Burmese army drives ethnic rebels from last stronghold

Thousands of refugees flee to Thailand as Karen fighters resort to guerrilla war
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The Independent Online

An ethnic rebel army that has been fighting for greater autonomy from Burma for more than 60 years has been driven from its stronghold after weeks of fighting against government troops, raising the prospect of a fresh flood of refugees into Thailand.

More than 4,000 civilians have fled into neighbouring Thailand this month following attacks by Burmese troops against the Karen National Union (KNU). Yesterday, the rebels revealed that having given up several camps, they had now been forced from their main base.

"Our troops are planning to move behind enemy lines to pursue guerrilla warfare," the KNU's vice-president, David Tharckabaw, told the Associated Press. "If it is necessary, any camp can be abandoned."

The struggle by the Karen, squeezed into ever smaller patches of jungle in the east of Burma, represents an ultimately futile battle against the odds. It is one of the world's longest-running conflicts.

With almost all other ethnic rebel groups having now agreed peace deals with the Burmese junta, the KNU has been struggling to survive against a determined effort by the government to crush the last of the rebels.

About 100,000 Karen refugees have taken shelter in Thai camps over the past two decades after fleeing the government's counter-insurgency operations. Aid groups suggest that another half-million Karen are displaced inside eastern Burma.

Human rights groups and the UN have long accused the Burmese government of torturing, killing and raping Karen civilians while trying to stamp out the insurgency, though the military regime denies the allegations.

Last week, the EU condemned the fighting, saying that it "noted with serious concern the mounting offensive of the Burmese army and its allies against the Karen... which has resulted in large numbers of civilians fleeing from the conflict area.

"The EU calls for an immediate ceasefire and requests the authorities and military operators to ensure the protection of civilians at all times."

During the Second World War, British forces recruited ethnic Karen to help drive the Japanese from Burma, with an undertaking that at the conclusion of the war, they would win their independence.

With victory secured, however, that pledge was forgotten and independent Burma's first leader, General Aung San, the father of the imprisoned pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was also opposed to Karen autonomy.

The stepping up of the junta's operation against the Karen, who are seeking a federal state rather than independence, comes as preparations are made to mark Aung San Suu Kyi's 64th birthday today.

The opposition leader is to spend her birthday at the notorious Insein jail in Rangoon, where she is being held after an American man swam to her house, uninvited. She has been accused of violating the conditions of her house arrest after she let the man stay at her home for two nights.

Ms Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the past 19 years in detention since the junta refused to recognise the victory of her party, the National League for Democracy, in a 1990 election.

In Rangoon, members of her party were planning a celebration at their headquarters where they intended to give breakfast to Buddhist monks. "We have to hold the birthday party without the host again. We would be very happy if she could be released, we are hoping and praying for this," said a senior party member, Lei Lei.

A website set up to gather birthday wishes for Aung San Suu Kyi, "64 for Suu," has collected more than 10,000 names, including those of Gordon Brown, David Beckham, George Clooney and Julia Roberts.