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Burma's Karen Face Hard Times as Insurgency Begins Sixth Decade


Burma's ethnic Karen, who have been fighting the central government for nearly six decades, remain defiant despite set backs and few resources.

Traditional long-tail boats ferry passengers up the Moei River, which divides Burma from Thailand. Some boats stop at a clearing on one side of the river - the headquarters of Burma's ethnic Karen insurgents. Jungle-covered hills loom over the little community.

Colonel Ner Dah Mya is a Karen rebel battalion commander. He told journalists that the Karen must remain defiant against Burma's military.

"We have to proceed and have to continue. We need to have a political fight also - a political fight, a military fight. In the battlefield, on the negotiating table. And we're ready to fight them either way," he said. "Show to the world that we are a Karen people, we are a nation; we're defending our Motherland."

The Karen National Union, or KNU, has spent nearly six decades fighting for autonomy. It is among some 20 minority groups that have fought the government since Burma won independence in 1948. In the past few years, 17 of those groups have signed cease-fire deals with Rangoon. But not the Karen, who number about seven million and had one of the largest armed insurgencies in Burma.

But thousands of Karen have died from the fighting and from the hard life in some of Southeast Asia's harshest jungle. With a fighting force of less than 4,000 now, the KNU is a far cry from the 1980s, when there were 20,000 troops. There have also been internal splits within the Karen leaving their strength diminished.

Bertil Lintner, a Swedish academic who has written extensively on Burma and its politics, says there is little the Karen can hope for against Burma's 400,000-strong army.

"There's no way they will be able to defeat the Burmese army," he said. "The most they can hope for is to survive and to keep their cause alive."

But Lintner says despite the odds, the KNU has a lot of support that is problematic for the government.

"Eyewitnesses, at least, support that they're still enjoying a high degree of popular support among the Karens in eastern Burma," he said. "So, even if the KNU's strength is down considerably it's still a factor to be reckoned with."

On this past Karen Revolutionary Day on January 31, leaders came to the jungle encampment to address the crowds and more than 200 troops.

Young Karen sing the movement's anthem, and gunfire is heard from the nearby jungles.

The Karen have long argued they have distinct qualities in terms of history, language and culture that qualify them as a "nation." Rebel commander Ner Dah Mya outlines the Karen's goals now.

"What the Karen want is very simple - freedom and territory for the Karen people so that they can live peacefully in harmony," he said.

That autonomy is unlikely under Burma's military, which has ruled the country since 1962.

Lintner and other Burma experts say the government, which is drafting a new constitution based on national unity, is not likely to allow either autonomy for minority groups or significant democratic reform.

In fact, Sunai Pasuk, a representative for the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, says Burma's military will fight until all insurgencies surrender.

"It appears that the generals still believe that by using military force they can pressure ethnic groups to surrender and to take part in on-going reconciliation," he said.

The KNU's cease-fire talks with the government in 2004 have stalled. An informal truce is currently in place. But for how long, is not clear.