Terror, ethnic cleansing in Burma

Burma’s military continues to kill, rape and conscript impoverished ethnic Karen villagers as it drives thousands from their homes in its campaign against insurgents, Human Rights Watch said in a new statement this month. The New York-based group urged the junta to allow humanitarian agencies unfettered access to villagers who have been forced to flee by troops pursuing rebels through the jungles of eastern Karen State, which borders Thailand.

Karen guerrillas have been fighting for independence from Burma (also known as Myanmar) for more than five decades. They began peace talks with the junta in 2003 and reached a provisional truce, but sporadic fighting has continued. Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said: “The government still allows the Burmese army to kill and drive people out of their villages with complete impunity.”

Members of the international community, who have condemned Burma’s lack of democracy and the junta’s detention of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, should also focus on the plight of the displaced Karen, he added.

Independent sources have suggested there were as many as 650,000 displaced people in eastern Burma in late 2004, according to Human Rights Watch. Some 157,000 of those were displaced and at least 240 villages destroyed, relocated or abandoned in the region since 2002, the group said, citing a recent survey. Recent military offensives have pushed thousands more into the countryside.

The report includes accounts by local villagers. “Burmese soldiers came into Tho Mer Kee village and burned down all the houses,” one Karen woman was quoted as saying. “They killed all our pigs, goats and chickens – and then shot the buffaloes for fun.”

Many of the interviewed Karen villagers said they had fled their homes to avoid attacks by Burmese forces and to escape forced labor or conscription, according to Human Rights Watch. Despite official denials, “the army continues to conscript local villagers, including children, to work either as army porters or as unpaid laborers,” Adams said.

Human Rights Watch also criticised Thailand, India and China for giving support to the Burmese junta. Adams was particularly critical of Thailand’s policy under Thaksin Shinawatra, who became its prime minister in 2000. He claimed that Thaksin – whose family controls a telecommunications conglomerate that does business with Burma – and members of his government have business interests there which they weigh against human rights concerns.

He also lambasted India, which enjoys increasingly close political and economic relations with Burma, a country it once ostracised. (The Scotsman, June 10)

Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Voice of Burma website notes a series of bomb blasts at Rangoon shopping centers May 7. Democratic Voice of Burma says it has documented at least 70 deaths in the blasts, not 19 as claimed by the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). (DVB, May 24) The SPDC has blamed the blasts on Karen separatists. (DVB, May 25)

India’s new rapprochement with Burma appears to be a result of the SPDC’s betrayal of Naga separatist guerillas which until recently operated out of Burmese territory. See our last post on the Nagas.

The news reports did not mention the US corporate presence in Burma.