scholars and rogues

World's longest-running war for independence — or exercise in futility? (Pt. 3)

karenfighters3The Karen Resistance Today

In February 2008, the KNU’s beloved secretary general, Mahn Sha, also respected by other ethnic groups, as well as the Burmese democracy movement, was assassinated in his home just inside Thailand. The obvious suspects were the members of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a KNLA splinter group. The DKBA now fights the KNLA on behalf of the junta, for which it’s also reported to guard drug labs and smuggling operations. 

At the year-end KNU convention, a new general-secretary was appointed to replace Mahn Shah. Zipporah Sein, a woman who shares not just her sex in common with Ms. Suu Kyi, but receipt of a prestigious human rights award, was appointed to succeed him. Meanwhile, her father, 88-year-old Tamla Baw, was named chairman. We asked KNU spokesman David Thakabaw if Baw and daughter were capable of demonstrating the kind of leadership the KNU had grown accustomed to with the martyred Shah.

“Zipporah is still new in alliance affairs,” he replied. “However, Tamla Baw, for two terms, has been chairman of the NCUB.” Another splinter group? No, the National Council of the Union of Burma, Thakabaw explains, is “an alliance of the democratic and ethnic forces.”      

In other recent developments, the DKBA attacked a village in the Umphang district of Thailand at the end of 2008, forcing hundreds of villagers to flee their homes. Hundreds more fled when the DKBA seized a KNLA base in Kawkareik Township, near the Thai border. The KNLA spokesman, Capt. Bu Paw, told Irrawaddy, the Burmese exile publication, that the junta charged the DBKA with the task of seizing all the KNLA bases along the Burmese-Thai border by 2010, the year Burma is scheduled to hold a general election.

But a DBKA source admitted to Irrawaddy that its motives were less political than mercenary: Never mind the election, we just want access to the region’s agriculture, logging, and mining, as well as the right to tax.

In an example of another tactic to which the junta resorts, on February 14 it made the improbable claim that Karen rebels shelled the Karen border town of Myawaddy. In a press release, Thakabaw maintains that the junta itself perpetrated this act in order to divert the focus of UN Special Rapporteur Thomas Quintana (touring the Karen and Mon States at the time) from the junta’s human rights violations. It doesn’t seem to have worked, because after leaving Burma, Irrawaddy reported, Quintana said, “It is difficult for me to affirm that the human rights situation has improved.”

We mentioned to Thakabaw that we frequently hear about Burmese army and DKBA attacks on the KNLA, but not vice versa. He replied: “The Thai authorities, particularly the previous government, have pressured the KNLA not to initiate military activities near the border.”

Karen villagers are not just victims. In fact, they’ve turned resisting the junta into a fine art that the Karen Human Rights Group refers to as “village agency.” For instance, they monitor troop movements and employ advance warning systems; they establish bush refuges in advance of expected evacuation; and they establish temporary black markets to trade with villagers in other persecuted areas.

When actually dealing with the Burmese Army and DKBA, some of the techniques villagers employ include negotiation, bribery, lying, outright refusal, as well as joking and false compliance (as in “yes, massuh”).

Cross-posted at Huffington Post.

Parts 1, 2

Categories: scholars and rogues

1 reply »

  1. Russ,

    Thanks for all three parts. I didn’t know any of this. I still can’t get my head around a ‘Buddhist Army”, but it just goes to show that any religion can be misapplied towards earthly ends contradicting the spiritual ideal.

    And it’s yet another story of Empire, the sort of portion that rarely gets told because it’s the little brown people’s problem.