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In search of a Burmese rebel leader

By Ko Ko Aung
BBC Burmese Service

Fighter from the PAO ethnic group in Burma
The Pao say they must fight to keep their own cultural identity

After flying half-way across the world I finally arrived at a rebel camp on the Thai-Burmese border on my quest to track down the elusive leader of the Pao National Liberation Army, Khun Thurein.

It took months of planning to meet the man, who with his force of just 100 men, is taking on the might of the Burmese military.

The men who follow him are all from a small ethnic minority group called the Pao. They have their own language, music, customs and traditional dress.

But they say the Burmese government is trying to destroy their culture. That's why two years ago Khun Thurein and his men dusted off their arms and began fighting once again.

In one recent ambush, Khun Thurein's men say they killed 12 Burmese soldiers.

The Pao are one of more than 100 different ethnic minorities in Burma. Most of them negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government more than two decades ago.

He was hanged from a tree, his stomach was cut open, his genitals were severed and stuffed in his mouth
Khun Tun Kyaw, Pao rebel

Despite the Pao's own ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 1994, the Pao feel their culture is gradually disappearing.

As I waited to meet the elusive Khun Thurein, I decided to visit some rebel outposts inside Burma.

At one of the Pao rebel camps high in the mountains, I came across Khun Tun Kyaw.

He said he witnessed his dad being brutally murdered by Burmese soldiers and pro-government militias in 1993.

He vividly described how his father was "hanged from a tree, his stomach was cut open, his genitals were severed and stuffed into his mouth, and two bullets were pushed into each of his ears".

It's not the first time I've heard of such atrocities, but on this occasion I was lost for words.

Refugees

Many Pao felt they had no choice but to flee across the border to Thailand.

Many of them have ended up at the Ban Nai Soi refugee camp which was a couple hours drive away.

Some people have been living there for 15 years or longer, but several told me that they still missed Burma.

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Many people have fled Burma and are living in this refugee camp in Thailand

They might eventually find their way to another country, but it seems they will not find their way back to Burma where they really belong - simply because it is not safe, even in areas where the ceasefire still holds.

During my visit to the camp I met Ma San Thu, who explained why she joined Khun Thurein's army as a medic.

She told me about a nine-year-old girl who she treated who had been raped by a Burmese government soldier.

She said: "We complained but our leaders stopped us from speaking out. So the resentment just grew. This kind of thing happens very often, so we started to think why can't we defend our people."

The rebel leader

By this time I had received my long-awaited summons to meet the man himself - Khun Thurein.

His jungle headquarters was just on the other side of the border inside Burma.

The Burmese government is a fraction of the strength of the British Empire. So I believe that we can beat them
Khun Thurein

I was the first journalist to be invited into Khun Thurein's camp, and he was anxious to take me on a tour.

As we headed out he explained that the Burmese government has been trying to establish a "Burmese mono-culture" in the country.

"Our leaders wanted peace and democracy. They wanted to sort out the political problems by political means. We never had a chance to sort the problems politically, so I thought the Burmese government would eliminate us."

Khun Thurein told me that he was well aware of the risk he was taking.

Pao rebel leader Khun Thurein (left) and BBC journalist KO KO Aung in Burma
Ko Ko Aung meets Pao rebel leader Khun Thurein

"We were under British colonial rule for 100 years. We fought them to reclaim our independence. The Burmese government [is a] fraction of the strength of the British Empire. So I believe that we can beat them."

Khun Thurein's wife admitted that she was very worried, and didn't know what would happen.

After all, it would take just one successful strike to wipe out Khun Thurein's entire force of just 100 men.

But, he said, "I would rather die fighting than bowing down to the pressure of the Burmese military regime to lay down arms without a political solution."



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