In Myanmar’s hinterland, army uproots ethnic Karen villagers

BANGKOK (AP) — In the jungles of southeast Myanmar, the army was shooting and otherwise oppressing civilians long before last month’s military coup.

This largely unseen repression continues even now. In the country’s remote southeast, an army offensive has driven as many as 8,000 ethnic Karen people to flee their homes in what aid groups said is the worst upheaval there for nearly 10 years.

They’re now living in the jungle, with fears growing for their health and security, and no prospect of an early return.

This crisis in the borderlands has been overshadowed by the deadly crackdown on the mass movement protesting the military’s takeover of power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Karen National Union, the leading political body for the Karen, for now is shouldering all of the displaced people’s basic needs for food, shelter and security.

Members of the humanitarian group Free Burma Rangers sing songs with ethnic Karen children who are living in the jungle to escape an ongoing local offensive by the Myanmar army, in northern Karen State. PHOTO: AP

The Karen are among more than a dozen ethnic groups that have been seeking greater autonomy from the central government since Myanmar, then known as Burma, became independent from Britain in 1948.

At times the ethnic groups’ guerrilla forces have engaged in full-on armed conflict with the government; in recent years, many have reached an uneasy ceasefire.

In the last few months, troop numbers and activity have scaled up dramatically, according to relief organisations active there.

The Karen’s own armed force, the Karen National Liberation Army, has fought back. In retaliation, the army has increased its attacks and shelled surrounding villages.

Relief agencies said the 8,000 or so people who abandoned their homes for the privations of the jungle are safe and are adapting as well as they can, building bamboo shelters and holding school classes in the open.

But no one knows when they can return or whether their villages will still be standing when they do. Meanwhile, the fields where their crops would grow are untended, threatening food supplies later in the year.

A humanitarian group, the Free Burma Rangers, has been bringing in aid since the attacks began and documenting the Karens’ plight.

The group was formed in the late 1990s during intense attacks that displaced more than 100,000 Karen people.

Founder and Director Dave Eubank is a former member of the United States (US) Special Forces who combines evangelical activities with well-disciplined forays by Karen volunteers to deliver medical aid to villagers.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press via satellite phone from the affected area, Eubank spoke of what the displaced Karen desperately need. He said that stopping attacks by Myanmar troops — “security and survival” — is the top priority.

Food comes next. “As they get displaced they’ve got to eat,” he said. “They can’t go back and start their crops. They can’t prepare for the next fields, they can’t look after the animals,” he said.

Medical care and shelter are also essential, Eubank said.