Behind Karen lines

BITTER WAR : Extreme hardship is a constant companion in the Karens’ bitter war against the Burmese junta. But there’s always the prospect that it will be worth it in the end.. and the comfort that it’s even worse for their enemies.

George Mcleod

It is a hot, humid morning in Southern Burma. Rain pours as soldiers of the Karen National Union (KNU), Burma’s largest ethnic resistance army, gear up for their weekly patrol.

The soldiers are young-mostly between the ages of eight and twenty-two. Many wear thongs, and carry hand-made rifles.

“The Burmese have been sighted in the hills surrounding base camp,” says the head officer, Captain Jar Chilli's Jar. “We intercepted a Burmese radio transmission and they may be nearby. Today, we will patrol the mountains to make sure no Burmese soldiers are left.

“The 30 men quickly eat their breakfast of rice, boiled eggs and fried fungus then gather before the Karen national flag. They sing the Karen national anthem, say a prayer and file onto a narrow path leading to the thick jungle beyond base camp. According to many Karen, the very survival of their people depends on these KNU guerrillas. They are fighting for independence against Burma which is ruled by a military junta called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).


The KNU allege the SPDC is eliminating the Karen population under a violent assimilation programme. SPDC troops regularly terrorise Karen villagers. Those suspected of collaborating with the KNU are tortured and often sent to forced labour camps. In one of the world’s longest and least known civil wars, thousands have been killed and maimed. “We are different from the Burmese” says 21 year old Nae Wa, a Sergeant with the KNU.

“Our language, culture, writing system, religion-our way of life-they are all unique. But the SPDC wants to make us Burmese and that is why they are killing us.” Nae Wa explains how his village was overrun by SPDC troops when he was fourteen years old. “The SPDC came to my village in 1995. Everyone tried to escape, but many of my friends were captured and killed. Then [the SPDC] burned my village. Now my home is gone.

“Nae Wa and fifty others escaped into the jungle, where they lived for two months. “We ate whatever we could find…worms, bananas, insects. Then we cleared some forest and grew rice and fruit. This is how many Karen have been made to live.”

Nae Wa joined the KNU army when he was 16 years old and says that he will fight the SPDC until he dies. Fourteen year old Swa is a soldier with the KNU and has a similar story. He explains that his home town of Mannerplow, the former Karen capital, was bombed for weeks by Chinese-supplied jets until the SPDC troops arrived. “Of course, everyone tried to flee. The KNU army held the [SPDC] army back for a few days, but still the SPDC came and many Karen were caught and killed.

“My mother was taken by the SPDC when she tried to run. Then, [Mannerplow] was burned-now, [Mannerplow] is gone completely.”Asked if he knows what happened to his mother, he quickly answers: “I don’t know.”


Tens of thousands of Karen have been driven into refugee camps in Northern Thailand by SPDC attacks. Heidi Perkov, an American nurse and activist who works with the Karen refugees explains:”The Karen [refugees] that I work with left Burma out of fear. Karen villagers live in terror of the SPDC army. “If SPDC troops are sighted by scouts, villagers have two choices. They can either stay and be sent to SPDC forced labour camps or to work on the oil pipelines, or they can flee into the forest to forage.

“If they flee, they are considered enemies of the state and are hunted down and killed. Some, like the refugees [in Thailand] cross the border. Others fight with the KNU as guerrillas.” One Karen refugee who calls herself Hellen now lives in Mae Sot, Thailand. She lived in a Karen refugee camp for 16 years before receiving Thai citizenship. “Inside Burma, there are camps where the Burmese send Karen people-everyone knows that when you are taken to one [of the camps] you never come out.

At least every month the SPDC burns a [Karen] village and sends people to these camps. This is why I left Burma, I heard the SPDC troops were coming, and I fled for my life to Thailand.” The Burmese government’s oppressive policies are not only directed towards the Karen. The junta is notorious for its poor human rights record due to its oppressive policies against pro-democracy activists.

In 1988, when mass pro-democracy demonstrations broke out across the country, the army responded by firing on crowds and arresting and torturing dissidents.


According to the Friends of Burma Coalition, a Western group which lobbies for democracy in the country, 10,000 demonstrators were killed during the four day “Democracy Summer.” To improve its international image, the Burmese government, then called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), held elections in 1990. When the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won by an overwhelming 83% of the vote, SLORC refused to recognise the results.

Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she remained for several years. But while the Burmese government’s suppression of pro-democracy activists is well-documented and has brought condemnation from the international community, news of the ongoing persecution of the Karen rarely reaches the outside world. The Karen live in isolated parts of Burma, and the SPDC does not allow reporters or tourists near the conflict areas.

Nevertheless, Nerdah Wah, the KNU’s secretary for foreign affairs, is fighting a political battle to break the SPDC’s iron curtain and travels the world to lobby for the Karen cause. Educated at Berkley University in the USA, and a native Karen, Nerdah believes that the international community can do much for the Karen Cause.

“The world must know of the atrocities being committed by the SPDC. I know that if people put enough pressure on the SPDC, their junta will not survive. This war is not against the Burmese people-[the Burmese] are also being tortured and killed. This war is against the SPDC military government. Burmese people like Aung San Suu Kyi realise that the Karen are being persecuted. But we need the international community’s help.”


Meanwhile, the plight of the Karen is slowly reaching the outside world through Karen student groups and grassroots lobbyists. And it was their stories of the Karen resistance that brought a former soldier in the New Zealand army to fight with the KNU.

He asked that his name not be published, and was vague about his reasons for fighting with the KNU. “I heard about the cause ten years ago and came here nearly a month ago to fight with them.” When asked if he is afraid of being injured or killed he did not respond.

He speaks no Karen, Thai, or Burmese but regularly travels on patrol with the KNU. “I am not sure how long I will stay to fight

[with the KNU], probably for as long as it takes.” He lives like the other soldiers-in a small bamboo hut, eating whatever is available and drinking water from the local streams.


Today’s patrol will take eight hours, and will follow a trail near the Thai border. After loading their weapons, the soldiers file into the dense rainforest surrounding base camp.

Immediately beyond, the terrain becomes nearly impassable. We follow a path measuring about one meter across. The mud is often knee deep, and the monsoon rains have washed out much of it.

“We must be very careful,”says Nae Wa. “There are land mines everywhere. You must never leave the trail-not even for one step.” As we climb a steep, bamboo covered mountain, Nae Wa points to his left, cupping his hand to signal a land mine.

The invisible explosive is buried less than than six inches from the narrow path. “The SPDC loses at least one soldier [to a mine] every time they travel this trail,” he explains. As we walk in single file past the mine, each soldier points it out to the soldier behind. Three hundred meters further on, the path divides in two, then meets up fifteen meters beyond.

“The left side [of the path] is mined and booby trapped, the other side is safe,” says Nae Wa.

I ask him how he knows where the mines are. He answers that there is always one soldier on a patrol who has memorised the location of the booby traps and mines in the area. During the eight-hour journey, Nae Wa points out more than 30 mines and booby traps.


After two hours of walking, we stop for a brief rest to remove the dozens of leeches on our legs.

“In the wet season, we can’t cook rice because the wood is too wet to light fires, so we just eat our food raw,” says Nae Wa. “If we are lucky, we may shoot a monkey or a rat or something. Sometimes we live in the jungle like this for a month. But it is no problem. We always find food and water. Unlike the SPDC, we can drink water from the jungle without getting sick-the KNU stomach is very strong. We also get malaria much less [than the SPDC].

To kill the parasites we eat chilies. To clean cuts we use tooth paste.”When asked why he keeps fighting, Nae Wa answers: “for two reasons: I love my people and I know I have no choice. We either fight or lay down our arms and be destroyed by the SPDC.” Despite their determination, the Karen face overwhelming odds. The SPDC is well supplied with arms from China, while the Karen receive almost no outside support. The Karen population in Burma, about 3 million, is dwarfed by the Burmese population of about 47 million. “We survive for two reasons,” says Nae Wa.

“Our refusal to give up and because of the low morale of SPDC troops. SPDC soldiers are badly paid and forced to fight. Their training is poor, and they’re oppressed and afraid. “When we capture them as prisoners, we give them the option to either go back to Burma, or to Thailand as refugees-they always choose to go to Thailand.” Although they are chronically under supplied with weapons and food, the Karen do not engage in drug cultivation and smuggling to finance their efforts.

In contrast, the Burmese SPDC government and many other ethnic minorities, including the Wa and the Shan, have been repeatedly cited for opium and amphetamine trafficking.

The KNU enforce strict anti-drug rules among their people for religious and political reasons. “There are two reasons that we do not sell drugs. First, if we did the Thais would close their borders to us. We would loose the limited support we have and Karen refugees would not be able to flee to Thailand.

“Secondly, we do not want to be seen as drug dealers-our cause is self-determination, not money,” says Nerdah. “If we find drug addicts we force them to rehabilitate.”In Karen base camp, three amphetamine addicts were digging and performing exercises. “When they are cured, we send them back to the villages on condition that they never use drugs again.” After the day long patrol through the jungle, the KNU troops are still energetic and in good spirits. As a heavy rain begins to fall, the soldiers head for their bamboo huts where they smoke, talk and laugh.

The day was no problem for these people because they didn’t come across any SPDC soldiers. However, these KNU fighters know only too well that in the approaching dry season they will be on month-long patrols, and under heavy fire.

“But it’s okay,” says one fighter, “because we know that one day there will be peace in a Karen free state.”- George McLeod is a Canadian freelance journalist, with a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.