Most serious of all, the Karen leadership is losing the support of neighbouring Thailand, where it was formerly able to organise, arm and – when necessary – retreat
Burma: world’s longest war nears its end
It began with British betrayal after the Second World War and has stubbornly outlived every other conflict. But now, as it marks it diamond jubilee, the world’s longest-running war is nearing its endgame.
The guerrilla army of the Karen ethnic group, which has been fighting since 1949 for independence from Burma, is facing the greatest crisis in its history. If Karen resistance collapses, as some believe is likely, it will be a triumph for the Burmese junta as it consolidates its hold on power.
After a three-year offensive by the junta, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has been forced into increasingly small pockets of resistance, according to Burma experts.
Deprived of funds and equipment, it is able to do little more than slow the advance of the Burmese Army as it lays waste to hundreds of villages, driving thousands of terrified civilians before it.Most serious of all, the Karen leadership is losing the support of neighbouring Thailand, where it was formerly able to organise, arm and – when necessary – retreat. Trapped between the Burmese Army to the west and an increasingly unfriendly Thailand to the east, with hundreds of thousands of their people in wretched refugee camps, the Karen are experiencing a humanitarian and military catastrophe.
The military situation is as bad as it’s been at any time in the past 60 years,” said David Mathieson, a Burma researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The Karen have less territory, fewer soldiers and fewer resources to sustain resistance. The Burmese have them more and more surrounded, and their backs are up against the wall.”
A Karen leader on the Thai border said that the KNLA and Burmese Army were fighting near the town of Kawkareik, close to the Thai border. All year there have been reports of Karen villagers being driven into the jungle by marauding soldiers.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse kind of struggle,” David Tharckabaw, vice-president of the political organisation the Karen National Union (KNU), told The Times by phone from the Thai border town of Mae Sot. “The Burmese burn down villages and relocate the people close to their own camps.”
The Karen conflict has its origins in the Second World War, when many Karen fought alongside the British Army against the invading Japanese. The seven million Karen were promised their own state by the British but when independence came in 1948 the promise was forgotten. A year later, in January 1949, the Karen began the armed struggle that has continued ever since.
In the early decades of the war, the KNU dominated the Irrawaddy Delta, close to the former Burmese capital Rangoon, as well as areas north of the city and all of Kayin State. But in the 1990s an increasingly well-armed Burmese Army made steady gains and in 1995 the KNU was driven out of its capital, Manerplaw.
At this time, Buddhists in the Christian-dominated KNU broke away to form the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which now fights alongside the Burmese Army. Formerly, the KNU had operated as a quasi-government, providing schools and clinics and receiving income from tax, as well as from a profitable trade through Thailand in timber, gold, zinc and antimony.
The loss of territory brought a loss of funds, which made it harder to arm and equip itself. The KNU claims to have 10,000 soldiers, including village militia men, but according to Mr Mathieson the number of active fighters is probably between 3,000 and 5,000.
Last year the KNU suffered another blow when its respected and charismatic leader, Pado Mahn Shar, was assassinated at his home in Thailand by unidentified gunmen. Among many Karen there was a suspicion that the ease with which the killers escaped, and the failure to apprehend them, reflected a cooling of the welcome afforded by Thailand. Last month Karen military commanders were ordered out of Thailand and back across the border.
This probably reflects the Thai Government’s increasing dependence on Burma for raw materials and energy – the two governments are jointly planning ambitious hydroelectric dams along the Salween River which forms part of their border.
The border is a valuable conduit not only for the Karen but for Burmese struggling to overthrow the military dictatorship. After the junta cracked down on large pro-democracy demonstrations of monks and activists in 2007, many of them escaped into Thailand.“It’s a crucial route for information,” said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK. “If that’s closed down the whole country will become much more isolated.” - The United Nations has ruled that the continued detention by Burma of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi violates domestic and international laws. The latest one-year detention period of Ms Suu Kyi, who has spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest, expires in May.