World shuts eyes to junta's ethnic cleansing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2006, 12:00am

First they killed his neighbours, shooting them as they were gathering the rice harvest. Then they set fire to Saw Tah Wah's village. Finally the Myanmese Army soldiers planted landmines around the burned homes to maim anybody daring to return.

This year thousands of Karen villagers like Mr Saw Tah Wah have fled to the refugee encampment of E Tu Hta, a collection of bamboo huts in a forest clearing on the Myanmese bank of the Salween river, on the border with Thailand. The camp was thrown up overnight in April when villagers began streaming out of Karen state clutching their children and whatever possessions they could carry.

At the end of last year the Myanmese Army began a series of offensives around the new capital Pyinmana, where the junta moved the seat of power from Yangon last year.

Nearby were areas where the Karen National Liberation Army is active - called black areas by the junta - so soldiers attacked villagers who could support the guerillas, forcing around 18,000 to flee to camps like E Tu Hta. Far more are believed to be hunted refugees inside Karen state.

The Karen, at war with Myanmar's rulers for 58 years, now fear new offensives in coming weeks as the dry season begins.

Mr Saw Tah Wah, a 70-year-old farmer with gentle eyes who believes he has fled the Myanmese perhaps a hundred times in his life, spent nine days trekking across mountains during the rainy season to make it to safety.

He said: 'We were scared of running into army patrols and we were scared of landmines. They plant them everywhere now - in paddy fields and on paths.

'Before the soldiers weren't like this, they didn't shoot to kill. Now they do.'

Two of his neighbours were shot dead in Chaw Wa Der village four months ago and two others were wounded. One of them, a 30-year-old mother of three called Naw Mu Tu, was hit in the throat by a bullet. She was not able to go to a hospital because Myanmese soldiers occupying the village stopped anyone from leaving.

The bodies of his neighbours were recovered at night after lying in the paddy fields for two days.

'We were very scared that they had planted landmines around them,' Mr Saw Tah Wah said.

Landmines are being sown indiscriminately in Karen state as a terror weapon.

Sae Kae Der, a 39-year-old woman, said: 'When we run through the jungle we are afraid. We want to keep our feet on our heads. If we could fly, we would.'

Ahrleh, a 32-year-old farmer with one name, stepped on a landmine in February while foraging for food for his pregnant wife after they fled into hiding.

Karen medics amputated his leg in the jungle, then friends carried him to Thailand where he was fitted with a prosthetic limb.

He wants to return to find his wife and find out whether the child he has not yet seen has survived.

Refugees still arrive at E Tu Hta daily. Htee Mo Klo, 38, heard about the camp from fellow refugees after he fled with his nephew when their village was attacked by hundreds of soldiers.

He said: 'I saw a poster left by the 16th Battalion saying they don't want to see the face of a Karen and all the Karen people should go.

'They hate us and they are ruled by dictators who want control.'

Mark Farmaner from the Burma Campaign said: 'The regime is deliberately targeting civilians to drive them out of the country. This is ethnic cleansing and the international community looks the other way.'

The Burma Campaign's website says the Myanmese Army began the offensive in the second week of last month. As a result, 60 families from Mone Township in the northern Karen state, left their villages.

'The families have begun to run out of food and there is no chance of getting more food supply,' the website says.

'They have been running and hiding for a month now, so their supply is running out. They cannot return home because of the landmines planted by the army and its continuing patrols.'