Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.
From a distance the jungle looks peaceful. Dense, green plant growth covers hills that march endlessly onward. Primitive villages emerge in simple clearings: wood and bamboo buildings, covered by thatched roofs, sitting on stilts, and open to rain, animals, and mosquitoes.
War is everywhere. Two million ethnic minorities have been displaced by 50 years of conflict: 243 of them lived in Law Thi Hta, just across the Moi river from Mae Sot, Thailand.
War consumes their lives. One 22-year-old told me he had been fighting “for many years,” perhaps ten. But General Bo Mya, who also serves as vice president of the Karen National Union (KNU), joined the Karen revolution when it started in 1949.
General Ne Win seized power in Burma, now officially Myanmar, in 1962. Mass democracy protests in 1988 were crushed with martial law backed by bullets. The ruling junta foolishly called elections two years later, which were won by the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. The self-styled State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) annulled the election, put Suu Kyi under house arrest, and arrested many of her followers.
Although international attention has focused on Suu Kyi, the more serious threat to the ruling junta comes from the Karen and other ethnic groups, which have been fighting for autonomy since Burma won independence. During the last decade some of them have come to terms with Rangoon. But the Karen and several other ethnic groups fight on.
In response, the SPDC has expanded its military to some 400,000. Two years ago 13-year-old Yei Shweh took a bus to Rangoon to see the big city: he was seized by the army when he arrived.
Rangoon maintains numerous bases in eastern Burma and periodically strikes at villages suspected of harboring rebels. SPDC forces impress civilians as porters for months at a time. Refugees report frequent atrocities, stories confirmed by Yei Shweh and other defectors.
As a result, the Karen fight desperately. The battle remains sadly uneven, however. The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) fields 4,000 to 5,000 ill-equipped guerrillas. The troops I met tended to be in their teens to their 30s. They mix fatigues and boots with ethnic Karen wraparound skirts, flip-flops, and American-language shorts, t-shirts, and baseball caps. Soldiers carry a motley assemblage of arms.
The KNLA forces usually inflict far more casualties than they suffer—they claim a 20-to-1 kill ratio. But they can rarely stop a determined SPDC offensive and are increasingly pressed against the Thai border.
The “Killing Season”
The dry season is known as the “killing season” because steep jungle trails dry out and rushing streams run low. Military action typically ends mid-year, but SPDC troops arrived at Law Thi Hta before the rain. Just six weeks after my visit, Burmese troops burned the village, including a small hospital constructed by Christian Freedom International (CFI), a relief group based in Front Royal, Virginia. A second clinic to the north, along with the refugee camp housing 4,000 people where it was situated, was also destroyed. “This happens every year,” observes CFI head Jim Jacobson, but this is “one of the worst years.”
The Burmese government’s victories are usually costly and often temporary. The SPDC cannot garrison the rugged and isolated jungles. But it doesn’t have to. All it has to do is terrorize and displace the Karen. As KNLA General Saw Htey Maung acknowledges, “the SPDC try to fight the grassroots, our back bone, the villages,” so the people “don’t have the morale to support us with food or anything else.”
The plight of the Karen is only likely to worsen. Thailand recently announced that with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees it hopes to move 100,000 refugees back into Burma within three years.
Yet fighting continues to rage. Earlier this year Rangoon rejected an offer from the KNU to negotiate at a neutral location outside of Burma. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the SPDC is prepared to end its murderous depredations, let alone offer the autonomy for which the Karen have been fighting for a half century.
Which leaves the Karen—along with Suu Kyi—hoping for outside support. General Htey says, “If we had a chance we would request that the American people help us to get our freedom state.”
But what can be done about a repressive and isolated regime like the SPDC? It is supported by China, which covets naval access to Burma’s long coastline and began arming and financing Rangoon in 1990.
U.S. and European Union economic sanctions inconvenience the SPDC, but have not shaken its hold on power. Unfortunately, though, as in Cuba, Iraq, and Serbia, American restrictions impoverish those who languish under dictatorial jackboots.
Moreover, warns Robert Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations, as a result of sanctions Rangoon “has drifted toward Beijing.” The ASEAN states (Rangoon joined in 1997) similarly complain that U.S. policy has hindered their efforts to counter Chinese influence.
Some see failure as a reason for more restrictions. KNU President Saw Ba Thin says that “we’d like to see the U.S. government increase pressure like trade sanctions and diplomatic sanctions, and other pressures.” But sanctions have evidently failed and most countries are moving in the opposite direction. At meetings in Seoul earlier this year Asian, European, and U.S. officials met to consider new approaches to Burma.
Some Karen pine for Western military intervention. Last year a top KNU official told Rich Miniter, a journalist colleague of mine: “Do like you did in Kosovo.” Saw Ba Thin concurs: “If the American government could do it, it would be helpful.” Similarly, General Htey says, “You are from the U.S. You can come and help us.”
However, America’s interest in the Karen’s struggle is humanitarian, not strategic, and does not justify risking U.S. lives. Tragedy abounds in the world; the resulting horror should not be compounded by involving U.S. soldiers.
A better alternative to current policy is probably a mix of diplomatic pressure, which can most effectively be applied by Japan, India, and the ASEAN states, and economic engagement, primarily by private individuals and organizations. New Delhi has a particularly important role to play, since it has already moved to counter China’s rising influence in Burma.
Over time broader contact with the West offers the possibility of strengthening internal democratic forces. But this will be an uncertain and long-term process at best.
The West’s most important role may be to help the Karen and other ethnic peoples cope with SPDC brutality. That largely means private assistance, such as that provided by Christian Freedom International.