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River of Tears: Snapshots from the Edge of a War

Salween River: Burma on the left, Thailand on the right.
Burmese Army position on Salween River.

The Army of Burma is called the “State Peace and Development Council,” or SPDC, and like organizations in Bizarro World, the SPDC is the opposite of what the name implies.  A government slogan gets more to the point: “Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.”

Water buffalos on Thai side.

For more than sixty years, the Burmese government has tried to crush the Karen and other ethnic minorities.  In a vague sense, Thailand is to Burma as Pakistan is to Afghanistan; many Karen people live on the Thai side or use it as sanctuary, and fight against the government on the Burma side.  But the war is far more complicated than just Karen vs. Burma government; a cursory examination reveals a situation probably more complex than what we see in Afghanistan.

Attempting an ultimate makeover, in 1989, the murderous Burmese government changed the country’s name to the Union of Myanmar.  Some months ago, in October 2010, they did it again, changing the flag and forging a new birth certificate with the latest name: “Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” but they might as well have renamed it “The Country Formerly Known as Prince.”

After more than sixty years of war, the Burmese fighting has matured to a point that three generations know only conflict, and instead of Muslim extremists helping Taliban in Pakistan, some Westerners have made a cottage industry of helping Karen and other minorities resist the junta.  In total, that cottage industry does good and important work, but it is neither pure nor simple.

Karen IDP (internally displaced people) village, just inside Burma.

Most Karen people are Buddhists or animists, though many are Baptists or Catholics.  This village had at least one Buddhist temple and one thatched church.

The villagers have no telephone service and precious little electricity provided by a small hydro generator, and I saw one tiny solar panel, but someone had a receiver dish.  This was the only dish I saw in a village of about 4,500 people.  (There may have been other dishes; we were not taking inventory.)

The people have been here for about 4.5 years since the SPDC destroyed their villages.  One hears many stories about murder, rape, slavery, and countless land mine reports, such as how the SPDC will force villagers to walk out front to detonate mines.  The Karen do fight back and are increasing the use of IEDs, for instance, which have taken on an evil name, though as American soldiers we learned to make all sorts of IEDs in the US Army, which we called “mechanical ambushes,” or just booby traps.

The day before we arrived, a Karen man stepped on a land mine and was brought to this village before being sent to Thailand for treatment.  A Karen medic who applied the tourniquet said the man lost the lower part of a leg.  The nearest hospital requires about an hour by boat and then an hour by car to Mae Sariang, Thailand.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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