPDC) push to clear border regions of ethnic fighters before next year’s planned elections.

What is left for them, to become beggars in Thailand, or go home disabled and discarded in one of the world's least-developed countries?

The wounded DKBA soldiers were forward troopers of a 1,700-strong force that attacked the Karen National Union’s Seventh Brigade, to the north of Mae Sot.

The Burma Army brought up the rear and provided artillery support as the DKBA soldiers were forced to wage war against their brethren.

The KNU force, vastly outnumbered, withdrew from its bases and left the DKBA to wade into minefields surrounding the empty camps.

But the offensive, launched from Karen State’s capital Pa-an, has been successful in the eyes of Burma’s ruling generals.

As they made their way towards the border, the DKBA emptied 20 significant villages and sent more than 4,000 refugees fleeing into Thailand.

Video footage from the Free Burma Rangers medical outfit shows DKBA soldiers torching villages along the way.

The KNU believes the entire refugee camps along the border are under threat of attack and strict curfew has been put in place.

Internal KNU documents list as one of the main reasons the DKBA launched such a major offensive against the Seventh Brigade was to “gain a wider springboard for the export of illicit drugs and other illegal activities”.

At Well Driving Service, Mae Sot's only vehicle rental firm, the owner has felt the pinch of the “other illegal activities”.

Two months ago a Thai national and a foreigner with a UK passport rented a four-door, 4WD pickup, never to be seen again.

The passport was fake and Well's owner heard on the grapevine his vehicle, sub-let from a friend, had been floated across the Moei River, the border in these parts, on a bamboo raft and sold to the DKBA.

Now he has a million-baht bill to pay.

Such motor vehicle thefts are commonplace in and around Mae Sot.

The KNU says the border offensive also helped to divert attention, if only momentarily, from Aung San Suu Kyi's drawn-out show trial in Rangoon.

Many international observers are hailing this offensive, which began in earnest on June 2, 2008, and has so far spanned two brigade regions, as the end for the KNU.

KNU Vice President David Thackrabaw dismisses this as alarmist, or merely grist for the propaganda mill fed by Burma’s military intelligence.

“We have been [experiencing] bad times for so long that this bad time is not so very different from all the others. Some [people] have exaggerated, they are SPDC elements, even within our own ranks,” he said.

“Some of them even argue that we should cooperate, that with economic development, human rights and democracy will come naturally, we do not believe this.”

Mr Thackrabaw said Thailand had not done the KNU any great favours of late.

Earlier this year the Thai military ordered all KNU and KNLA leaders off Thai soil.

The KNU was a once favoured buffer force between Thailand and Burma.

But when a major base camp fell in April, the Thai Army ordered villagers – suspected KNLA soldiers living part-time on the Thai side of the border - to dismantle their homes and depart forthwith.

For good measure, the DKBA burned a couple down first.

Mr Thackrabaw puts the changing attitudes of the Thai military down to pressure from business interests on both sides of the border, opportunistic grabs for cash and incumbent cronies installed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

He says the Thai Army’s actions along the border do not reflect government policy.

Even Thai politicians admit the military has charted its own course since the government’s troubles began late in 2005, with mass rallies calling for Mr Thaksin to step down.

Mr Thackrabaw says Mr Thaksin’s policy prevails for now.

“That was Thaksin’s policy, to gradually snuff out the insurgency against the SPDC,” he said, to clear the way for cross-border trade.

Asked what he thought the Thai motivations were for Thailand to progressively make things harder for the KNU to operate along the border he said simply “so they can have business relations with Burma”.

He said Thailand was particularly interested in Burma's unknown, but undoubtedly plentiful, resources.

“You know they have never properly prospected, above ground of course we can make reasonable estimates [of what'[s there], but the military regimes and the SPDC have never had enough time, with the communist uprising and the ethnic uprisings to properly prospect.

“There are also some ideas that there will be contract farming on the other side of the border, but close to the border.

“It was a project and policy of the previous government . . . and I feel that that policy is still in force, because when there is a change in government, normally a change in authorities follows - of local authorities, but not immediately.

“So I think that policy still has momentum.

“According to that policy the refugees are to be repatriated to the other side of the border and employed in contract farming and the Thai businesses have agreed to buy everything that is produced -- agricultural produce.

“[This includes] sugar cane, beans, rubber, palm oil, so it is a very large project and the present government is probably not very enthusiastic about it because of the global financial crisis, they don’t want to invest in this prevailing atmosphere.”

“But the SPDC wants to make Burma a market, even some European countries want to see this happen, according to their market ideology.”

Mr Thackbrabbaw said he felt the Thai stance was somewhat cynical, in that towns such as Mae Sot consisted of wealthy micro economies practically built on the cheap labour of Burmese workers.

This cynicism was rooted in the fact that if the SPDC was able to continually strike more deals with Thai authorities while the Thais made survival harder for the ethnic armies, economic migrants would continue to flood across the border.

He estimated cheap Burmese labour contributed about five per cent to Thailand's annual growth.

“But then you must understand that the problems of economic migrants is very difficult [for Thailand] to try and stop.

“You can get a shop assistant for say, 2,000 baht a month in Mae Sot, but that translates to about 100,000 kyat in Burma, which is the equivalent of a general's wage. A mid-ranking military official would get about 60,000 kyat. A university lecturer would only get about 50,000 kyat.

Asked if people would be able to live well on that amount he said “not very well, but anyhow, you can live, perhaps you can even save – in Burma.

“Labourers [in Thailand] send about half of their earnings home to Burma, to their parents, or their brothers and their sisters to help support them.”

He said now the SPDC was looking to get its hands on a slice of that foreign income and would manage that with Thai assistance.

“Now they're trying to make it official, so workers have to pay income tax.

“They will have to get a sort of passport to be able to work in Thailand.”

So did that mean they would be paying tax to both Thailand and Burma?

“Yes, Thailand's will be an indirect tax and Burma's direct, like an income tax.

“But this is not Thailand's fault, any country with a large migrant workforce has the same problems, they have health problems, social problems, say they [a migrant worker] suddenly becomes unemployed, they might resort to petty crime for their survival so they [countries such as Thailand] have to prepare to that.”

But it seems change is brewing within the ranks of the DKBA.

Mr Thackrabaw says the DKBA was promised administration of Karen State when it split from the KNU in 1994, but today finds itself being used as a slave militia.

KNU intelligence agents and defectors report DKBA soldiers are constantly fed amphetamines, as many as 40 pills a day for frontline troops, possibly accounting for their massive casualties.

There are indications the DKBA leaders know they have been duped.

A letter of regret allegedly penned by a DKBA leader and distributed in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border apologised to the Karen people for the “black spot in Karen history” that the DKBA constituted.

It ended urging the KNU on to victory.

Defections in July by 70 DKBA soldiers and members of another splinter group working with the junta, known as the KNU/KNLA Peace Council, further suggests dissatisfaction within the ranks.

On July 9 and 10 the soldiers surrendered to the KNLA's Sixth Brigade, bringing with them 59 assault rifles, an M-79 grenade launcher, seven carbines, four pistols and 15 radios.

Among the defectors were two DKBA Captains, a Lieutenant-Ccolonel and a Colonel.

After debriefing and recuperation they may fight with the KNLA.

Sixth Brigade was hit hard last June at the top of the wet season and again in early January this year, forcing the withdrawal from two major base camps, that of 103 Special Battalion and 201 Battalion's Wah Lay Kee stronghold.

The weapons, probably more welcomed than the men, are helping Sixth Brigade to rebuild, said one of its commanders, Colonel Nerdah Mya.

“They said the SPDC had ordered them to fight us and they no longer want to, so they organised themselves and defected as one group over two days,” he said, taking time out from overseeing construction of a new base camp.

Mr Thackrabaw said defecting soldiers were mostly so strung out on drugs they would be no use in the field until they had weathered a detoxification and rehabilitation programme.

And even then they might not recover, he said.

One of the reasons these men have become so disillusioned is their leaders' agreement to transform from an army to a border security force.

That, argue many DKBA soldiers, means they are nothing more than a private security force for the much-loathed SPDC.

This is the SPDC's ultimatum to ethnic armies still fighting in Burma's interior: Join us before the 2010 elections and re-enter “the legal fold”, or we will obliterate you.

Despite the Thai military's pro-Thaksin hangover, there appears to be a softening in light of the Seventh Brigade offensive.

In the last week of July another 500 people landed at a temple over two days near Mae Salid, in Tha Song Yang district.

More are spilling over irregularly as the DKBA seeks to forcibly increase troop numbers.

The Thai authorities are already pulling their hair out trying to find somewhere secure to place all of the refugees, who have fled their homes since early June.

The total number of people who have desperately sought safe haven in Thailand is now more than 5,000.

International agencies are ready to care for them, but a coordinated approach is needed and having the population in one place makes that far easier.

One location, the deserted Eden Valley Academy School, offered vacant buildings with concrete slabs, roofs and walls.

Agencies felt that with some sanitation work, expansion and construction of a pedestrian bridge a focal point – a new camp – as many as 2,300 people could be cared for indefinitely at the site.

That would take the number of camps along the border to 10.

In principle Thai authorities have agreed with the concept, but finding somewhere safe from DKBA attack is proving a challenge.

Where along the border can security be guaranteed and the site can accommodate such a massive influx of refugees? That is the problem facing Thai authorities.

But the KNU's David Thackrabaw believes that the very fact Thai authorities are considering new sites suggests a softening in the formerly hard-edged attitude to distressed and dislocated Karen villagers from Burma.

“I think they are becoming more sympathetic to these refugees, they understand that it is not just because of fighting these people are leaving, that there are human rights abuses and an ethnic cleansing policy [in place across the border].

“I think Thailand is beginning to understand these people have to take refuge in Thailand for their very survival.

“It's a scorched earth policy, burning down crops, burning down houses, these are not just human rights abuses, they are crimes in anyone's terms and they are perpetrated by the SPDC and they use the DKBA to commit these crimes as well.

“So the Karen population, the civilian population cannot survive [inside Burma].

“These are crimes, crimes against humanity,” he said.

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