On the Embattled Border
The rainy season was just around the corner at the Thai-Burma border along the Moei River. Surrounded by misty mountains and deep jungle, the people of Kray Hta, a Karen village on the border in northwestern Thailand, prepared food, water and flowers for a Christian ceremony.
The peaceful setting, however, was deceptive.
I have come to the Thai-Burma border area to meet the Karens, an ethnic minority group. I wanted to see what kind of people they are, how they live in the jungle, and most of all, how they could keep fighting Burma's junta for nearly 60 years [the ruling military junta named the country Myanmar in 1989].
The Karen National Union (KNU) – Burma's largest ethnic rebel group, which has been fighting for autonomy for nearly six decades, has been suffering heavy blows in the past several months. After the death of General Bo Mya, who led the KNU for more than 30 years, the KNU and its armed force, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), was splintered.
In late January, only a month after Bo Mya's death, Brigadier General Htain Maung announced that he had reached a peace agreement with Myanmar's military junta without approval from the KNU Central Committee. He and his comrades had broken away from the KNU and formed a new group, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council. The group has now joined the Myanmar Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, another pro-junta splinter group that broke away from the KNU in 1994, in launching attacks against the KNLA along the Thai-Myanmar border.
Despite these recent setbacks, the people of Kray Hta village were excited about their religious ceremony this month. Pastors and teachers from the nearby Mae La refugee camp and children of the village gathered at the wooden shack of KNLA Lieutenant Maung Kyit Aye as one of his bodyguards cooked chicken soup in a huge pot.
Suddenly, across the river, the dull sound of an explosion froze the group. I looked outside and saw the children had stopped running around. They all just stood there and stared at the other side of the river -- the Karen State. Maung Kyit Aye frantically grabbed his walkie-talkie and started barking orders to his men on a high ridge across the river before running barefoot to the Moei. Not knowing what was going on, I grabbed my cameras and followed the group. I asked my guide what the explosion was, but he just shook his head and kept on walking, a severe look on his face.
Everyone was prepared for the worst. Running toward the bank we soon become aware that the fate of more Karen soldiers had seemingly been sealed in a landmine explosion. We all got on the boat and crossed the river to the Burma side. Medications were brought and two wounded men were brought down to the river.
A young blood-covered soldier, 28-year-old Pa Lee Lu, lay on a stretcher made of bamboo and a hammock, moaning in agony. His entire body was shredded by shrapnel as he was trying to defuse a landmine that was believed to have been planted by the Burmese Army. He lost his left hand, right index finger, right eye and the hearing in one of his ears. The other injured soldier, Myit Lway, 38, was beside Pa Lee Lu when the device exploded. His face was scarred by shrapnel, and he sat quietly in pain with his eyes closed.
While medics treated the wounded soldiers, several villagers with heavy loads in bamboo baskets walked past toward the river, trying to escape the area as soon as possible. I was so occupied with the landmine victims and I didn't notice them until my guide tapped on my shoulder, whispering, "Dai, look. IDPs." These so-called Internally Displaced Persons on the Burma side of the Moei River live in a manner that allows them to flee at a moment's notice when the conflict flares, leaving normalcy behind and following a run-first, ask-questions-later lifestyle. The IDPs flee for fear of murder, torture, rape and looting by Burmese troops, who also sometimes forcibly "hire" villagers as military porters or use them to defuse landmines.
After first-aid was administered, the wounded were placed on a boat and carried to Kray Hta village. There, medics loaded them on the back of a pickup. Soon, the ramshackle ambulance was banging its way to the hospital in the Mae La refugee camp, a two-hour drive from Kray Hta.
After the truck's departure, the religious ceremony finally began. I sat with children and their parents, still thinking about the two men. As I saw the smiles on people, I soon realized that this is just a part of their daily lives, and their bright smiles and laughter are perhaps the only way to go on and survive in lives surrounded by such hardships. The pastor played a song with a guitar for the children to sing along. I wondered how long these children would keep their innocent smiles.
Their choices are few. They can either join the KNLA and fight the Burmese Army, or they can stay in their villages and live in fear. Or, they could possibly move into one of the nine refugee camps in Thailand where 160,000 others live with the threats of disease and squalor. If they leave the camp, they become illegal immigrants in Thailand who have no chance of fair employment, health care or further education. They could also apply for a resettlement program and move to a third country, giving up hope that they could ever go back to their Karen homeland.
"We have no choice but to continue the armed fight," KNU General Secretary Mahn Sha Lar Phan told me. "We have been and will always be ready for a cease fire but it's them [the Myanmar junta] who betrayed us in the past."
After the ceremony, Maung Kyit Aye sent his daughter and grandson to the Mae La camp in preparation for a possible attack by a Karen splinter group on Kray Hta village.
In nearly six decades of their fight for autonomy, thousands of Karen have died from the fighting and from the harsh life imposed upon them in the thick malarial jungle. It is amazing how WE, the people who are in a position to help these people in many ways, are ignoring them and living OUR daily lives where we do not have to fear the enemy attacks or no food to eat. When I see the young Karens playing soccer just few hundred meters away from the landmine field, I imagine, they too could be one of those young soccer stars playing in a big stadium being cheered by tens of thousands in the audience and millions of people in front of the TV. But instead, they are forced to live in fear and extreme poverty that shatters any hope or dream that they might have.
In the shadow of the international community's effort to free the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still under house arrest in the country, the struggle of the Karen people continues with the attention and support of few on the world stage.
© Dai Kurokawa
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