'Hidden Darfur': a 60-year-old war swells camps with refugees as Myanmar junta gains ground

MAE RAMA LUANG CAMP, Thailand (AP) — The weary, weather-beaten refugee, gently cradling his sleeping son, gazes at the ceiling, bites his lips, but can't hold back the tears.

"I cry for those who were killed and died of disease or went mad, for the children who suffered," says Pawo Tu. "I cry for the food I had to beg for but could not repay."

This 46-year-old orchard keeper is just one among half a million Karen tribespeople driven from their homes by the Myanmar military, and his story is typical of the sagas of suffering that emerge in this refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Aid workers call the regime's campaign against the Karen rebellion "the hidden Darfur." To Christians who work with refugees from the country they still call Burma, it's "the Calvary of the Karen."

The world's attention to Myanmar has focused largely on pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her struggle with the junta that has held her under house arrest for 18 years in Yangon, formerly Rangoon.

Mentioned mostly parenthetically is the relentless war to eradicate a 60-year-old insurgency among the Karen, the country's second largest ethnic minority, by cutting it off from the general population. Although the regime denies it, the U.N. and international human rights groups have documented executions, gang rape, torture, forced labor and mass relocations of civilians after their communities are torched.

Pawo Tu's family fled when troops burned their village, Leka Deta, in 2006, suspecting it sided with the rebels who are fighting for an independent state.

"For five years we lived in the jungle in makeshift shelters of bamboo and banana leaves, always on the run, always afraid the soldiers would find us," he said. Like most of the uprooted Karen, the family foraged, hunted, traded, tended small vegetable plots and sometimes begged from villagers. In their jungle hideouts, Pawo Tu's wife bore five children.

With the food run out and the soldiers getting too close, the family risked land mines, cripplers and killers of countless escapees, to reach the Thai-Myanmar border. Here, some 150,000 Karen and other ethnic minorities live in nine camps.

"Once there were 100 families in our village, now only some ten are left," says a recent arrival, Khwe Say Hto. "We became slaves of the military."

Families are financially ruined, many refugees say, because the military demands "taxes" — sometimes nearly half a villager's already minuscule income — for avoiding the draft or forced labor, or for no reason at all.

Farmers are kept from their fields doing long stretches of unpaid labor, hauling supplies, building military bases and repairing roads. Khwe Say Hto says that in his village of Palodu, men and sometimes women also served as human minesweepers. Two were killed and others wounded in the most recent incident, a few months back.

The 38-year-old farmer said he was shanghaied as a porter 10 times and on his last, grueling march three of his fellow villagers sank to the ground in exhaustion. The soldiers kicked them and then ground their boots on their throats until they died, he said.

"We could stand it no longer," he said, so he fled with his wife and four children.

At another camp, Mae La, set up 21 years ago, so many refugees have poured in that it has become a virtual city of bamboo shacks, primitive schools and churches. It sits at the foot of soaring limestone cliffs in a remote jungle valley inaccessible by road during the monsoon rains.

In an open-sided hall, more than 200 teenagers gather to hear Rev. Simon Htoo talk about helping camp-born youngsters fight depression, drugs and AIDS.

"When we were in Burma, we were like wild cats, wild cats that were hunted, always fleeing the Burmese military," reads a poem by one refugee, Toe Kro. "Living in the camp, we are like a wild cat that is being raised in domesticity, cannot go out of the cage."

A sudden downpour erupts as the Protestant pastor leads the group in a song:

"We call our land Kawthoolei, the Land without Evil, a green and beautiful land," the clear voices soar above the rain's heavy patter.

"But today this land is rife with killing, fighting, land mines, and filled with evil. Widows, orphans are crying without help...We want peace. We want to go home."

Some never will.

On a map of the U.S. in the camp, red dots from Seattle to Boston pinpoint the Karen diaspora. Since 2006, 60,000 Karen, who include Christians, Buddhists and animists, as well as other ethnic minorities, have left the camps, three-quarters of them bound for the U.S.

Hsa Gay, the camp's deputy chief, says he is happy for those who find happiness abroad, away from the disease that afflicts up to 40 percent of camp-dwellers with bouts of malaria and 10 percent with tuberculosis at any given time. The refugees live mostly on rice and beans.

But Hsa Gay says resettlement has its downside, because those selected are usually the ones the tribe needs most — teachers, nurses, technicians.

Betrayed and forgotten: That's how David Tharckabaw sees his people.

The vice president of the Karen National Union, the insurgency's political arm, says that Britain, the colonial ruler until 1949, broke its promise to give the Karen a separate state. Today, the plight of the Karen, who number about 4 million in a population of 43 million, has become a sideshow.

"Most countries give lip service but it is economic interests which are driving them. They see Burma as a market, a place with natural resources," he said.

The U.S. and European Union apply economic sanctions, but China, Thailand and other neighbors trade with Myanmar, while the U.S., Tharckabaw says, is "hooked" on engagement as a way of coaxing the 38-year-old junta toward democracy.

The Karen insurgency, dating back to 1949, is considered the world's oldest, and the adage that "old soldiers never die" seems true enough in the figure of Lt. Col. Saw Doo, at 82 possibly the world's oldest recruit still on active duty in an army with no pensions or retirement age.

The farmer's son joined the insurgency when it broke out, spent decades on the front lines, was wounded and never managed to return to his parents and native village.

Striding as erect as a young officer reviewing troops, Saw Doo still serves "the Karen revolution" as head of training for the Karen National Liberation Army, the military arm of the KNU.

Armed only with basic infantry weapons, the Karen have lost ground to the Chinese-supplied Myanmar military, which has moved at least 200,000 troops into Karen State. But still they hope their guerrilla skills, or the junta's internal conflicts, or a general pro-democracy uprising, will turn the tide.

"There is only one way we can lose — if we surrender all our weapons to the enemy," says the old warrior, one of 16 who joined the rebellion at the start.

Even older is 91-year-old Saw Tamla Baw, the KNU president.

Gravely ill from a lung infection, barely able to lift his head from a pillow, he lies on a mattress in a small, sweltering room with bare cement walls. A grandson fans his face with a scrap of yellow plastic.

"It will be difficult," he says, struggling with every word. "But we can regain our country. I believe one day we will have our own Karen state."