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NY TIMES ARTICLE; 23 FEB 96; MAE LA
- Subject: NY TIMES ARTICLE; 23 FEB 96; MAE LA
- From: Zaliwin@xxxxxxx
- Date: Thu, 29 Feb 1996 16:06:00
Subject: NY TIMES ARTICLE; 23 FEB 96; MAE LA JOURNAL
FROM NY Times Fri.. 23 FEB 96, page A4
MAE LA JOURNAL
EXILES ADRIFT: NOWHERE TO RUN, NOWHERE TO HIDE
by Seth Mydans
MAE LA, Thailand, Feb. 17 - At the end of the school day, the refugee
children in a dirt-floor schoolroom here sing the anthem of a nation
they call Kawthoolei: "I love you. I will server you. I will be true
to you. I will even die for you."
For most of them, the words can have little meaning. Their only home
has been an archipelago of refugee villages just inside Thailand,
where their families, ethnic Karen, have fled growing pressure by teh
army of Myanmar, formerly Burma.
For nearly half a century, the Karen and a dozen other ethnic groups
have maintained some of the world's longest-running insurgencies,
fighting for Kawthoolei and other homelands inside Burma. Today, they
are closer than ever to defeat, with only the 4,000-soldier army of
the Karen National Union still refusing to agree to a cease-fire, in
Taking advantage of the shifting politics of this fast-modernizing
region, the army of Myanmar - Western experts say it has hearly
doubled in size since 1988, to as many as 400,000 - has bludgeoned,
bargained and manipulated its way to control of nearly the entire
1,000-mile border region.
This has meant new dislocations, but familiar fears, for hundreds of
thousands of people.
"When I was a child, my parents told me how Burmese soldiers tortured
the Karen people," said Nita, a 56-year-old teacher at the camp's
Elementary School No. 2, who uses just one name. "These things stayed
in my mind. So I have always been afraid of Burmese soldiers."
An ethnically distinct group that traces its origins to Mongolia and
now numbers perhaps four million in Myanmar, the Karen are known as
warriors, and came close to capturing Rangoon, now known as Yangon, in
They have struggled over the years with internal divisions among
highland and lowland groups, Buddhists and Christians, and even the
Karen-language meaning of Kawthoolei is in dispute: land of the
thoolei vegetable, or land of the thoolei insect or, more
romantically, land where there is no evil.
A land without evil is as much a chimera in Myanmar today as the
notion of Kawthoolei itself, said a Karen refugee leader.
Last month the Myanmar Government scored one of its most high-profile
coups when a flamboyant opium warlord, Khun Sa, bowed to the new
geopolitics of the mountainous borderland and struck a deal,
surrendering his mostly ethnic Shan army.
Meanwhile the Karen army steadily retreated. Many of the 5,000
student demonstrators who fled to join the insurgents after a military
crackdown in 1988 have now filtered back to the cities.
Those who remain are frightened. "My mother wrote to me saying the
schools had reopened, but she said the situation is not very safe,"
said a former Rangoon University student named Saw Tender, who has
lived along the border since 1991. "One of my friends decided to go
back and he was arrested and imprisoned for 20 years."
For people like Nita and Mr... Tender, it is hard to know where to
turn to seek safety.
In the last year, the 70,000 Karen refugees scattered through two
dozen camps in Thailand have come unde new threat from a breakaway
faction called the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.
With what Western and local experts say is the active support and
participation of the Myanmar Government, this faction has made a
series of raids into Thailand, killing and kidnapping refugees and
burning down several of their camps in an effort to frighten them back
In recent weeks, foreign aid workers have stopped spending the night
in the camps, and the Thai military has increased its presence.
In its single-minded rush to grow richer, as Southeast Asia hurtles
ahead in economic development, Thailand has been courting Myanmar for
its timber and its trade.
Now the Thais find themselves facing a large, battle-hardened and
unpredictable army on their western frontier.
Trapped by the pressures of opposing armies, political conflicts and
economic ambitions, unable to flee farther into Thailand or to return
to the dangers of the interior of Myanmar, the refugees in this barren
camp can only dream of Kawthoolei.
Nita, who is married to a Khmer National Union soldier, really has no
homeland to return to. She has spent nearly 30 years as a teacher
among the Karen in the jungles and refugee camps and has raised three
children of her own who have never seen a Burmese city.
"This is not a good life for the children," she said. "But it was
even worse in the villages when the soldiers kept attacking," Nita
"Even when they in school the children had to be alert to run. Our
history is a history of running, village by village, year by year,
until we reached this place where we are not allowed to run anymore."
"What I want to know is, does anybody have a plan for people like me,"
she said, "because I want to stay in one place peacefully, growing my
garden and living without harm. Is there any place like this?
(Caption of map of Burma/Thailand, showing location of Mannerplaw and
Mae La,near Mae Sot) "Mae La is now a refuge for ethnic Karen driven
out by the Burmese.
(Caption of photo of Nita, surrounded by 2 dozen schoolchildren)
"Nita, a 56-year old teacher at a refugee camp, says: "My parents told
me how Burmese soldiers tortured the Karen people. These things
stayed in my mind. So I have always been afraid of Burmese soldiers."