Karen Rebels have been fighting the Burmese government for over 60 years, making it the world's longest ongoing civil war. Al Jazeera recently broadcast this interesting documentary which gives an update on the situation. The fighting has escalated considerably since the elections in November 2010 and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi but in spite of this the Thai government is still planning to start forcibly repatriating Karen refugees next year.
Thanks for posting. Excellent documentary that highlights just how difficult this problem is for all the parties. Several points here:
1. Insurgency is an illegal form of warfare, and it should be clear watching this documentary why that is the case. Of course, no one consistenly addresses that specific issue. Governments tend to ignore it when convenient, others are often sympathetic to insurgent groups for whatever reason and so ignore this issue. But insurgency almost always causes huge suffering for the civilian group or groups that support insurgents, because armies fighting against insurgents quickly and correctly deduce that it is the civilian support to the insurgents that gives them their capacity to fight effectively.
2. I am more sympathetic to the Thai problem than you appear to be. For one, the refugees are a constant drain on government resources to maintain them. For two, the refugees are using the camps (by their own admission) as a base from which to prepare attacks against the Burmese government. This compromises Thai neutrality and leaves Thailand vulnerable to negative blowback.
3. The indiscriminate use of land mines is foolish and counter-productive and the rebel groups defending their use are making bad arguements. Land mines laid in mapped fields and covered with fire are highly effective and pose no real risk to civilians. Land mines laid without markings, without covering with fire and designed to simply render areas unsafe render those areas unsafe or everyone - which has no value to anyone.
4. It is unlikely that the Burmese rebel groups can defeat the Burmese Army. It has far more resources than the rebels. Unless the Burmese Army fractured, the rebel groups will not have sufficient combat power to make siginificant gains militarily. The purpose of warfare is to gain a political objective through the controlled application of violence. It would appear in this case that neither group can achieve the desired politcal ends through violence, but neither group appears ready to acknowledge that.
5. For insurgent group leaders, insurgencies often offer opportunities for self enrichment. Thus some groups are loathe to end such conflicts, as the end kills their opportunities. I don't know if that applies in this case, but I suspect it does. Talk is cheap. So I would view what leaders in these interviews say with a jaundiced eye.
6. Lastly, there isn't much the rest of the world can do here. The Chinese could apply real pressure, but have no reason to do so. The status quo works fine for them. Nobody else is a big enough economic player in Burma. So I do not see external pressure having any sort of desired effect.
'Land mines laid in mapped fields'
That's a no-go because you'll find the heavy rains will move them.
If you want to blame anybody for this mess blame Mountbattan and the Brits who couldn't be bothered to provide the Karen, our allies against the Japanese, a proper homeland.
Illegal warfare it may be but I can't think of a nastier government to overthrow.
"That's a no-go because you'll find the heavy rains will move them."
That would be true if positions were static. But they are not. And if an Army is concerned about that, then you pull your mindfield up when heavy rains set in. The minfields should also be marked. The purpose of a minefield is to slow an enemy force where you can engage him with direct and indirect fire weapons. Were we talking some sort of DMZ, then a shifting of large fields is of more concern. The methodology being used here is hapaharzard and simply designed by the government to make certain areas uninhabitable and for the insurgents to make movement in certain areas more perilous. The long term negative effects outwiegh any gains using this methodology and that's why competent modern armies do not use this technique.
"If you want to blame anybody for this mess blame Mountbattan and the Brits who couldn't be bothered to provide the Karen, our allies against the Japanese, a proper homeland."
I would say "couldn't be bothered" is an oversimplification. The Karen desires conflicted with other British objectives. Even had the Brits granted such at the conclusion of the war, there is little reason to expect that the Burmese would have honored such as agreement. At some point, indigenous persons have to start taking responsibility for their own behavior and stop blaming colonial powers that have long since left the scene. The reason the fighting and killing continue is because the conflicting parties want it to, or because they don't want peace enough to stop it.
"Illegal warfare it may be but I can't think of a nastier government to overthrow."
In this particular case it would appear the juice is not worth the squeeze.
'The minfields should also be marked'
Perhaps I misunderstand you but surely to flag the green zone would defeat the object?
'The Karen desires conflicted with other British objectives'
Yep, cynical imperialism at its worst.
It's along time since I was involved with this one.I remember staying with a Captain in the Taharn Prahn and going on a night out, fancying another drink when everything was closed he insisted on knocking up a local store to buy another bottle at 2.00am. I could see the fear on the shopkeepers face, these guys have a reputation.
I visited the refugee camps which were situated on swampy ground and had to be reached by a network of wooden walkways, I saw no evidence of arms, only women and children.
We crossed the river to speak to the Karen as they were keen to point out the napalm damage inflicted on them by Burmese.They claimed the Americans were supplying the Burmese with helicopters and napalm because they had told them the Karen were active in shifting heroin. At that time Kun San, who is not Karen, was the man behind this and I still believe the Karen had nothing to do with it. It's hard to believe this is still going on.I got some photos of the ragtag Karen army kitted out in all sorts of uniforms.haven't seen anything more sloppy; except perhaps the Afghan Army.
BTW You are right about the Thai security issues, even all those years ago the Karen would regularly fall back across the border when things got too hot, sometimes the Burmese, in pursuit, ended up in a firefight with the Thais.
I must say the Thais have been remarkably patient about this considering their economic interests are with the Burmese govt.
"Perhaps I misunderstand you but surely to flag the green zone would defeat the object"
No, I don't think you misunderstand at all. Minefields as are practiced in since WW I have markings so friendly troops do not enter them. The idea was to slow enemy movement through the minefield in order to take him under more effective direct and indirect fires. The purpose of the mines is not to cause damage in and of themselves, but to canalize troop movements into pre-planned fire zones. Minefields are not stand alone deterents. Planting a minefield and walking away is a waste of time and resources.
"Yep, cynical imperialism at its worst."
Nope - just national self-interest. The driver for all international politics by all players at all times. Again, it's well paste time to blame the Brits for this one. The problem is with the people in Burma themselves. It's up to them to solve this issue and this issue doesn't exist because of the Brits. It exits because of the Burmese people.
As for the Karen, don't believe everything you hear. They are armed, discipline is horrible, and they commit all sorts of atrocities themselves when the opportunity avails itself. They don't know the laws of land warfare and they don't care either. There are no good guys in this conflict. Just some more capable of being bad than others. The reason the Burmese Army behaves so badly is the same reason a dog licks his balls.
If you watch the documentary SBE posted, you will note that the leaders at the refugee centers freely admit to using them as platforms to prepare young men to go back and fight. I have zero doubt that they provide what limited material assistance they can as well.
For insurgent group leaders, insurgencies often offer opportunities for self enrichment. Thus some groups are loathe to end such conflicts, as the end kills their opportunities. I don't know if that applies in this case, but I suspect it does. Talk is cheap. So I would view what leaders in these interviews say with a jaundiced eye.
I haven't met any Karen rebels but I did meet a Shan rebel leader once by accident. I saw where he and his family lived and there was no evidence whatsoever that he was profiting financially. He was nothing like the thugs with guns in Africa who call themselves rebels.
The indiscriminate use of land mines is foolish and counter-productive and the rebel groups defending their use are making bad arguements. Land mines laid in mapped fields and covered with fire are highly effective and pose no real risk to civilians. Land mines laid without markings, without covering with fire and designed to simply render areas unsafe render those areas unsafe or everyone - which has no value to anyone.
Remember this thread MM?
Sorry but I can't see why what the the Karen are doing is anywhere near as bad as what the US did to Laos. At least the Karen are trying to defend their own people. Civilians in the US were never in any danger of being captured and tortured, killed or raped by enemy soldiers yet hundreds of millions of bombies designed to indiscriminately kill and mutilate were dropped on Laos. Did the US provide maps showing where they were so that innocent civilians wouldn't get hurt? And, according to you, the US was under no moral obligation to remove the UXOs once the war was over either.
The Karen leaders did indeed freely admit that some of the students in the refugee camps were destined to become KNLA fighters (and some were going to become doctors).Personally I thought the civilians who'd had limbs blown off by mines while planting crops after being told it was safe by the KNLA showed a remarkable lack of resentment. Presumably this is because the alternative seems an even worse option to them. Nobody, not even the doctor in the hospital or the guy from Human Rights Watch, said that the rebels should lay down their arms and surrender to the Burmese army in spite of the fact that the rebels were causing suffering too and violating the rules of war.
I can't think of a single war where the rules of war weren't violated by both sides and the military junta is violating the rules a lot more. Nobody else is going to help the people of Myanmar to overthrow their oppressive government. They have no choice but to try and do it themselves. Unless you have a better suggestion?
"Sorry but I can't see why what the the Karen are doing is anywhere near as bad as what the US did to Laos."
The difference is in capacity. The US has enormous capacity to inflict violence, the Karen's capacity is extremely limited.
The NVA and the Viet Cong (and Pathet Laos and Khmer Rouge) planted tons of mines, booby traps, pungi sticks, etc during the war in Indochina. These were planted indiscriminately, sometimes even with the intent of targetting civilian areas where civilians were non-compliant. The US did use dragonseed, a crappy little air dropped anti-personnel mine now long since out of the inventory. It was dropped along the Ho Chi Minh trail in one of the desperate (and ultimately futile) attempts to close that supply line down. I think it was a mistake to employ it, as again, mine usage without covering fires will ultimately produce no results and delivers unacceptably high collateral damage rates.
"At least the Karen are trying to defend their own people."
And doing it quite poorly. Their insurgency has, without a doubt, cost them FAR more than had it not been started in the first place.
"Civilians in the US were never in any danger of being captured and tortured, killed or raped by enemy soldiers yet hundreds of millions of bombies designed to indiscriminately kill and mutilate were dropped on Laos."
And why was the US doing this? For fun? We weren't dropping them on "Laos". Vientiane and Luang Prabang were not being carpet bombed (if they were, there would be nothing left, and I do mean nothing). We were bombing two groups there. The Pathet Laos and the NVA, which maintained never less than 10 divisions in "neutral Laos". If the NVA had not been attacking Laos (check out their long running war with the Hmong) and using it's territoty to resupply the Viet Cong and NVA units in South Vietnam, we would not have been there at all. In case you missed it, and apparently you did, there was a global threat from Soviet and CHICOM expansionism across the globe which was defeated largley because of US efforts. So let's keep some perspective shall we?
Secondly, regardless of how you view US military behavior, that is not germain to the discussion at hand. I notice you never miss an opportunity to bash a western democracy.
"Did the US provide maps showing where they were so that innocent civilians wouldn't get hurt?"
The US didn't plant mines in Laos. They dropped bombs. A lot of bombs. Do you think there are maps that show where every bombing run was made? Is this suppose to be funny? Have you ever been in combat? This is just a stupid statement.
"And, according to you, the US was under no moral obligation to remove the UXOs once the war was over either."
No - let the guys who started that war clean it up. That's the Dong, the Soviets, the CHICOM government and the Pathet Laos. They wanted it, they got it. They created the circumstances that created the war, they did it with malice aforethought, and now they are carry the moral responsibility to clean up the mess they created.
"Nobody, not even the doctor in the hospital or the guy from Human Rights Watch, said that the rebels should lay down their arms and surrender to the Burmese army in spite of the fact that the rebels were causing suffering too and violating the rules of war."
When I was in Somalia, if you asked a lady on the street if she wanted the war to end, she'd says "of course. I pray for it daily." But when you asked her if she was willing to see her clan share power with the others in order to have that peace she'd say "With those murderers and thieves? I'd die first". People in these places don't want peace. They want victory. They want power. The fighting and killing go on because they want it to - or because they don't want peace enough to stop it. They are only going to show outsiders what they want them to see. They will talk about how bad the opposition is, and how good they are trying to be... It's a sales pitch. But warfare isn't about morals. It's, in the words of Clausewitz, "the extension of politics by other means".
"I can't think of a single war where the rules of war weren't violated by both sides and the military junta is violating the rules a lot more."
Like I said, that's because they're the dog that can lick his balls. They do it because they can.
"Nobody else is going to help the people of Myanmar to overthrow their oppressive government."
Nobody was going to help the Somalis overthrow and oppressive government either. See what it got them? They got out of the frying pan and into the fire. Violent resistance to oppressive governance is a dangerous path, and in this case a very unwise one. 60 years, and they are worse off than ever with no end in sight.
"They have no choice but to try and do it themselves. Unless you have a better suggestion?"
Make a deal and lay down their arms. Just about any deal. Then resist non-violently from within. That's their best bet. Violent resistance will fail, and cost them big time.
Thank you for posting this SBE. This is an issue that deserves far more attention from the international community than it gets. For most people "Karen" is nothing more than a first name for females.
I've volunteered through a non-profit refugee resettlement program (an arm of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants) here in the States for the last three years, working with a resettled Karen family. They lived for over ten years at the Nu Po camp near Kanchanaburi after fleeing their village not long before it was burned by the Burmese army. Like the woman in the documentary who said she was "just a villager," this family were simple farmers who were literally forced to run to Thailand for their lives. Several members of the family have reported to me seeing (either directly or the aftermath of ) the atrocities of the Burmese army, including rape, forced labor (in the role of "land mine detectors" to be specific), torture and execution.
While in Thailand in 2009 I also interviewed the directors of two non-profit organizations that work with the Karen in Thailand (both have good websites if interested in learning more specifics about this issue - www.tbbc.org & www.drumpublications.org). These people expressed more pessimism than hope, and what I took away from it more than anything was how uncertain the situation is for the refugees. The recent announcement from the Thai government verifies this.
I certainly feel it would be wrong for Thailand to send these people into circumstances that are obviously deadly, but I also feel that too much of the blame and responsibility for the situation falls on Thailand's shoulders. Since the Vietnam War Thailand has been flooded with refugees from Cambodia and Laos, and just when those situations began to calm down somewhat in the mid to late '80s the Karen and others from Myanmar started pouring in. Thailand has faced these situations simply because of its geographical place in the world, and the Kingdom obviously has lots of its own problems to deal with. That said, I feel that the so called developed nations could do more to aid Thailand with this situation, and some of the blame should really fall on the international community for not doing more. As Mac says, of course, the problem itself lies within Burma, but if we're going to blame to Thailand we need to extend that to other countries that are in a position to step in and actively work with Thailand on a solution to the specific problem of the refugees as well. The numbers of Myanmar refugees arriving everyday continue to increase and Thailand simply can't "hold the baby" alone.
On that note, one thing the director of Drum Publications expressed to me was that in the '80s after the Vietnam War much of the world was very embracing of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, from the level of resettlement options made available to the scope and quality of pre-settlement education. The Myanmar refugees, despite facing conditions that arguably constitute genocide, have not been met with much support or even awareness from the more powerful democratic nations of the world. So while Thailand appears to be the "bad guy," to me they seem more desperate than anything else, and the international community generally prefers to turn a blind eye, which isn't much better (if at all) than what Thailand is resolving to do. Burma and its oppressed people, sadly, are very much on their own.
In terms of international awareness of the Karen struggle, one can imagine the difficulties that any resettled refugees would face, but these are compounded in the case of the family I work with (and all Myanmar ethnic minority refugees) by the total lack of awareness about them and their struggle. I recall tagging along with a 13 year old Karen girl to her middle school in the city where we live here, and I was amazed that not one of her teachers or even the principal of the school even knew what the word "Karen" meant. I witnessed a teacher ask her where she was from and she was met with a baffled look when she said "Karen." After a little while she sadly said "Burma," and the guy was like "Oh, you're Burmese! Got ya." Can you imagine being ignorantly labelled as the ethnicity of the army that is actively oppressing your people? Even the resettlement program itself told me the family was Burmese and I had to figure out their actual story on my own. Since then I've noticed that this girl and the other teenaged family members seem to be somewhat ashamed of their heritage and their past. They try to avoid any mention of these things while around Americans. Of course, these people are extremely resilient and the family has come amazingly far in three years. They just bought their first car.
My point is, the best thing we can do about this is spread awareness, so cheers to you SBE for doing exactly that.
While I agree 100% that trying to keep this conflict in the public eye is a good thing, I am under no illusions that pressure from the "international community" is going to make a meaningful difference. As I said, the only country positioned to make a real impact is China, and it is not inclined to do so.
As for identities - the Karen ARE Burmese, in the same way that the Hmong and Bru are Laotian. That's a national identifier, not an ethnic one. So I wouldn't be too harsh on those who identify her as "Burmese". If it's important to her (or her family) she might answer "I am ethnic Karen from Burma" which would be a precise retort to "You're Burmese". I am sure if I asked you who the Surur were, you would look at me like I had two heads.
Oh and DLuek
The "developed countries" are broke. They are struggling to regain their footing lest they slide into the economic abyss. The Karen are rich and prosperous compared to what's going on now in southern Somalia. The "Rich" countries simply can't bail out all the poor ones.