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Burma's Ethnic Minorities Continue to Be Threatened By Military Government

Since the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in May, international attention has centered on her call for dialogue with Burma's ruling military. But ethnic minorities are also fighting for greater rights, and say they are frustrated at a diplomatic process they say ignores their interests.

A teacher holds class at the Umphiem Mai refugee camp outside Thailand's northwestern city of Mae Sot. The camp is home to 10,000 refugees from the Karen group, one of Burma's ethnic minorities.

There are more refugee camps like this along the border. After 10 years here, many resemble traditional villages. They are home not just to Karen, but to tens of thousands of people from other ethnic groups, like the Shan, the Kachin and the Karenni.

The refugees fled fighting between ethnic resistance groups and the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, the name of Burma's military government.

Kevin Heppner, with the Karen Human Rights Group, said abuses by the government continue. "In the areas where there is armed conflict, the current SPDC strategy is to try to force villagers into army-controlled labor camps, and then destroy all and hunt the people who are hiding in the hills and try to kill them on sight. There's a lot of torture, rape, other abuses that go on in that context and a lot of forced labor as military porters and so on," Mr. Heppner said.

The government's record of human rights abuses led the United States and other nations to impose economic sanctions on Burma.

The sanctions appear to work. Burma's desperate need for foreign investment is one reason the government agreed to talks with a United Nations special envoy. Those talks led to the release of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, where she had spent nearly eight of the past 10 years.

Many of the exiles in Mae Sot feel there is too much diplomatic focus on Aung San Suu Kyi, as much as they respect her. Bo Kyi, once a political prisoner, fled Burma in 1999. Now he runs an assistance program in Mae Sot.

"We call Burma prison state, because there are at least 38 prisons in Burma. You can look at the location," he said.

Next to Bo Kyi's office is a museum highlighting what he said are horrendous conditions political prisoners face. Photos of some of the estimated 1,500 political prisoners in Burma are on the wall. One is of Aung San Suu Kyi. But it has no prominence over the others.

Bo Kyi is among many human rights officers and community leaders who think the release of Aung San Suu Kyi was only a public relations gesture on the part of the government.

"I believe they are buying time for their power. They want to prepare something, to arrest many political prisoners," he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, wants ethnic minorities to be included in the party's talks with the United Nations and the government.

The diplomatic process is just one part of creating peace in Burma. Leaders of the ethnic groups also have to overcome historic mistrust between the minorities and the majority ethnic group, the Burman.

One Karen refugee, who would not give his name for fear of reprisals against his family, said his concerns are typical of most ethnic Karen. She may have sympathy for the ethnic people, and she may believe in the democratic principles, and we feel that we can trust her, we like her. But still, we have suspicion, doubts, about the people who are working with her," the refugee said.

Human rights groups charge that, since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, government forces destroyed villages in at least two districts. That is more evidence, they say, that not enough attention is focused on the people in Burma who need assistance the most.