Saturday, January 05, 2008

Burma's secret war

Burma's secret war

Tens of thousands have been killed and displaced in a decades-long fight between fighters from the Shan ethnic minority and the ruling State Peace and Development Council, writes GEORGE McLEOD from Shan State, Burma

'We will never give up" says Colonel Yawd Serk, the head of Burma's largest rebel army, the Shan State Army (SSA), from his base atop a cold, windy mountain in southern Burma.

Although only a few hundred yards from the Thai border, the rebel camp of Loi Taleng might as well be a thousand miles from its peaceful neighbour. Uniformed troops armed with AK-47s and M-16s march through the muddy streets, preparing to meet their larger and better-equipped enemy on Burma's killing fields.

"We are not afraid," says Yawd Serk "We know that we have no choice - we cannot surrender."

September's protests in the Burmese commercial capital of Rangoon grabbed international headlines, but a war deep in Burma's jungles has long raged hidden from world view. Tens of thousands have been killed and displaced in a decades-long fight between pro-independence guerillas from the Shan ethnic minority and the Burmese junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The war is fuelled by a desire to secure natural resources and what human rights groups say is a virtual ethnic cleansing campaign at the hands of the SPDC, who see Shan nationalism as a threat to the regime.

"It's a dire situation, and it is largely being ignored by the world. We are hearing reports of the [Burmese army] using forced labour and stealing land and crops. I have heard reports of soldiers coming into villages and just opening fire," says Mark Farmaner from the UK-based Burma Campaign.

"What happened in Rangoon in September happens almost every day in Shan State," says Farmaner, referring to the shooting of pro-democracy protesters in September, 2007.

Burma has been ruled by a strong-armed junta since 1962, and is accused of crushing dissent through arrest and torture. An international outcry ensued after the junta suppressed protests in September, 2007, and authorities continue to hold Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in Rangoon.

An enemy base of the United Wa State Army lies within shouting distance of Shan State Army's front lines.
Soldiers return from a patrol in the mountainous jungles of southern Burma.

Less well-known is the plight of Burma's ethnic minorities, many of whom have taken up arms against the junta. Some groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the SPDC, but the SSA is among the armies that has continued to fight. The Shan share a separate language, writing system and culture from the Burmese, and consider themselves similar to Thais.

"The Shan have an incredibly strong claim to being completely different from the Burmese. The reason I think they [the SPDC] do it [the brutal measures] is because they see the Shan as a direct challenge to their rule," says David Mathieson, a New York-based consultant with Human Rights Watch.

Shan State stretches across Burma from the Thai to the Chinese border, and includes some of the country's richest forests and mineral deposits.

The SSA calls Burmese troops an occupying force and says it is fighting to "evict Burmese invaders" from its territory. The Salween river also lies in Shan State, and Thai and Chinese companies are surveying the area to build a massive $8 billion dam, which has meant frequent security operations near the dam site.

In the interior of the state, tens of thousands of civilians have been caught in free-fire zones established by the junta to weed out rebels. Being caught one of these zones meant slavery and the loss of a limb for one refugee, 48-year-old Tu Nong.

"The SPDC came to my village and forced us to carry their weapons and supplies. Anyone who refused was killed... I stepped on a mine in the forest and the soldiers just left me there."

Nearby villagers rescued Tu Nong and he travelled for 18 months until reaching the Loi Taleng camp. He and about 800 others now live in a section set aside for internally displaced people.

"I don't like it here, but at least it is safe," he says.

Sai Yawd Merng, a soldier and spokesman for the Shan's Foreign Affairs Department, says that civilians near the front lines live in constant fear of attack.

"When the SPDC enter a village, the first thing they do is examine the hands of the villagers. If you don't have callouses on your hands, they assume that you are not a farmer and that you are a [SSA] soldier, so they kill you," he says.

In the north and centre of Shan State, daily battles occur between the SSA and SPDC and front line villages are often exposed to violent incursions by Burmese troops.

"There are considerable swaths of the country that are hot conflict zones where grotesque human rights violations occur on a regular basis - forced labour, sexual abuse of women, stealing by SPDC soldiers, punishing of villagers suspected of helping the SSA," says Mr Mathieson.

Six months training prepares soldiers for guerrilla war. Nearly one-thousand troops of the Shan State Army train each year at the Loi Taleng camp. Shan State Army commander Col Yawd Serk inspects new recruits at a rebel camp.

Threat always looms

Despite the apparent mismatch from the condition of the Loi Taleng base camp, the SSA look to be faring well against the SPDC. The camp centre spans three mountain tops and is complete with electricity, internet, roads, a hospital, a school and even a guest house with a pool.

The hillsides are dotted with bunkers and tunnels and the hilltops lined with trenches. The SSA maintain a virtual state-within-a-state, with government ministries and, crucially, a large and growing army of more than 15,000.

Once heavily involved in opium production, the SSA says it has abandoned drugs entirely and now survives by taxes, and selling gems and timber concessions. One source said that the timber concessions cost about 500,000 Burmese kyat and that most of the timber is shipped into China or to Rangoon.

Many of the concessionaires are from China and Singapore, although one is allegedly the son-in-law of SPDC leader Than Shwe, says one SSA source.

North of the camp is a clandestine training ground where 300 new recruits prepare to join the war in the free-fire zones.

"Every Shan must serve for five years in the army. Regular soldiers receive six months training while officers train for eight months," says Sai Yawd Merng.

The trainees march in formation in SSA uniforms, each equipped with an AK-47 or M-16 and a 9mm pistol.

"This group is actually quite small. We have a new, larger group coming soon to train. We also have larger training camps along the border and in the jungle,' says Sai Yawd Merng.

But even in this relatively safe base, the threat of attack always looms.

Only a few miles away is the front line between the SSA and the United Wa State Army (UWSA), an ethnic army that is allied with the Burmese junta.

The two sides fought fierce battles two years ago, but remain at a stalemate.

Only a narrow valley divides the two armies, which lie within shouting distance of one another. The thick forest in between is peppered with land mines and metal razor traps waiting to rip apart the feet of any intruder that crosses into the no-man's-land. For now, says the commanding officer, the front is peaceful.

"Sometimes we shout at one another. Usually, it's just conversation, about what we are having for lunch," he says, not giving his name.

Despite the scale of the conflict in Shan State, the international community has given the issue almost no attention. When UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited Burma in December to encourage dialogue with the opposition, the SSA was not invited.

"The international response has been mute, ill-informed, unconcerned and completely ineffective. The international community has never really understood what is happening in Shan State," says Mr Mathieson.

While diplomats debate the future of the urban opposition, Yawd Serk says that the Shan State Army will fight on.

"We already have everything we need here. We have resources, people, a government and a democracy. All we need is international support."


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