“I’m from a hiding place”

Reportage from ‘Brigade 5’ in Karen state of Burma

Ei Tu Hta, Ueclo, WeiGyi (Burma), by Yu-Kyung Lee, 07 November 2009

“There’s no village. I’m from a hiding place. No food for 2 years….”

Saw Telly (75), who cannot hear well, answered in a harsh voice. He was mulling over when was the last time that he had lived in a ‘village’ but failed to remember, saying that he has continued to look for ‘hiding places’ since 1975.

“We were 10 family members including six of my grand children, who were crying all the time while fleeing. It took a week to reach here”

He was describing about his last ‘jungle trekking’ to search out another ‘hiding place’, which was ended up in Ei Tu Hta IDPs camp. The camp is located in ‘Brigade 5’ – which is defined as such by Karen insurgency group KNU – along the Salween River on the border with northern Thailand. The camp is allegedly surrounded by a couple of Burmese Army camps, which are two hours away on foot.

“Even if another fighting would erupt here, I can’t move anymore. I’m too old” the 75 years old Karen man said.

No more flee

It was Mae Sam Leap, the quiet small town along the Salween River in northern Thailand, where boat would depart to reach Ei Tu Hta camp. Three Thai Army check points on Thai side and one ‘invisible’ Burma Army post on Burma side are positioned on this route. The area of Ei Tu Hta used to be a battalion post of KNLA – the armed wing of KNU -, but now accommodating some 4,000 IDPs who’ve fled their previous places 3 years ago. The people all were displaced due to the all-out military offensive in Eastern Burma, which was started from November 2005 through 2006 till 2007.

“It was very different from the previous operations. We couldn’t find a shelter, as it was taking place all over my district” said Saw Mar Su (53), who fled Kolu village in Tangoo district to arrive in Ei Tu Hta after 12 days jungle trekking. His village has been burned down four times by the Burmese Army who forcibly displaced people to “Turmidoe” village which is 6 hours away on foot. It is generally understood that the Burmese military routinely burn down villages as a means to relocate people, often aiming at alienating villagers from insurgency and using them as porters. But it was not a typical scene that the Army didn’t retreat village after burning it, as this was happening in the said operation.
“So we couldn’t rebuild our house, no farming…. That’s why we fled to this edge” Saw Mar Su continued.

Ei Tu Hta IDPs camp is located in KNLA’s Brigade 5, which is said to be a next target of Burma Army after the June offensive by DKBA combined SPDC forces in Brigade 7 area. Some 5000 IDPs in the camp are the ones, who fled the 2006 general operation in the Karen state by the Burma Army. (Photo by Lee, Yu-Kyung)

The offensive in Eastern Burma was launched in November 2005 in coincidence with the launch of new capital Neypidaw, which is

strategically located in a junction of the civil war-ravaged ethnic states. The Burmese Junta seemed to have attempted to root out any influence of insurgency around the area of new capital.

Meanwhile, taking further boat trip from Ei Tu Hta to the north for about 30 minutes, another camp site was being emerged in Ueclo, where some 480 IDPs have been sheltering since July 2007. The camp is called ‘Section 6 of Ei Tu Hta’ and IDPs here are late arrivals after having endured the army assault utmost. As like other refugee camps, Ueclo used to be nothing but a deep forest, where people establish their temporary shelter, where they try to farm as much as they can. However Ueclo is not the place for farming because much of rocks surround the area. People complaint they cannot cultivate vegetables either.

“First we arrived here in 2006 to spend a week under the open sky without proper lying place. And then we moved to Ei Tu Hta”

Nancy (60), the English teacher for the ‘Post Ten School’ in Ei Tu Hta camp, recalled those days. She has fled to Ei Tu Hta with his ailing husband, whom she had to pick up on her back A-frame for 12 days in a jungle.

“I feel rather safe in Ei Tu Hta first in decades, during which I’ve had to move numerous times” she added.

Yet ‘safe’ is not a sustainable word in this ‘Jungle world’. After the Burma Army and the pro-Junta Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (or DKBA) have jointly assaulted upon ‘Brigade 7’ – southern Karen state – in June, a sequent operation has been predicted in ‘Brigade 5’ in September, October or anytime soon after rainy season. The offensive in Brigade 7 was unprecedentedly conducted in rainy season but became a ‘success’ for the Junta and DKBA, as the area was fallen to them after 3 weeks-long fierce battle with KNLA. As a result, some 4,000 IDPs in Ler Per Her camp in Brigade 7 have been displaced to the Tha Song Yang refugee camp on Thai side. Remnants of KNLA since then have been ambushing the DKBA, which has been now controlling the area. With no one’s doubt, it was the greatest loss for KNU since the fall of Manerflaw in 1995, where it used to be headquartered.

Sequent offensive’ feared“Brigade 5 is different from Brigade 7, where quite some DKBA forces already stationed before the June operation. Here (Brigade 5) and Brigade 3 are heavily guarded by our forces. It’s not easy for them to launch offensive here”
Col. Saw Kyaw Moo (59), the officer in charge of 1st battalion of KNLA in Brigade 5, confidently said.

Saw Ya Htu (54, right in the picture), a chairperson of Ei Tu Hta IDPs camp, is talking with Aung Min(50) the officer of Agricultural Center of the camp. He claimed that the camp committee is ready to make people flee if there’s any indication of movement of either government forces or DKBA forces. “We have two boats, which can carry 50 and 100 persons respectively. We would have enough time to make people flee to safe area.” He said. (Photo by Lee, Yu-Kyung)

One of the leaders of KNU, who didn’t want his name in public, has endorsed this view based on the ‘agreements’ that was signed by Thai Army and Burmese Army as well as by Thai Army and KNU. According to the agreements, as the anonymous leader articulated, Thai Army has strongly demanded the two hostile forces – KNLA and the Burma Army – respectively ‘not to make noisy by shooting’ around Mae Sam Leap, which is the opposite town of parts of Brigade 5. The reason for this is that there are a number of tourists every year enjoying Salween River when rainy season is over, generating lots of income for Thailand.

He also hinted that there are KNLA ‘special sniper groups’ who are in active and effectively killing ‘enemies’ in Brigade 5 area, repeating “it’s not easy for them”.

Inside the Ei Tu Hta camp itself, intelligence network is on alert. From the camp chief to the 40 years old woman teacher hold walkie-talkie to receive information from their jungle agents about movement of either government forces or DKBA forces. KNLA cadres, often along with cadres of ABSDF which is an armed struggle group as a product of the 1988 uprising, are patrolling the area confronting their enemy forces who are just 2 hours away on foot from the IDPs camp. U Maung Oo (50), the secretary of ABSDF in Wei Gyi headquarter, which is also located in Brigade 5 area, seemed more cautious to talk about the possible attack, simply saying “We try to do our best to guard the area”

In Papun district where Brigade 5 belongs to, there is the ‘frontline’ of ABSDF. If the rumored offensive would come true and be spilled over the district, the poor-armed ABSDF may have to engage in the fighting. Although ABSDF has welcomed some dozens of new cadres, who enrolled the armed struggle after the monks-led ‘Shaffran revolution’ in 2007, the group is not only poor equipped with a handful of AK 47 assault rifles and M16 that were given to them by KNLA long ago. It is also, in fact, has been suffering from ‘hungry’ situation without significant external support. The armed struggle has been marginalized partly due to the fact that the NGOs in ‘non-violence’ principle have been flourishing in Burma’s exiled movements particularly in the post-September 11 period.

Given the fact that Brigade 5 is one of the crucial gateways for the border crossing from Burma via jungle to northern Thailand, however, the worst scenario of fall of Brigade 5 would have fatal impact on those Burma’s exiled movements in Northern Thailand as a whole. The Junta or its proxy forces would be far easier to infiltrate to where those Burmese movements are tout. The Junta seems to have this imaginable dream before its ambitious 2010 election,

“The Junta has an ambition to eliminate all the obstacles to consolidate its power before the 2010 election. The strengthened assaults around border areas including Chinese border in recent months and years are sign of the wish”

Than Khe (45) the chairperson of ABSDF who is currently based in Maesot (Thailand) analyzed.

The deadline, which is imposed on dozens of ethnic cease-fires groups by the Junta, to transform the all of armed groups into Border Guard Forces (or BGF) is also understood in this regard. It has much to do with the new constitution and the upcoming 2010 election alike, as the Junta’s wish of ‘unitary command’ above ‘all armed forces’ in the country is based on the article 338 in Chapter 7 of the new constitution, which was authorized by the so-called referendum while the country was hit by Cyclone Nargis May 2008.

To eliminate obstacles before 2010 election

“Once we would get information that Burmese Army of DKBA forces’ movement, we are ready to flee by two boats, which can afford 50 and 100 respectively”

Children in a ‘Nursing school’, which is kind of kinder garden, of Ei Tu Hta IDPs camp. There are a couple of schools for age-varied children as the camp committee has emphasized on children’s education. (Photo by Lee, Yu-Kyung)

Saw Ya Tu (54), the chief of Ei Tu Hta camp explained about escaping plan. It will be a huge ‘operation’ as there are nearly 5,000 IDPs in both camp sites. Nevertheless, the chief has a prior concern than escaping matter. That is shortage of food for IDPs in the camp and further in Eastern Burma, where 450,000 IDPs are estimated with more than 100,000 IDPs in Karen state alone. Ei Tu Hta camp is provided with rice and salt from the Thai Burma Border Consorsium (or TBBC), which also provides refugees in Thai side with rice and salt. And some Christian NGOs has supported schools in Ei Tu Hta camp.

However, what those IDPs inside Burma have received by whosoever or none is ever far less than what those refugees in Thai side have been supported, despite the fact that the number of refugees in Thai side is estimated 1/3 of the number of IDPs inside Burma. The recently released report by Karen Human Rights Group titled “Starving Them Out” has vividly elaborated this miserable situation of IDPs inside Burma. The report has said that with increasing military activity in the government controlled areas villagers in certain areas in Papun District are in great danger of starving, adding that they do not expect to survive for more than a few months on this years’ rice crop.

Around the end of October, the predicted offensive by the joint Burma Army and DKBA has not yet taken place, while a report about cease-fire talks between DKBA and KNU October 19th has come out. But the talks were failed, having marked more uncertainty for those ever hiding and starving population in a jungle.

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