Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Visit to Refugees on the Salween River

A KNU soldier at a checkpoint on the Salween River. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing/The Irrawaddy)

The Irrawaddy News

Ban Mae Sam Leap, Mae Hong Son Province — When you enter Mae Sam Leap, a Thai border village on the Salween River, you see a lively market area where goods are exchanged.

Located on the opposite side of the river is a Burmese government military post.

In this border area, the Salween River serves as a border line in northern Karen State in eastern Burma and Mae Hong Song Province in Thailand.

The river landing area is crowded with boats used to transport trade products. The village is crowded with Thai soldiers, traders, travelers and even Burmese soldiers who cross to the Thai side to visit and buy food and other supplies.

Mae Sam Leap is one of the border points where Thai-Burmese traders exchange goods. Before the Karen breakaway group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), split from its mother organization, the Karen National Union (KNU) in 1995, the exchange of trade goods was robust.

Border trade along the Salween River and Mae Sam Leap area dropped drastically because of repeated DKBA attacks against Karen villagers and KNU troops in the area.

In recent years, the trade activity has picked up again, in spite of continued military clashes.

It took about four hours riding in a long boat to reach the U Wei Hta refugee camp, also known Ei Tu Hta Zone 6.

During the ride, we passed deep jungle, huge trees and beautiful, secluded valleys, and we saw military posts of both government troops and KNLA soldiers.

The talk on the boat among local villagers was of a coming military offensive in September by junta and DKBA troops against the KNU

Arriving at Ei Tu Hta Zone 6, Saw T’kwel, the zone leader, briefed me on the camp and introduced me to a few villagers. One Karen schoolgirl stood out.

Thirteen-year-old Naw Taw Oo Paw said her father was killed by junta soldiers in her village of Kaw Tu Tun in Taungoon District in early 2006. She described her family’s 25-day trek to the border.

She and mother, and her three sisters, survived on boiled rice. She had one change of clothes. She slept on the ground at night with a piece of bamboo as a pillow, trees as her shelter and one blanket to fight off the cold.

They cooked only at night, she said, to avoid sending up plumes of smoke, alerting the junta’s soldiers to their whereabouts. They dried their wet clothes by the fire.

Her father was killed by government soldiers after they entered her village, she said.

“They did not bury his corpse,” she said, softly. “It was like killing an animal. I feel very sad when I think about it. I hurt because I don’t have a father like others.”

Starting to cry, she said, “Now my mother has to work to support us.”

Taw Oo Paw said her dream is to be a teacher so that she can help the many internally displaced Karen children whose lives have been interrupted by the junta’s troops.

She is among 4,000 Karen refugees who now live in the Ei Tu Hta camp, all driven from their village by government offensives.

Saw T’kwel said, “The refugees who come to the border because of these attacks have seen murders, lootings, extortion and force labor committed by the junta’s soldiers.”

The Ei Tu Hta refugee camp was established in April 2006 after major government offensives in Taungoon and Nyaunglebin districts.

If the anticipated September government offensive occurs, young girls like Taw Oo Paw will be joined by more of their fellow Karen children.

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