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Last Updated: Friday, 26 October 2007, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Resistance in the Burmese jungle
By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Loi Tai Leng, eastern Burma

Man with machine gun
Thousands of people are hiding out in Burma's dense jungles
The leader of a Burmese ethnic army has urged all opponents of the ruling junta to unite in the aftermath of last month's uprising.

"All those battling the regime must co-operate," said Colonel Yawd Serk, of the Shan State Army (SSA).

"If we cannot unite, and if the international community does not come to our help, then nothing will change in Burma for a decade."

Colonel Serk, speaking at his fortified hilltop camp in the jungles close to the Thai border, did not sound optimistic.

He said he doubted the military government was serious about dialogue, and accused the United Nations of merely "talking, but doing nothing practical.

"As long as China, Russia and India continue to arm the regime then civilians will suffer."

Common cause

For years the steep green hills of eastern Burma have hidden a vast and chaotic conflict between rival ethnic armies, drug-smuggling militias and the unrestrained brutality of the Burmese military.

Map
Civilians have been systematically targeted by government troops, with some 3000 villages destroyed and, according to the latest estimates, almost 100,000 people currently in hiding.

Half a million have been forced to abandon their homes.

The SSA says it has already begun preliminary talks with Burma's main democratic opposition group, the National League for Democracy, and also with representatives from another ethnic group, the Karen National Union, to try to seek a common negotiating position.

But most ethnic forces - like the United Wa State Army, whose frontline forts are within shouting distance of the SSA on the neighbouring hilltop - have signed ceasefire deals with the junta.

Despite growing signs of frustration, they may not be so easily persuaded to join any new alliance.

'Separate state'

The SSA is already preparing for the worst.

Soldier
They killed monks and civilians, that is why we want our separate state
Burmese rebel soldier
In a clearing in the jungle, I saw about 300 new recruits - conscripted from villages across Shan State - busy training.

They appeared to be well disciplined and fairly well equipped with automatic weapons and new uniforms.

There are reports that other ethnic armies, including ceasefire groups, are also rearming and recruiting - partly as a result of the recent crackdown, but also because of growing disillusionment with the junta's proposed new constitution and its "roadmap to democracy".

"The Burmese killed my brother," said Sai Leng, aged 28. "The Burmese are our enemy, and we are fighting for independence."

He and his colleagues had all heard about the protests in Rangoon, and the subsequent military crackdown.

"They killed monks and civilians," said Sai Leng. "This is why we want our separate state."

Drugs trade

Rebel soldiers
The rebel soldiers say they are helping civilians flee oppression
Nearby, a smaller group of 30 soldiers was preparing to head back out into the jungle.

They said they expected to be away for three months and their mission was to help civilians fleeing from government offensives.

Colonel Serk said he had 8,000 soldiers under his command and an annual operating budget of approximately 300,000 ($615,000).

He insisted that his army was not involved in the local drug trade - which appears to be flourishing after years of decline - and was vigorously fighting it.

Funding for the SSA came, he said, from taxes on local civilians.

Child victims

Neung, 14
The conflict has affected children and left many without parents
Thousands of civilians now live at the SSA camp, having fled from villages deeper inside Burma over recent years.

The headmaster of the local school said a third of all children there were orphans.

Fourteen-year old Neung sat in a wooden dormitory doing her homework.

She said she had been raped by Burmese troops two years earlier and had fled into the jungle.

She dreamed of becoming an SSA soldier, she said, but a wounded leg meant she would not be able to join up and fight the enemy.



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