Old rebellion, harsh foe swell Myanmar exile camps

Aug 16th, 2010 | By admin | Category: Featured

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.”

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