Karen rebels with a cause fight on with hope in their hearts
Guerillas see protests as a chance for peace
Nick Meo on the Myanmese-Thai border Oct 15, 2007
After 21 years of fighting in the Karen revolution, he is still a private, like the teenage soldiers dozing next to him in hammocks with their motley weapons leaning against trees.
Despite appearances, Karen guerillas are feared by the Myanmese army. With little ammunition and few weapons, it is mainly their courage that thousands of civilians depend on for security when they flee offensives to the uncertain safety of the border.
The Karen National Union (KNU) claims that nearly 3,000 people have been killed and wounded in the past 18 months in just one offensive in the north of Karen state, the jungle-covered mountains in eastern Myanmar that make up the homeland they call Kawthoolei. In their language the name means "land without evil", but the ravages of the Myanmese army have made it an ironic one.
The survivors from burned villages, with no papers to cross into Thailand, must set up camp along the river where they receive a dribble of aid and can escape across to the other side in case of attack.
If that happens, guerillas try to slow down the enemy for long enough to let the women and children escape in small boats hidden near their makeshift villages in riverside vegetation.
Attacks against their people never let up. On September 27, even as the Myanmese army was shooting down protesters in the streets of Yangon, three farmers were executed in Karen state. In recent years, hundreds of villages have been burned, gang rape has been used against women as a weapon of war, and land-mines have been laid in villages and fields.
Mahn Si, like all the guerillas, is unpaid. He has not had a chance to visit his family for two years in the refugee camp to which they fled in 1968. Yet he has never thought of retiring from the Karen's endless war.
"I joined our army to protect our people from the army," he said. "They have instructions that when they see a villager they must shoot."
The upheaval in Yangon has not yet affected the Karen, whose war against the Myanmese army began in January 1949. But they know that political change is the only way peace will return, and they are watching keenly to see what happens next.
The KNU has good links with political dissidents, many of whom fled to the border to learn to be guerillas after the 1988 crackdown. It says it wants to negotiate autonomy in a federal, democratic Myanmar. Unlike other ethnic armies, it has never been tainted by opium trafficking.
In the past decade they have steadily been forced back by a well-armed army. The number of their fighters has dwindled from a peak of about 200,000 to just a few thousand today, and now the KNLA controls only shrinking pockets of jungle.
Cho Lay, 44, another Karen guerilla who spent years in the regime's jails, said: "The army wants to destroy the Karen nation. They attack us and kill us, force our people to become refugees or enslave us.
Mahn Shah, the KNU's leader, said the KNLA received no foreign military or humanitarian aid, although it is believed that more than a million people who fled from the army are living in the jungles of eastern Myanmar.
Mutu Saepoe, KNLA commanding officer, said: "We stand alone, nobody wants to support us in our armed struggle. Think of what America spends daily in Iraq - a tiny fraction of that would enable us to buy weapons and defend our people."
The mountainous border lands are alive with rumours of impending fighting when the monsoon ends this month.
Tribal armies, which had signed ceasefires with the Myanmese regime, were unhappy at the government's plans to disarm them even before last month's street protests and the subsequent crackdown.
Nearly half of Myanmar's population is made up of ethnic hill tribes, peoples like the Karen. With their tormentors preoccupied in the cities keeping a tight rein on would-be protesters, some of them now wonder if a new chance to break free could soon be at hand.