Although public attention in Burma focuses on Nobel Laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her worthy struggle for democracy, the military junta has been even more brutal in the ongoing wars in the eastern part of the nation. Unfortunately, the Karen, a largely Christian group which has struggled for autonomy for decades, continues to lose ground.
For the first time in at least a decade, Myanmar‘s central government controls most of its own border with Thailand. By the standards of most countries this might not be considered a major accomplishment. But Myanmar has been fighting ethnic Karen rebels along the mountainous border for nearly as long as it has existed as an independent country.
The Myanmar military and a local proxy militia undertook an assault in June that led to the capture of seven military camps run by the Karen National Union, a rebel group that once so dominated parts of the 1,100-mile Thailand-Myanmar border that it collected customs duties at its own checkpoints.
The June offensive surprised the Karen forces partly because it took place during the muddy monsoon season, usually a time of a climate-induced truce. Hundreds of rebels fled into the jungles infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
The Karen have led one of the most resilient insurgencies in Asia. They once proposed to their British colonial overlords that they create an independent “Karenistan.” But they now appear understaffed, under-equipped and divided, according to Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based expert on ethnic groups in Myanmar, formerly called Burma. “They have lost most of their military strength,” he said.
The main losers of the most recent fighting, however, were not combatants but villagers, many of them children, forced to flee their homes in the remote and impoverished Karen hills. The Karen Human Rights Group, an organization that monitors the conflict, counted 4,862 villagers who crossed to the Thai side of the border, where already crowded refugee camps hold more than 120,000 people.
There’s not much that can be done to help the Karen on the battlefield. But organizations which help relieve the suffering of Karen refugees deserve support. One of my favorite, with which I’ve traveled extensively, is Christian Freedom International.