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On the run with the Karen people forced to flee Burma's genocide

Pete Pattisson,Burma
Tuesday 16 January 2007 01:00 GMT

When the Burmese soldiers arrived at his village, Maung Taungy knew what would happen next. Seven villagers were arrested, their feet bound together with rope, and they hung upside down for hours. Exhausted and with their ankles lacerated, the men, suspected of being linked to the Karen resistance army, were then beaten. The soldiers did not stop until they were dead.

"After that," remembers Maung Taungy, an ethnic-minority Karen from eastern Burma, "we became the virtual slaves of the army. They ordered us to clear the whole jungle so that they could see approaching enemies. We had to wade through chest-deep water full of snakes to get the area cleared. The work was endless, we made roads, dug trenches, cut bamboo and made fences. We had no choice but to escape."

Maung Taungy now lives in Ei Tu Tha camp for internally displaced people, ineastern Burma. An estimated 27,000 Karen have fled an offensive by the Burmese army in northern Karen State, which began last February. Fifty five thousand Karen remain in hiding in the jungles bordering Thailand, refugees from the world's longest-running civil war, between the Burmese army and the Karen resistance, the Karen National Liberation Army. More than one million Karen have been displaced since 1996 in the face of systematic human rights violations including rape, forced labour and torture.

And the situation is worsening. "We'd faced problems with the Burmese army since the 1960s, but the situation now is worse than ever," says Maung. According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, in the past year alone 232 villages in eastern Burma have been destroyed, forcibly relocated or otherwise abandoned. The Karen Human Rights Group claims the most recent offensive by the Burmese army is part of a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing that amounts to crimes against humanity.

Yet the international community is doing little. On Friday a US-sponsored UN Security Council resolution calling for the restoration of democracy in Burma and an end to human rights violations was vetoed by Russia and China; their first joint veto since 1972. They argued that the resolution was outside the remit of the Security Council as Burma posed no threat to international security. The Burma Campaign UK points out that China and Russia are both significant arms suppliers to Burma's regime, and are seeking investment opportunities in Burma's large-scale gas reserves. A report commissioned by Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel in September 2005 compared Burma with other countries where the Security Council has recently intervened in internal conflicts, including Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. The report identifies five criteria for intervention, including the overthrow of an elected government and human rights abuses. Burma was the only country that met all five criteria.

The current offensive in Karen State follows a clear pattern. Burmese troops force Karen civilians to relocate to villages already under their control. Old villages are burnt down and land-mined to stop villagers returning. Forced labour is demanded for months at a time. Anyone caught trying to leave is shot. Without access to their farms, many Karen suffer severe food shortages. A September 2006 report by the Back Pack Health Workers Team, which provides medical care to victims of the conflict, warns of a health catastrophe in eastern Burma as a direct result of the army's human rights abuses.

Escaping the conflict can be as dangerous as staying. Heavily pregnant Eha Hsar Paw took two weeks to reach Ei Tu Tha camp. Shortly after arriving the camp medics told her the baby inside her was dead, killed by the stress of the journey. It was the fifth child she had lost. "Our whole village was burnt down by Burmese soldiers in February 2006. Since then we have been hiding in the surrounding jungle. The soldiers would just shoot anyone they saw, even children," she said. "If they found our rice they would burn it, they cut holes in our cooking pots and tore up our clothes. The journey here was very difficult. We arrived at one village expecting to be able to buy food, only to find that they were also getting ready to leave and so they wouldn't sell any to us. One of my children died in the jungle before we left and another died when we reached this camp. It was hard to leave our village, but if we had stayed there we would all be dead."

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