ON THE THAILAND-MYANMAR BORDER (AFP) — They prowl their jungle battleground in sneakers and have to steal their weapons, but Myanmar's ethnic Karen rebels say they will never quit their struggle against the junta.
The ragtag Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has been fighting Myanmar's military government for 60 years -- marking the country's eastern border as the stage for one of the world's longest running conflicts.
But a renewed crackdown by government forces in early June caused 4,000 of the mainly Christian Karen to flee to neighbouring Thailand, the largest group of refugees to cross in more than a decade, aid groups say.
The offensive comes as Myanmar's generals try to stamp out the last of the more than two dozen ethnic uprisings that have riven the country since shortly after independence in time for elections due next year.
Despite the overwhelming firepower against them, the KNLA say they will not quit.
"We never give up," said David Tharckabaw, a former soldier with the KNLA and now a leader of the political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU), based in a secret location on the Thai-Myanmar border.
"Yes, this is an asymmetric conflict, but overall we can still carry on."
In video footage AFP received from the Democratic Voice of Burma, a multimedia agency run by Myanmar expatriates that uses the country's former name, KNLA soldiers are seen fighting in rolled-up jeans and t-shirts.
A small guerrilla group rearms their rocket-propelled grenade launchers in the dense scrub -- Tharckabaw said most these weapons are stolen from government forces in raids because the KNLA obtains only sparse funds from logging and by levying cross-border trade taxes.
"We are operating on a shoestring so we rely heavily on guerrilla tactics and we have to be mobile and cause as many casualties as possible on the enemy," Tharckabaw told AFP.
"That's through ambushes... what we call 'battle of annihilation'," he said.
The struggling fighters are often forced to carry a week's worth of food, he said, as they attempt to take advantage of their superior knowledge of the tough terrain.
Some are based in their home villages while others are in camps for people internally displaced by the fighting in Myanmar, like one at Ler Per Her in eastern Myanmar's Karen state, where several mortars fell last month as it became the focus of the most recent offensive by the junta.
Inhabitants living nearby were forced to flee to uncertain refuge in Thailand and residents said they had been told they must work as minesweepers and porters for government forces.
Despite his belligerent talk and, in a sign that the strength of the rebels is waning, Tharckabaw, 74 -- who joined the KNLA aged 14 -- said they now actively discourage new recruits because they are more of a burden on resources than a help.
The Karen's struggle began alongside Myanmar's other ethnic minority groups seeking greater autonomy the year after British colonial rule ended in 1948.
General Ne Win, the dictator who seized control of the country in a 1962 coup, sought to crush the ethnic insurgencies with a "four cuts" policy: choking supplies of "food, funds, recruits and information" by razing villages.
It is a tactic that is still employed today.
"People have been writing off the KNU for years but unfortunately for people caught up in the middle of this, it could dribble on for quite some more time," said Myanmar analyst David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch.
He said the Karen rebels are probably at their lowest ebb militarily, while the junta's forces have gained in strength thanks to the defection to its side of a breakaway Buddhist faction of the largely Christian KNLA.
Myanmar's rulers now hope to use the defectors -- known as the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army (DKBA) -- as part of a national border defence force ahead of the 2010 elections, said Zipporah Sern, head of the KNU.
"They (the junta) try to push the DKBA to attack the KNLA base camp... they use their tactics in a tricky way to persuade them (not to rejoin the rebels)" said Sern, who also spoke to AFP from a secret border location.
This sort of "divide and rule" strategy leaves no doubt that the fight must continue, says Tharckabaw, although he adds that the KNU are willing to talk with the authorities.
"We are always ready to negotiate and we have been there five times already, but they say you have to lay down arms first. But who would? Where's the trust?" Tharckabaw said.