Colonel Ner Dah threads a strip of white cloth through the barrel of his silver Italian-made handgun, newly purchased in Thailand. 'We have to be prepared,' the rebel commander says. 'This is about our dignity. We have to defend ourselves.' After 55 years battling for a separate homeland, Myanmar's ethnic Karen are accustomed to war, upheaval and hardship. A ceasefire agreed in December by the Karen National Union (KNU) with then prime minister General Khin Nyunt had offered a glimmer of hope peace could prevail. But the fall of the general, now under house arrest in Yangon, has raised fears that hawkish army generals may ditch the talks for war. Resting inside a wooden cabin at his battalion headquarters, Colonel Ner Dah says the KNU has not given up hope of brokering a deal to end the fighting and allow fleeing Karen villagers to return home. 'It's better to keep talking. Both sides are playing a political game now,' says the colonel, son of KNU elder statesman General Bo Mya. Even before the hardliners reasserted control in Yangon, many Karen were openly sceptical of the verbal ceasefire deal, which has brought little relief to their devastated homeland. By some accounts, the ceasefire has reduced the fighting, though KNU guerillas continue to attack the army's supply lines. Human rights groups say Karen villagers are still being forced to work for free for the Myanmese army as porters or manual labourers. As many as 200,000 Karen have been driven from their homes during decades of war. A further 120,000 live in camps across the border in Thailand. Hundreds of families have sought protection in the riverside camp of Mu Aye Pu, headquarters of Battalion 202. They have planted rice and vegetables to supplement a diet of foraged roots and fruits. Their raised bamboo huts nestle up against heavily forested limestone hills that provide a natural barricade against marauding soldiers. A new school with four classrooms holds out the hope that a new generation of Karen may have other options than taking up arms. Saw Paw Kler, 19, who fled his village six years ago after his father was accused of being a KNU sympathiser, says he is ready to run again. 'We will have to flee across the border to Thailand if our troops can't keep us safe,' he says. Some soldiers fear the Myanmese army is preparing for a dry-season offensive against their tenuous border positions. The KNU says it has more than 10,000 soldiers under its command, though independent analysts give a figure in the low thousands. 'Everyone was happy at the time of the ceasefire. We all hoped it would lead to proper peace talks,' soldier Saw Doh Moo says. The 30-year-old joined the rebels when he was 12 after the army razed his village. He shakes his head at the apparent duplicity of the regime. 'Burma has broken its promise and now they come to attack us,' he says.