Burma’s Ethnics: Score One for the Good, er, No-So-Bad Guys

Revolutionary movements have lost their luster. Their leaders will never be romanticized again as the likes of Trotsky and Che Guevara once were. Since the onset of the Information Age, it’s impossible to tune out the tendency of revolutionaries to resort to violent excesses that sometimes equal or exceed the forces against which they rebel.

Near Burma’s eastern border of Thailand, the Karen ethnic group has long resisted what it calls the three A’s — annihilation, absorption, and assimilation — by Burma’s junta. In fact, over 60 years in duration, it’s the world’s longest-running war for independence — or its most extended exercise in futility. Some background from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago:

The Karens, as well as other ethnic groups, actually arrived in Burma before the majority group known as the Burmans (as opposed to the Burmese, all the citizens of Burma). But, in the sixteenth century, the Burmans conquered most of Burma and proceeded to impose their will on the ethnics.

But the modern “origins of the ethnic hatred. . . can be traced back to the Anglo-Burmese wars,” writes Benedict Rogers in his 2004 book World Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People. The Karens assisted the British in their efforts to conquer the Burmans. The British, in turn, allowed them a measure of autonomy (in part, also, because they were too far-flung to rule). The ethnics’ first taste of freedom was an ironic byproduct of British colonialism.

During World War II, Burmese forces joined the invading Japanese in mercilessly attacking the Karens, who feared they were destined for genocide. But the Allies turned the tide on the Japanese and the Karens helped drive them out. The Karens hoped that they would be rewarded with statehood, but during the war Mountbatten of Burma had authorized a secret deal with the Burmans that left the Karens out in the cold.

Once Burma was granted its independence, the Karens sought to co-exist with the government. But, in 1949, General Ne Win, later the leader of the coup that installed junta rule, led militias on a rampage of Karen territory. In response, the Karen National Union (KNU) emerged to fight for the rights of the Karens and the establishment of Kawthoolei, the state around which their dreams revolve.

In recent years the disintegration of ceasefire talks has been a pretext for junta offensives against the Karens. Others include a perceived need on the part of the junta to engage in wholesale destruction of Karen villages to make room for large dam-building projects, as well as relocation of the capital from Yangon (Rangoon). . . . As of today, hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities have been forcibly relocated by the Burmese army, their villages burned to the ground. Tens of thousands have fled across the border to Thailand. Meanwhile, the army not only tortures and executes those villagers suspected of working with the insurgent groups, but forces others to labor as porters.

Adding insult to injury, the army uses children as soldiers, seeds the Karen territory with land mines, and then forces Karen people to act as mine-sweepers by traversing the terrain ahead of the army. As in Cambodia, citizens missing a leg, or parts of one, are common in the Karen regions.

But neither is the KNLA (the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the KNU) blameless. It too has been known to lay mines and use child soldiers. Also, according to Phil Thornton in his 2006 book, Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border, one of its officers told him that because it can’t afford to feed them, the KNLA often kills prisoners on the spot.

That said, it’s still hard not to root for them, especially since as Burmese exile publication Mizzima reports Thursday, they’re “strongly supported by local people.” In fact, recently the KNLA had “in advance received information of junta troop movements in the Paikyone area” from their people. As a result . . .

Karen rebels in a 15-member squad equipped with only automatic rifles and the rain [Like that touch? -- RW] ambushed a government battalion with more than 100 troops on Tuesday, killing nine junta soldiers including the force’s deputy commander and wounding 14 others. . . .

“There was heavy rain and creeks were flooded with torrents of water,” [a spokesperson said]. “We took position and posted lookouts, then ambushed them.” . . . The ambush resulted in the second heaviest loss this year for junta forces in their battle against the KNU. . . . In a clash on a highway [on May 10] the junta lost 13 soldiers and 20 were wounded.

What keeps the vastly outnumbered KNLA fighting? Would you believe . . . Sylvester Stallone? From my piece again:

Moviegoers were exposed to the plight of the Karens last year if they saw the fourth installment of Rambo, which was set in Burma (though filmed, in part, in Thailand). Sylvester Stallone demonstrated just how universal contempt for the junta had become, especially after it obstructed aid to [Cyclone] Nargis survivors. When John Rambo killed off 236 of its soldiers, objections were raised to one of the highest body counts of any action movie ever, but not to who was killed. Understandably, the film was reported to have boosted the morale of Karen freedom fighters who viewed it.

Whatever the effect of Sylvester Stallone on the Karen insurgency, the point is that the KNLA and its supporters draw inspiration from not only Hollywood attention and coverage by the media but also by new media. In June Mizzima reported:

Footage of clashes between Karen rebels and the Burmese Army posted on You Tube has become a hit with the Burmese online community. The video was recorded during running battles between government troops . . . and the Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) 3rd Brigade. . . . While You Tube was banned in Burma and internet speeds were still at dial-up-level quality, some people have still managed to download the footage using proxy servers. . . .

Thai-Burmese border town Mae Sot based blogger Dr. Lun Swe examined the impact that Web 2.0 and other new media was having on the Burmese opposition community and those living in exile. “The role of new media is a playing crucial role in our pro-democracy movement,” he said. “The quickest way to post Burma-related news on the internet is on blogs at home and abroad.”

Use of the new media has increased since the 2007 “saffron revolution”, when monks led nationwide demonstrations, as the Web was one of the only sources of unregulated news and information.

Here’s the video:

For more, insert “Myanamar 8888″ into YouTube’s search box. 8888 is an allusion to the day, August 8, 1988, that students protests erupted in Burma only to be brutally suppressed by the junta, with thousands killed. Myanmar 8888′s videos are of a piece with the citizens armed with small video-cameras who filmed the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Their footage was smuggled out of the country and broadcast back into Burma via satellite, as seen in the 2009 documentary Burma VJ (highly recommended). We’re also familiar with this phenomenon from Iran’s Green Revolution.

In 1992 a junta official told Benedict Rogers, “In 10 years all Karens will be dead. If you want to see a Karen, you will have to go to a museum in Rangoon.” Eighteen years later the Karen are still fighting to prevent the three “A”s of annihilation, absorption, and assimilation. But absent international pressure on the junta to cease and desist its systematic destruction of the Karen and other Burma ethnics, they might not be around in 28 years.