While the world focuses on Burma’s upcoming elections, in eastern Karen State rebels continue a long-running battle against the Burmese army. VOA talked to Karen soldiers and civilians about the war that began in 1949 and has since become a way of life.
There is a buzz in the air in Burma's Karen state as folks gather for the annual Karen Revolution Day in late January. Unlike the new freedom on display in the nation's capital, people here are marking a grim toll of 63 years of fighting, instability and suffering.
Karen state has the distinction of being home to the longest ongoing armed conflict on the planet. Colonel Ner Dah Mya blames the Burmese army.
“The SPDC have tricked us many times in the past. Looking back in history we have been cheated by them many times since the beginning of the Karen revolution. Right now if they are sincere for peace talks then they have to pull back their troops,” he said.
The political wing of the Karen resistance says attacks by the army have led to the displacement of nearly half a million people, and driven more than 140,000 refugees to nine camps along the Thai-Burma border. Despite the hardships, many remain committed to the cause.
Paw La Man, 65 years old, veteran soldier, fighting for 40 years. “I want the Karen people to have peace in our state. So I want the old and young generations to join and fight the Burmese soldiers together to protect our nation," he stated. "If we do not help each other against the enemy who else will come to help us? The Burmese are trying to steal our land from us so we have to get it back.”
At first, the Karen were fighting for independence and later, in 1976, they began pursuing semi-autonomy within a federal union.
Karen political leaders have gone to the negotiating table at least five times seeking a cease-fire without success. Kaw Kee La, 21, says it is now a generations-long struggle.
“Both of my grandfathers were killed by the Burmese soldiers ... When I heard that both of my grandfathers had been killed by the Burmese soldier I became very angry and wanted revenge. I am sad for what happened to them so I decided to pick up a weapon to fight,” he explained.
While Burma’s government carries out political reforms, the Karen people remain on alert, anxious to see if the government outreach will extend into the ethnic areas.