Minorities protest as Burma celebrates 60th anniversary

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More than 800 people from all corners of Burma crammed into the ramshackle headquarters of the National League for Democracy in central Rangoon, the party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, yesterday to mark the 60th anniversary of the Burmese union.

Signed in 1947 by Suu Kyi's father, General Aung San, the creator of Burma's modern army, and leaders of the nation's ethnic minorities, the Panglong Agreement was meant to lay the foundations of an independent, democratic, multi-ethnic Burmese state.

How far the agreement is from being realised was brought home by the simultaneous publication yesterday of a colossal report by the Karen Women's Organization documenting how the nation's military rulers have for more than a generation killed, raped, exploited and persecuted one of those minorities, the Karen.

The Karen inhabit a long sliver of land in the east of the country, running north and south along the Thai border. The Karen National Army has waged a guerrilla war against the Tatmadaw, the Burmese Army for decades. In 1974 the regime responded with what it called the Four Cuts Policy, aiming to cut the Karen's access to food, funds, recruits and information.

They classified their control of Karen areas by colours: white areas were totally in their hands, brown areas were contested by both groups, while black areas belonged to the rebels. The army set about converting brown areas into white ones by what the new report calls "massive forced relocations of Karen communities, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Karen people being internally displaced." Hundreds of thousands more fled across the border and now live in refugee camps or elsewhere in Thailand.

The black areas are free-fire zones, where the army has the right to shoot on sight anything that moves. In one of the most prolonged bouts of ethnic cleansing witnessed anywhere in the world, the population balance of these areas has been dramatically shifted. No-one outside the Burmese regime knows for sure how many Karen have died in the process, but the regime itself notes that in 32 years during which the nation's population has nearly doubled, the Karen have shrunk from 5 million to 2.9 million.

And the assault on Karen civilians continues today. The new report documents over 4,000 cases of abuse, including rape, murder, torture and forced labour in more than 190 Karen villages, committed by troops from over 40 Burmese Army battalions.

In January 2004 an informal ceasefire was reached by the regime, known today as the State Peace and Development Council or SPDC, and the Karen rebels.

But since then attacks on Karen civilians have actually intensified. "From this position of increased strength," the authors claim, "the SPDC have conducted ongoing attacks on villages across Karen State since September 2005...Karen women and children continue to be killed and raped by SPDC soldiers, subjected to forced labour and are displaced from their homes. In the first half of 2006 alone...almost 5,000 villagers were taken as forced labourers, with over five times that number being forcibly relocated from their villages as their farms, homes and rice paddies were burned." The SPDC declined to comment on the allegations.

In his customary Union Day message, Burma's military ruler Senior General Than Shwe said, "Certain powerful countries desirous of gaining dominance" over Burma "are stirring up racial conflicts to break up national unity and cause the recurrence of armed conflicts." A speaker at the Union Day commemoration held at NLD's headquarters, Aye Tha Aung, secretary of the Committee Representing the People's Parliament, commented, "Although we say Burma is a union, there is still no physical and ethical form to the union. We need a constitution that respects and protects the rights of every ethnic people. Only then can we have a genuine democratic union." A commemmorative dinner planned by the opposition groups, to be attended by foreign diplomats, was banned by the regime.