The dense jungle mist swirls and parts to reveal one man, then 10, then an entire platoon of guerrilla soldiers, all armed and battle-hardened, many wearing beneath their muddy fatigues magical tattoos believed to ward off cold and deflect enemy bullets. This apparition is part of the Shan State Army (SSA), one of a handful of rebel outfits still fighting Burma's military government. The SSA's goal - an independent homeland for the Shan, Burma's second-largest ethnic group - is nearly impossible to achieve. But this is still rebel country, with steep, jungle-clad mountains and plunging ravines, where for years the SSA has used hit-and-run tactics to deter - but never defeat - the ill-equipped and dispirited Burmese army.
The group's main base, Loi Tai Laeng, straddles the Thai-Burma border; a collection of rough bamboo structures tumbling down a hillside. An enormous flag featuring the crossed sword and rifle of the SSA hangs over a parade ground of packed mud. This is a forgotten frontline in the war against the Burmese military, which seized power in 1962 and still rules the nation with unrelenting brutality. The SSA has between 500 and 2,000 troops - no one knows for sure. (Ask a rebel spokesman how many, and he tersely replies: "Enough.") They are vastly outnumbered by the 400,000-strong Burmese armed forces. In the remote Shan hills, poppies are still grown and opium is still traded, along with millions of methamphetamine pills called ya ba, or crazy medicine. But the SSA's plain-spoken commander, Colonel Yawdserk, vehemently denies any current involvement in the drugs trade. The penalty for an SSA soldier caught dealing is execution, and a senior rebel source * claims credibly that the SSA now collaborates with Thai border authorities on some drug busts.
More than 3,000 wretched civilians live near the five SSA camps along the Thailand-Burma border. These are victims of a slow-motion genocide. One-tenth of them are orphans aged between five and 16 and, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, each dutifully answers: "A rebel." Other civilians sheltering here are too dazed and traumatised to talk, or are missing limbs from landmines. They are among hundreds of thousands of Shan and other hilltribe people who have been driven at gunpoint by Burmese troops from ances- tral lands since 1996 in a savage but seldom-reported operation to cut off popular support for the SSA. It is a campaign of terror against an unarmed population - an orgy of loot- ing, burning, torture and massacres. Shan villages have been razed and precious live- stock butchered, with the depopulated areas designated "free-fire zones". Here, rampaging Burmese troops shoot anything that moves, including famished villagers returning to salvage what's left of their crops. On one occasion, 26 villagers were caught foraging for food and decapitated, their headless corpses left at the roadside as a warning to others.
Thousands of families fester in military concentration camps, where they are forced to construct barracks and grow food for Burmese soldiers. Many Shan men - and women - are shanghaied as porters, carrying their own bodyweight in ammunition along jungle paths littered with landmines. As a former porter attests, it is unimaginably gruelling and often fatal work: a landmine claimed his arm and eye.
Human-rights monitors have also documented how Burmese soldiers systematically rape hundreds of women and girls, some as young as five. Rape is institutionalised in the Burmese army, and women have been violated on suspicion of providing food for the Shan rebels. Interviews with defecting Burmese soldiers - many of them young, illiterate and themselves brutalised by their training - suggest they were encouraged to regard the forced impregnation of Shan women as a racial duty. "Your blood must be left in the village," they were told. Within years of the campaign's * launch, over 300,000 people had been moved from an area covering 7,000 square miles - a "conservative estimate", reckons Amnesty International. This is like evacuating a city the size of Belfast, or depopulating an area almost as large as Wales. Meanwhile, there has been a similarly ferocious assault on Shan culture. The Burmese government has razed historic Shan buildings, destroyed signs bearing village names in Shan, and outlawed books and school lessons in the Shan language. The upshot of all this is that many young Shan do not understand their mother tongue.
And yet the Shan have always been a proud and independent-minded people, their rugged homeland run for centuries by dozens of feuding chieftains. After 1886, when all Burma came under British control, the chieftains - known as saopha, or "lords of the skies" - were granted semi-autonomy. The wealthier ones took many wives, sent their children to English schools, and ruled with an opulence which recalled the maharajas of India. For years this uncharted territory was administered by a diminutive Scotsman called Sir George Scott, who spoke Shan and many other languages, and had the distinction of first introducing football to what is today a soccer-mad nation. But if the British Empire could be compared to a rambling old house, as one colonial judge once wrote, then these Shan principalities were, "the imperial attic... Not one Englishman in 10,000 has ever heard of them." The same could be said today.
Burma won its independence in 1948. The Burmese military launched a coup 14 years later, and Burma - then a fledgling democracy tipped to become one of Asia's richest nations - began its descent into poverty and fear. The Shan rebels have been fighting a losing battle against the Burmese junta ever since. When not launching guerrilla attacks behind enemy lines, the SSA sticks close to the relative security of the border with Thailand. The Thais are ethnic cousins of the Shan - the word itself is a corruption of "Siam", the old name for Thailand - but the two have an uneasy relationship.
Unlike other ethnic groups fleeing persecution in Burma, the Shan who cross the border are not granted refugee status, and easily fall prey to disease and human traffickers. To appease Burma's generals - who would probably swap their star-spangled epaulettes for a rebel-free Shan state - the Thai government recently ordered its army to expel the SSA from its Loi Tai Laeng HQ. That hasn't happened and, despite public pronouncements to the contrary, probably won't. Operating deep inside Burma, the SSA shares vital intelligence with the Thais on the movements of Burmese troops and Thailand's true foes, drug-smugglers, alike.
With another anti-government rebel group, the Karen National Union, currently in historic ceasefire talks with the Burmese regime, pressure on the SSA to sit round the negotiating table with their sworn Burmese enemies is increasing. But the rebels, who are staunch supporters of Burma's pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, have so far shown little interest in a ceasefire. Until it does, the SSA will lurk in the mist, a ghostly army for a haunted people.
Andrew Marshall is the author of a book about football in Burma called 'The Trouser People', published by Penguin, priced £12Reuse content