KNU flag

Since Burma became independent after World War II the Burmese (Myanmar) government has never really controlled the Karen area along the Thai border The Burmese army has fought a prolonged civil war with Karen National Union (KNU), founded in 1949. Some Karen fighters fought for the British against the Japanese in World War II.

The Karen conflict is considered by many analysts to be the longest-running civil war in the world. Decades of sporadic government campaigns have driven hundreds of thousands of Karen and other refugees into neighboring Thailand, where at least 150,000 live in official camps and an estimated 1.5 million dwell illegally. Humanitarian groups such as the Free Burma Rangers regularly report attacks in Karen villages by the military regime carrying out counterinsurgency operations.

According to Human Rights Watch: “Hundreds of thousands, according to expert estimates, have died in a conflict largely hidden from the international spotlight. However, human rights groups have documented continuing killings, rapes, forced relocations and burning of villages as the military seeks to control areas of Myanmar regarded as sympathetic to the Karen National Union and other insurgent groups. These incidents are denied by the junta.

The Karens are divided. The Karen National Union (KNU) and Karen revolutionary military groups have traditionally been dominated by hill Karens and educated Christian delta Karens. The splinter Democratic Karen Buddhist group broke from the KNU in 1995. Free Burma Rangers is (or was) a Christian group that helps refugees inside Myanmar

The Karen army insurgency is relatively well armed and formidable. Insurgents practice with fake guns near their outposts on the Thai border. The Myanmar army has long been cautious to set foot in Karen-held territory.

Damir Sagolj of Reuters wrote: “ Critics" of the Myanmar government "say Myanmar's army is seeking to neutralize the Karen and other ethnic minorities, in part to seize rich natural resources for logging and mining, a crucial revenue source for the impoverished country. Many of the ethnic groups, including predominantly Christian Karens, do not trust the military and its ethnic Burman leaders who they have long resented and feel they have nothing to gain by taking part in the electoral process. If they disarm and surrender hard-won autonomy, they could lose control over lucrative trade in natural resources. [Source: Damir Sagolj, Reuters, January 7, 2010]

Karen National Union (KNU)

KNU seal

The Karen National Union (KNU) is a political group that has fought for secession from the state since Myanmar was granted independence from Britain in 1948. The group contains guerrilla fighters as well as politicians. Its military wing is the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). The KNU was created at the end of World War II to promote Karen autonomy and independence. The KNU insurgency has been at war with the Burmese (Myanmar) government since 1949. It has joined a coalition with other ethnic groups to fight the government regime. For a long time the KNU was Myanmar's largest guerrilla group. Once in control of large swaths of the Thai-Myanmar border, the KNU has seen its territory shrink to virtually nothing since the capture of its stronghold of Manerplaw in 1995.

After Burma became independent in 1949, the KNU dominated the Karen leadership and was not satisfied with its own state within Burma; it wanted outright independence. In 1949, the KNU started a rebellion that continues to this day. The KNU celebrates January 31 as 'revolution day', marking the day they went underground at the battle of Insein, which took place in 1949 and is named after a Yangoon suburb seized by Karen fighters.

As of January 2001, the KNU was reduced to 2,000 or 3,000 fighters. They had a verbal cease-fire agreement with the Myanmar government and was negotiating with them while government forces were attacking KNU positions near the Thai border. At that time the KNU drew little attention from the international community, their military capability was dwindling, their refugee population was growing, and Thailand, their traditional protector and home for the refugees, was becoming increasingly weary of the Karen struggle.

Anna Sussman of CNN wrote: The KNU's military, a ragtag group of soldiers who often wield World War II weaponry, has come under criticism, accused of recruiting child soldiers and carrying on what many have called an unwinnable war in civilian-occupied territory. The KNU has denied using child soldiers. But during the past decade, their troop numbers have dwindled from 20,000 to a mere 4,000, David Taw, a KNU spokesman said. The KNU has suffered huge losses as members tire of war and resettle in places such as Europe and the United States, he said. The group also still suffers from crippling infighting and another splinter group, a faction commonly called the Karen National Union Peace Council, recently broke ranks to sign a peace agreement with the government of Myanmar — like many other groups. [Source: Anna Sussman, CNN, March 30, 2008 =]

In the early 2000s, the leader of the KNU was Secretary General Ba Thein. He replaced general Bi Mya who led the group for 25years. Ba Thein is regarded as more pragmatic and more willing to make comprised that the stubborn Bi Mya. Mahn Sha, a KNU leader slain in 2008, said that the KNU had the support and backing of the villagers who are caught in the middle of this conflict. "The military regime might have big numbers, but they don't have the support of the people," he said, claiming that for every KNU soldier there are at least 25 government soldiers. "We can protect them because we have their support," he said. =

Pa Doh Mahn Sha, the secretary-general of the Karen National Union (KNU), was killed in February 2008. Three weeks before his death he said, "Our struggle is to protect ourselves from the military regime. They always attack our villages, burn down our villages, burn our food supplies. We want to stop fighting but we have no choice." Mahn Sha was the KNU's third in command, but widely respected as the group's acting leader. He was shot and killed at his home in Thailand at a time of pro-democracy protests in Myanmar.

KNU Activity In the 1990s

KNU soldiers

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations: “Using a Buddhist breakaway Karen faction, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), against the Christian-led KNU, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) was able to over-run Manerplaw and destroy most of the Karen rebel bases in 1995. Tatmadaw and DKBA troops entered Thailand in late January 1997 and attacked Karen refugee camps. A highly controversial natural gas pipeline across the region of southern Burma called the Tenasserim apparently inspired Myanmar military campaigns against Mon and Karen rebels in that area.

Since 1984 the KNU had maintained camps near the Thai border; near where thousands of Karen civilians fled from Myanmar government attacks and forced labor, to the Thai side. Manerplaw was the KNU headquarters and also the seat of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)..[Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The Mon rebels signed a cease-fire agreement, but numerous Tatmadaw battalions were brought in to protect the pipeline project from Karen sabotage. The multinational petroleum companies involved, Total of France and Unocal from the United States, were accused by human rights and environmental groups of complicity in human rights violations, including forced labor and forced relocation, committed by the Myanmar military security forces. Victims of such abuses sued Unocal, achieving a multi-million dollar settlement, in a groundbreaking US court case. The pipeline began bringing natural gas from Myanmar's Andaman Sea to an electrical generating plant on the Thai side of the border in 1999.

Bo Mya, Longtime Leader of the KNU

Gen. Bo Mya was the leader of the Karen National Union (KNU) for a long time. Associated Press reported: “Over the years, Bo Mya essentially became the face of the movement, leading its fighters in the jungles of Myanmar. A barrel-chested man, anti-communist and fervently Christian, Bo Mya inspired fear in friends and enemies and refused over the years to compromise over his dreams of greater rights for the Karen in Myanmar. "I understand that a revolution means opposing the wrong and constructing the right thing," he said in Irrawaddy, "Our revolution is one that must fight against evil and all the wrongs. We must never go against the masses of the country." [Source: Associated Press, December 25, 2006 +]

Bo Mya as a young man

Bo Mya was born Jan. 20, 1927, in Htee Mu Khee village, the 10th of 12 children. As a teenager, he fought with the Allies against the Japanese in World War II and later joined the struggle for autonomy in 1947 when he was a policeman under British rule. As the fight dragged on, Bo Mya survived numerous assassination attempts and defections from the group. With the organization splintering badly in the 1990s, he stepped down as military commander after the rebels lost their stronghold at Manerplaw — a fortified jungle camp that was a hub of the Karen empire in the jungle at the Thai-Myanmar border. +

Bo Mya was forced out of the top leadership position of the group in 2000 after a disastrous terrorist raid on a Thai hospital by a Karen splinter group, during which 10 rebels were killed by Thai commandos to free hundreds of hostages. Still, Bo Mya remained a key member of the resistance, even heading a Karen delegation in an unsuccessful attempt in 2004 to sign a peace agreement with the military government. +

Bo Mya died at the age of 79 in December 2006 in western Thailand near the Myanmar border."This is the big loss for the Karen and all Myanmar ethnic fighters," said Mahn Sha, the group's general secretary. "Gen. Bo Mya has led the fight of the Karen for more than five decades." +

Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA)

The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) is a military group that has fought for secession from the state since Myanmar was granted independence from Britain in 1948. Its political wing is the Karen National Union (KNU). Time magazine described the group as “a seasoned militia of about 10,000, armed with aging assault rifles.”

According to Human Rights Watch: “The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) continues to be in armed conflict with the [Myanmar military regime], and has a very extensive area of operations extending from Karen state and Pegu (Bago) division in the north to Tenasserim (Taninthayi) division in the south. Major General Isaac, a senior KNLA officer, estimates its fighting strength to be 3,500 to 4,000 troops, though he says there are about 7,000 listed on the official KNLA register. Regarding recruitment policies, he explained to Human Rights Watch, "It was already decided at our Twelfth Congress in 2000 that the minimum age [for recruitment] should change from 15 to 18." [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007]

On the military regimes struggle with the KNLA, Time reported: Although the military has long fought the Karen National Liberation Army it has mostly seemed content to stage small, periodic sieges against mountain strongholds in Karen state's northwest. These sieges have typically taken place only during Southeast Asia's dry seasons.

KNLA flag

Kenichi Okumura wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “In January 2001, after a difficult journey by car, boat and on foot, a Japanese man named Yuzo Uda was guided to one of the headquarters of the Karen National Liberation Army in Karen State. The KNLA faced financial difficulties, and the people were tired of the long struggle. Uda interviewed Bo Kyaw, a young brigade commander of the KNLA. A quiet man of the same age as Uda, Bo Kyaw was at a loss for how to get the Karen people out of the deadlock. He said he had never really been happy during his 16 years of fighting, adding that the military would destroy the KNLA if they laid down their weapons. While later covering Karen people who had been internally displaced within Myanmar, Uda only had boiled frog on rice to eat as he journeyed several days to their camp. The people were desperate and only wanted to cultivate their own soil and live peaceful lives.[Source: Kenichi Okumura, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 26, 2010]

Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and KNU-KNLA Peace Council

The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) operates in central Karen state, sharing power with the Myanmar military regime in some areas and regularly engaging in combat with the KNLA. Official troop strength figures are not available, though it is thought to have several thousand soldiers. The group relies on both voluntary recruitment and local conscription programs to maintain its troop numbers. The DKBA has sided with Myanmar military since defecting from the Karen National Union in 1995. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 =]

The KNU-KNLA Peace Council is a small group that broke away from the KNLA's Seventh Brigade in central KarenState in January 2007 and made peace with the SPDC. The group soon began recruiting to increase its numbers in order to establish control over the Toh Kaw Ko area near the Salween river, where it had established its headquarters. Initially, recruiting concentrated on villages in the Toh Kaw Ko area and on Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, but the group has now reportedly sent recruiting teams as far afield as Toungoo, the Irrawaddy delta, and Karen-populated Insein township on the outskirts of Rangoon. KNLA sources claim the group is trying to form eight battalions, and that in Toh Kaw Ko area each village has been ordered to provide three to five recruits or pay the extremely high sum of 20,000 Thai baht in lieu of each recruit. =

Karenni Insurgency

KNPLF flag

In Kayah state there is Karenni Insurgency consisting of the Karenni Army (KA) and Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front (KNPLF)
The Karenni (Red Karen) and a Karen branch often confused with the Karen themselves. The Karenni are one of the tribes of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar. The subgroup of the Karenni, the Padaung tribe, are best known for the neck rings worn by some of its women. .

Karenni rebels are largely separate from the KNU and the Karen insurgency. They have their own issues and demands. Angry over Myanmar government logging encroachments in their territory, they reversed their cease-fire, in September 1992. The Myanmar government launched a major counter attack on the Karenni that spilled over the Thai border at that time

The Karenni Army (KA) is the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP). It operates in eastern Kayah (Karenni) state. Though a ceasefire was agreed in 1995, it was broken by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) in 1996 and armed conflict ontinued after that. Gen. Aung Mya, second in command of the KA, told Human Rights Watch that their forces are divided into a full-time professional army now numbering about 600, and a part-time militia also numbering about 600. He noted that ongoing Tatmadaw campaigns are displacing villagers in the Mawchi area of southern Kayah state, causing many displaced villagers to approach the KA wanting to join the militia, which is expanding. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007; Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front (KNPLF) controls much of northern Kayah state near the border with Shan state. No reliable figures are presently available on its troop strength. It has been accused of using child soldiers. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 hrw.org/report/2007/10/31 ]

Human Rights Watch research in 2002,documented the presence of child soldiers in the KA (Karenni Army). Since that time, Khu Oo Reh and Gen. Aung Mya state that the KA has demobilized the child soldiers it had and has taken steps to ensure no further recruitment of children will occur. Following discussions with UNICEF and UNHCR, in April 2007 KNPP and KA leaders jointly signed a Deed of Commitment condemning the recruitment and use of child soldiers and stating: 1) We will not recruit or use in any circumstances 'voluntarily' or by force, persons under the age of 18 years under any circumstances; 2) We will undertake all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use of children as soldiers within the KNPP and KA; 3) We will permit the monitoring, by independent third parties agreed upon, of our commitment and adherence to the principles of the Optional Protocol [on Children and Armed Conflict] and compliance with the provisions thereof.

Child Soldiers in the DKBA and KNU-KNLA Peace Council

“According to the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), an independent human rights monitoring organization, they were told on May 21 by KNU-KNLA Peace Council (PC) officer Bah Soh Gay that children under 18 were welcome to join the armed group but could leave whenever they wished.[278] However, KHRG gathered evidence claiming that nine boys under 18 had been forcibly or coercively recruited and were not allowed to leave afterwards. Human Rights Watch was able to confirm the stories of two of these boys by interviewing them after they escaped. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 hrw.org/report/2007/10/31 =]

“Thirteen-year-old Saw Toh Say, a refugee at Mae La camp, crossed the border to visit Tee Nuh Hta village a few times after the KNU-KNLA PC controlled it, and was eventually conscripted. The third time [late February] I went with Saw L. [age 14, full name withheld] and when I arrived there people asked me to stay there. Then they told me to put on a military uniform and forced us to stand sentry. The two of us had to stand sentry every night from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. They told us to take a gun so I took an AR [a small assault rifle] and Saw L. also took an AR. At the end of sentry duty we gave them to the people who replaced us. They said two truckloads of guns were coming for us. Each of us got two Cambodian camouflage uniforms and 500 baht. My uniform was too big. I had to use a belt. I had to stay there two-and-a-half months. After one night Chit Kwin told me to register my name. Commander Ler Mu registered us. When I registered, I was 12 years old. T. registered as 15 years old, and H. registered his age as eight or nine. =

DKBA flag

“At Tee Nuh Hta "there were many children, over 30. Some were younger than me and some were older than me. People ordered them to stand sentry and sometimes gave them training." He had to stand sentry each night for two to four hours; five soldiers shared three guns. His only training consisted of being given a loaded assault rifle and sent down behind the latrine to fire off practice rounds. He says the AK47 rifle was too heavy for him so he chose an AR (a smaller, lighter weapon) and 120 cartridges. No one told him what battalion he was in. They were warned not to go outside the village because of landmines, but one adult did and hit a tripwire; he was killed and the person with him was wounded. Saw Toh Say says later he asked to go home and commander Ler Mu wouldn't let him go if his parents didn't come; later, however, other lower-ranking officers allowed him to leave when his relatives came. =

“Saw Wah, age 16, says he saw "about 10 or 20" boys younger than himself at KNU-KNLA PC leader Htay Maung's camp on the Moei riverbank awaiting transfer to Toh Kaw Ko when he was coerced into joining in March. After two or three days there he says he was given a gun and uniform. When he got to Toh Kaw Ko, he saw 40 to 50 recruits under 18, of whom he thought 10 or 20 were under 15. In his "battalion" of 50 troops there were 10 to 20 under 18 and three under 15, some of them volunteers and some forcibly recruited. At Toh Kaw Ko the recruits weren't doing any fighting, just hanging around, doing sentry duty, and the youngest were put to work making charcoal. A sergeant threatened them that if they went back to the refugee camp, the refugees would "slit their throats" as traitors, so most didn't dare leave. =

“Like many newly formed armed groups, the KNU-KNLA PC appears to want to keep these soldiers to create an appearance of high numbers, in order to obtain more resources from the SPDC and political leverage. With its ongoing attempts to expand its recruiting to other regions, the number of child soldiers is likely to increase, and if the group is deployed to actively fight the KNLA these child soldiers may be deployed in combat roles. Developments in this group should therefore be closely monitored.” =

Offensives Against the Karen Insurgency

The Burmese military launched an offensive against the Karen National Union in 1984. Karen rebels were smashed but not defeated in January 1995 by Burmese forces armed with newly-acquired Chinese weapons who overran the Karen stronghold in Manerplaw, forcing KNU fighters in relatively small enclaves..

Describing the tactics used by Myanmar military against Karen insurgents in the 1990s, Pascal Khoo Thwe wrote in “From the Land of Green Ghosts,” "People who were obviously civilians began emerging from the jungle into the clearing in which the [Karen] headquarters stood. They came out in pairs, chained together and clearly in a state of abject terror. They were civilian porters, kidnapped like the others we had seen and forced to carry munitions and walk ahead of the troops through minefields ... The first pair stumbled on to a landmine. There was a huge explosion, the dull boom of which echoed through the jungle ... severed body parts - hands, eyes, legs - of the sacrificial victims flew instantly into the air mingled with a cloud of dust. But the chain that bound them was unbroken, so their trunks collapsed on to the ground with a hollow thud, while arms, feet and fingers were scattered among the bushes." [Source: From the Land of Green by Pascal Khoo Thwe]

In February 1997, the Burmese military launched an offensive with 100,000 troops in an effort to shut down the KNU. Tens of thousands of Karen were displaced. An unknown number died. Ethnic Karen fighters and 15,000 Karen refugees fled to Thailand. There were less than 1,500 fighters in 1997. One human rights activist told Time, “The villagers suffered terribly. There were many massacres and gang rapes.”

After the offensive the KNU remained alive but weakened. It only had an estimated 5,000 fighters in 2000. Many of the people they were supposed to help were in Thai refugee camps. The KNU was helped by two small groups: the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors and the All Burma Student Democratic Front.

Fighting typically increases in the dry season, which lasts until May, as troops take advantage of the weather to advance their positions. “In the past the the military mostly limited its attacks “to stage small, periodic sieges against mountain strongholds during Southeast Asia's dry seasons. But this year, the government's campaign has extended through the rainy season and assumed far larger dimensions, appearing to be a final assault aimed at smashing the resistance. Over the past 10 months, sources familiar with Burmese military actions say, its forces have pushed into major Karen strongholds, building 12 new permanent army bases.

Karen Struggle Intensifies in 2006 as Military Regime Opens New Capital and Plans Dams

The fighting between Myanmar’s military regime and the Karens was especially fierce in 2006, with Human Rights Watch saying a yearlong offensive displaced 27,000 civilians and killed dozens more. An offensive by the Myanmar military regime began November 2005 and was initially concentrated in the Toungoo and Nyaunglebin districts of Karen State, but by April 2006 it expanded into the Papun district where people had already been displaced. The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution denouncing human rights violations in Myanmar — particularly atrocities in a campaign to suppress an insurgency among the Karen minority.

Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post, “Burma's military leaders... are attempting to build a broad security cordon around their new capital near the inland city of Pyinmana, located only a few miles from the border of Karen state. The result has been an extraordinary use of force to clear out existing villages in the area. Economic development appears to be another motivation for the offensive, according to observers. Burma, a country that was once one of Southeast Asia's richest nations and is now among its poorest, has sought to create revenue by signing a deal with Thailand to build multiple dams on the picturesque Salween River, which runs through Karen state. As the Burmese military attempts to exert its control over the river, it has moved into other Karen strongholds. "The new capital and the dam projects have become an incredibly destructive pretext for the Burmese military to take control of Karen state using indiscriminate force," said Jack Dunford, executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a U.S.-funded relief group based in Bangkok. "I fear this may be the beginning of the end there." [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post November 17, 2006 ]

Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: “Myanmar troops waging their biggest military offensive in almost a decade have uprooted more than 11,000 ethnic minority civilians in a campaign punctuated by torture, killings and the burning of villages, according to reports from inside the country and Thailand. The campaign by government troops in eastern Myanmar to suppress a decades-old insurgency among the Karen people began in November 2005 but intensified in April 2006, according to reports from the Free Burma Rangers, a group of Westerners and ethnic minority volunteers who provide aid to displaced people in the country formerly known as Burma. [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, April 27, 2006 ]

Myanmar Army Attacks on Karen Villagers

Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: “Scores of villages have been abandoned and their inhabitants forced to flee into jungles. Some 11,000 people have fled their homes due to the onslaught, the Free Burma Rangers said. About 1,500 refugees have fled across the border to Thailand, and aid officials fear others will follow in coming months to swell the more than 140,000 already in Thai refugee camps. Jack Dunford, executive director of the key frontier aid agency Thailand Burma Border Consortium, confirmed the influx, saying the refugees from Myanmar's Karen State have arrived with "stories of increased (junta) troop activity, widespread destruction of villages and crops, and human rights abuses." [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, April 27, 2006 ]

“In one incident described in a recent Free Burma Rangers report, Myanmar soldiers killed Saw Maw Keh as he was carrying his 80-year-old mother up a steep hillside in western Karen State earlier this month. The two were gunned down at point-blank range by soldiers waiting at the top of a ridge near their village, which was being abandoned in the face of an attack. His 9-year-old daughter also was shot but survived. Nearby, a still unidentified villager was found with one of his eyes gouged out and his nose cut off, one of several incidents of torture that the group has documented with graphic photographs and video. The group says the military is trying to separate the civilians from the guerrillas, destroying villages and food stocks to deprive the insurgents of any local support. After residents flee, the areas are mined to prevent return of the villagers who seek shelter in remote, inhospitable regions or flee to refugee camps along the Thai border, it says.

Reporting from Camp Eituta in Myanmar, Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post, “In a burgeoning encampment here on Burma's eastern frontier, Hay Nay Tha, a 30-year-old mother of three, awakens in the darkness most nights to the sound of her children's screams. "They keep having nightmares about our journey here," she said. That journey, Hay recalled, began when she was four months pregnant and government soldiers torched her village and forced local farmers off their land. It ended four weeks later, after her husband died of malaria en route to this camp. She and her children arrived here this summer dehydrated and exhausted. Hay soon went into early labor with a stillborn son. "To be honest," the copper-skinned woman said, shyly gazing down at her hands, "I am having nightmares, too." [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post November 17, 2006 ^]

“Nightmares of all kinds are rife in this camp, where new clusters of villagers arrive almost daily, a consequence of Burma's largest military offensive against its own people in more than a decade, according to aid groups and Western diplomats. The offensive has targeted minorities such as Hay, a member of the restive Karen ethnic group, which has long maintained a measure of autonomy. According to estimates by relief groups, Burmese forces have burned down more than 200 civilian villages here in Karen state, destroyed crops and placed land mines along key jungle passages to prevent refugees from returning to their home villages. Dozens of people have died, and at least 20,000 civilians have been displaced over the past eight to 10 months. ^

One at the camp, a foreign journalist with a video camera approached an ethnic Karen man and a smiling 2-year-old girl sitting on straw mats in their hut. Suddenly, the girl began screaming uncontrollably. "She thinks it's a gun," said her father, Saw Say Nay, pointing to the video camera. Saw, a farmer, fled here with his family of four. Like many displaced Karen, they had been living in hiding in the jungle since the summer, when Burmese troops began constructing a base near their village of Sayztaing Gyi, about 40 miles from the new capital. "They were going village by village, forcing men and women into labor," he said. "Then they started burning villages, so we packed what we could and escaped into the jungle. From the trees, we saw them set our homes on fire. They burned our crops. They left us with nothing." Thin and languid from malaria, Saw said he found out there was no going back after one villager tried to return, only to lose his leg when he stepped on a freshly laid land mine. "We don't know what to do," he said. "My heart wants to go back, but I know it is not safe for my family. I don't know if we can go to Thailand. I don't know if they will accept us. So we are here. We have nowhere else to go." ^

In May 2006, Associated Press reported: “Myanmar troops, who have already driven an estimated 15,000 Karen villagers from their homes, are marshaling at least 27 battalions to widen their offensive against the ethnic minority, a Karen group said. The Karen Human Rights Group said the troops were poised to destroy hundreds of villages in the Papun hills of eastern Myanmar, which would lead to another mass displacement of civilians.

Fighting Involving the Karens in the Late 2000s

In April 2007, Associated Press reported: “ The pro-junta Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) launched attacks against the Karen National Union rebels on Saturday, said Police Lt Col Thawal Patanachareon, field commander of Thailand’s border patrol police. Thawal said the DKBA fired several mortar shells into mobile Karen National Union camps. “More than 50 mortar shells hit three KNU camps, where about 80 KNU fighters were based,” Thawal said. The offensive prompted at least 250 Karen civilians, mostly women and children, to flee into Thailand early Sunday via the Moie river to seek refuge in Mae Ramat district, about 400 kilometers northwest of Bangkok, he said. Mae Ramat’s district chief, Pantip Chantindong, said the refugees would likely return home when the latest fighting ends. [Source: AP, April 9, 2007]

In June 2007, Associated Press reported: Insurgents ambushed two buses in eastern Myanmar, leaving 27 people dead and 11 wounded, state-run media reported Monday. Karen rebels claimed responsibility for one of the attacks. The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, which serves as a mouthpiece for the military government, said the insurgents “are trying to undermine national stability, community peace and the rule of law,” but it didn’t identify the militants behind the attack. The newspaper said insurgents attacked a passenger bus using a bomb and small arms fire in the eastern Karen state on Thursday, killing 10 passengers including a Buddhist monk, and wounding three others. The bus was heading for Thingannyinaung town in Karen, which is also known as Kayin State, it said. A spokesman for the Karen National Union claimed responsibility for the attack, but insisted it targeted a pickup truck full of pro-government Democratic Karen Buddhist Army paramilitary soldiers, not civilians. [Source: AP, June 27, 2007]

“That was us. It was a pickup truck full of DKBA soldiers,” KNU Information Officer David Tharckabaw told The Associated Press. A spokesman for Commander Motelone of the DKBA backed up Tharckabaw’s claim, saying the truck first hit a landmine then came under attack from the Karen rebels. The DKBA representative, who sought anonymity because he does not have the authority to speak to media, said eight DKBA soldiers, a Buddhist monk and a civilian died in the ambush. The newspaper also reported on a bus attack in the eastern Kayah state. It said insurgents ambushed the bus, killing 17 civilian passengers and wounding eight more, somewhere between Loikaw, the state capital, and Mawchi town. Tharckabaw said the KNU does not operate in that area, and that he knew nothing about the reported ambush. Motelone’s spokesman said the second ambush described in the newspaper took place a month before. Myanmar experts often doubt the accuracy of reports by state-run media.”

On fighting that took place in Karen areas in 2009, Damir Sagolj of Reuters wrote: “Thousands fled into Thailand in June 2009 when the army clashed with the Karen National Union (KNU). Aid workers say the number of refugees from the former Burma has slowed in late 2009 but the situation is delicate, with continued low-intensity fighting between KNU rebels and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), aligned with the military. According to his sources, KNU troops ambushed a regime battalion on December 16, killing a tactical commander and 14 solders and wounding 17. Three days later, two government soldiers were killed and four wounded in clashes in a rebel-held area controlled by the KNU's sixth brigade. [Source: Damir Sagolj, Reuters, January 7, 2010 /]

In November 2010, AFP reported: “Rebel troops clashed with government soldiers in a town in eastern Myanmar after rare elections, leaving three civilians dead and causing thousands to flee across the Thai border, officials said. Eleven more people were injured when heavy weapons fire from ethnic rebels hit the town of Myawaddy in Karen State, said an official in the military-ruled country who did not want to be named. There was no information on any troop casualties on either side. A Thai military official on the border said one rocket propelled grenade landed on the Thai side in Mae Sot, injuring several people. Mae Sot district chief Kittisak Tomornsak said about 7,000 people had fled across the border from Myanmar, while Thailand had evacuated people from along the river in the area. “The fighting now is over,” he said. [Source: AFP, November 8, 2010 \/]

“ Tensions soared on polling day in November 2010 when Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) ethnic rebels occupied Myawaddy town in Karen state, sparking a state army counter-attack and a mass exodus of civilians into Thailand. Subsequent sporadic fighting at several points along the border, with state troops conducting a major build-up in the area, has caused continued displacement. "Sadly, so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire," Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch said, adding that they suffered from indiscriminate shelling and rights abuses such as forced labour. [Source: AFP, December 5, 2010]

Ceasefires and Peace Efforts with the Karen

In January 2012, Myanmar's government and Karen National Union (KNU) signed a ceasefire, raising hopes of an end to one of the world's longest-running civil conflicts. Hla Hla Htay of AFP wrote: “In the latest of Myanmar's tentative attempts at reform, a delegation of ministers from the capital Naypyidaw and senior members of the Karen National Union (KNU) signed the pact in Hpa-an, capital of war-torn eastern Karen state. KNU spokesman David Htaw said the group would now choose a representative to hold further talks with the central government within 45 days of the preliminary pact, which he said was "based on trust". [Source: Hla Hla Htay, AFP, January 12, 2012 ~~]

News of the ceasefire was greeted warily by Karen Communities Worldwide, which represents Karen who have fled the eastern region of Myanmar. "A ceasefire alone tackles the symptoms, not the causes. There must also be political dialogue for a permanent political solution," a statement said, accusing the government of still attacking and killing in Karen villages. Myanmar expert Renaud Egreteau, at the University of Hong Kong, also warned that previous attempts at lasting peace had failed and called for all Karen splinter groups to be included in further necessary talks. ~~

Phado Man Nyein Maung, a senior political figure in the KNU. was released from jail In March 2012 to allow him to join peace talks just six days after he was sentenced to life imprisonment for high treason. After he was freed from the notorious Insein Prison in Yangon he was taken to the new capital, Naypyitaw, to meet senior government officials. "I heard the peace talks between the KNU and the government will resume in the first week of April and Phado Man Nyein Maung is expected to take part in it," Kyi Myint, his lawyer, told Reuters. Not much came from the talks. [Source: Reuters March 19, 2012]

In March 2012, Saw Yan Naing wrote in The Irrawaddy: Land disputes and a history of false promises mean that ethnic Karen leaders and human rights groups are questioning the government’s sincerity when it talks of a “permanent peace” with the rebels. At a Karen National Union (KNU) base on the bank of the Salween River, Lt-Col Maw Wah said the current position of the Burmese government differs only cosmetically in many ways from previous calls for the rebels to “surrender.” “Some observers believe the government is trying to seduce rebel leaders with the perks of investment projects in Karen State in the hope they will disarm. Aung Min, the top negotiator in the peace process between the rebels and the government, has said in the past that if the government can enrich ethnic leaders they will lose interest in the fighting.” [Source: Saw Yan Naing. The Irrawaddy| Tuesday, March 12, 2013]

A Karen delegation was close to signing a peace agreement with Myanmar’s military government in 2004 but those talks fell apart after Gen. Khin Nyunt, one of Myanmar’s top three leaders, was purged and replaced by a more hard-line general. Associated Press reported: “One of the few unchallenged accomplishments of Myanmar's military junta — securing peace with the country's armed ethnic rebel groups — may be in jeopardy after Prime Minister Gen. Khin Nyunt lost his job. A delegation of Karen ethnic guerrillas — among the last rebel groups that has not signed a cease-fire with the government — returned to their jungle bases from a peace mission to Myanmar's capital, staying only two days for what were supposed to be week-long talks. The interruption came after Khin Nyunt, architect of 17 ceasefires reached with ethnic separatists, was abruptly ousted and replaced with Lt. Gen. Soe Win, who is associated with a more hard-line army faction disinclined to compromise with its opponents. [Source: AP, October 22, 2004 ^^]

KNU After the 2021 Coup by Myanmar Military

The KNU said the Myanmar’s army repeatedly breached the 2012 cease-fire. Associated Press reported in 2021: “The KNU's talks with Suu Kyi's government failed to reach a comprehensive political resolution before it was deposed by the military coup in February 2021. The army, meanwhile, aggressively expanded its reach in at least two districts in Karen state since 2017, building new bases and roads to try to dominate an area that doesn’t want it there. At the time of the coup in 2021 troop numbers and activity have scaled up dramatically in Karen areas, according to relief organizations active there. The Karen’s own armed force, the Karen National Liberation Army, has fought back. In retaliation, the army has increased its attacks and shelled surrounding villages. Relief agencies say the 8,000 or so people who abandoned their homes for the privations of the jungle are safe and are adapting as well as they can, building bamboo shelters and holding school classes in the open. [Source: Jerry Harmer, Associated Press, March 22, 2021]

After the the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, Karen fighters trained anti-government fighters to fight against the Myanmar military. Reuters reported: At a secret jungle camp in Myanmar's eastern Karen state, a fitness coach and other civilians are training with armed ethnic guerrillas to fight back against the country's military takeover. Huddled under makeshift tents in remote hills near the Thai border, these new recruits learn how to load rifles and set detonators for homemade bombs as they prepare to battle the army behind the February 1 coup. Reuters has taken rare footage of young men and women who said they left jobs in the city to become guerrilla fighters, swapping branded t-shirts and colourful dresses for army fatigues. The pictures and video were taken in September 2021. [Source: Reuters, December 17, 2021]

“Some recruits said they took up arms because mass demonstrations in the wake of the coup failed to deter their new rulers, who waged a violent crackdown on protests. "Taking up arms is the only option for us," said a 34-year-old former fitness trainer, who did not want his name to be used. Tattooed across his back were the words "Freedom to Lead" and the face of Myanmar's ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi,

“Training the civilians is the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the country's largest ethnic armed groups who expressed solidarity with the protesters and allowed thousands to seek shelter in their territories. Hundreds of similar resistance groups have popped up across the country in a loose coalition of anti-coup armed rebels calling themselves People's Defence Forces.

“One training organiser, a former student activist, said there were more than 100 young civilians in his group training to fight, with new recruits arriving regularly. Reuters could not independently confirm this. In the evenings would-be fighters sit around campfires playing guitars and violins - remnants of past lives. he former trainer, shorn of the ponytail he wore when he arrived at the camp, said he feared combat with a 300,000-strong military. But, he added, fighting back was the only way. "I want to be proud of my death protecting my people."

Christmas Eve Attack on Karenni Villages in 2021

On Christmas Eve 2021, the Myanmar military attacked villagers in Kayah State, killing women and children and setting vehicles and bodies ablaze. Associated Press reported: Photos of the aftermath of a Christmas Eve massacre in eastern Myanmar that reportedly left more than 30 people, including women and children, dead and burned in their vehicles, have spread on social media in Myanmar. The photos showed the charred bodies of over 30 people in three burned-out vehicles who were reportedly shot by government troops as they were fleeing combat. [Source: Tassanee Vejpongsa, Associated Press, December 27, 2021]

“The international aid group Save the Children said that two of its staffers were missing in the massacre, which sparked outrage against the military that took power after ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Save the Children said it was suspending operations in the region. he U.S. Embassy in Myanmar said it was appalled by the “barbaric attack in Kayah state that killed at least 35 civilians, including women and children.”

“A villager who said he went to the scene told The Associated Press that the victims had fled the fighting between armed resistance groups and Myanmar’s army near Koi Ngan village, which is just beside Mo So. He said they were killed after they were arrested by troops while heading to refugee camps in the western part of the township. The witness told the AP the remains were burned beyond recognition, and children's and women's clothes were found together with medical supplies and food. “The bodies were tied with ropes before being set on fire,” said the witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. He did not see the moment they were killed, but said he believed some of them were Mo So villagers who reportedly got arrested by troops. He denied that those captured were members of locally organized militia groups.

Save the Children said that two of its staff who were traveling home for the holidays after conducting humanitarian response work in a nearby community were “caught up in the incident and remain missing." “We have confirmation that their private vehicle was attacked and burned out,” the group added in a statement. “The military reportedly forced people from their cars, arrested some, killed others and burned their bodies.”

The state-run Myanma Alinn daily newspaper said that the fighting near Mo So broke out when members of ethnic guerrilla forces, known as the Karenni National Progressive Party, and those opposed to the military drove in “suspicious” vehicles and attacked security forces after refusing to stop. The newspaper report said they included new members who were going to attend training to fight the army, and that the seven vehicles they were traveling in were destroyed in a fire. It gave no further details about the killings.

Fighting on Kayah State in February 2022

In February 2022, David Eubank, director of the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian relief organization, told The Associated Press that Myanmar military’s jets and helicopters were conducting frequent attacks in the areas of eastern Myanmar. Associated Press reported: While Russia's war in Ukraine dominates global attention, Myanmar's military is targeting civilians in air and ground attacks on a scale unmatched in the country since World War II, according to Eubank, who spent almost three months in a combat zone in Myanmar. Ground forces are also firing artillery — indiscriminately, he said — causing thousands to flee their homes. Video shot by his group’s members includes rare images of repeated air strikes by Myanmar military aircraft in Kayah State – also known as Karenni State — causing a number of civilian deaths. [Source: Jerry Harmer, Associated Press. March 15, 2022]

Eubank described the fighting he had seen as probably the worst in Myanmar since World War II. He said, “What I saw in Karenni I had not seen in Burma before.” “Air strikes, not like one or two a day like they do in Karen State, but like two MiGs coming one after the other, these Yak fighters, it was one after the other,” said Eubank. “Hind helicopter gunships, these Russian planes, and then just brought hundreds of rounds of 120mm mortar. Just boom, boom, boom, boom.”

Eubank knows whereof he speaks. He was a U.S. Army Special Forces and Ranger officer before he and some ethnic minority leaders from Myanmar founded the faith-based Free Burma Rangers in 1997. Drone footage shot by the group shows the impact of the army’s offensive on Karenni settlements, with buildings on fire and smoke drifting thick in the sky. In a Feb. 24 report in the state-run Myanma Alinn Daily newspaper, the military acknowledged using air strikes and heavy artillery in order to clear out what it called “terrorist groups” near the state capital, Loikaw. As casualties mount, people have to scramble for their lives, cowering in crude underground shelters topped with bamboo. A nighttime air raid on Feb. 23 that struck northwest of Loikaw left two villagers dead, three wounded and several buildings destroyed.

There was also fighting on the border with Thailand, where thousands of people have fled to seek shelter. Local officials said Myanmar’s military had unleashed airstrikes and heavy artillery on Lay Kay Kaw, a small town controlled by ethnic Karen guerrillas in neighboring Kayin (Karen) state.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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