BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Programmes: Correspondent  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Correspondent Friday, 26 July, 2002, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
The forgotten war
Free Burma Rangers smuggle medical aid to the ethnic Karen people fleeing from the army
Free Burma Rangers smuggle medical aid

Democracy was not to last long in Burma following independence from the British in 1948. A military junta soon took power, crushing any dissent. A country torn by ethnic differences, independence brought with it mass insurgency. The source - a deep rooted divide over national identity.

The country's largest ethnic group is the Burman people. Their dominance over the minorities such as the Karen and the Shan has long fuelled massive resentment. The minority groups took up arms and for over 50 years have been fighting for a state of their own.

Moko, volunteer
Moko, a Free Burma Ranger

The generals that run Burma are intent on a country defined by a muddle of Buddhist and Marxist principles.

The government proclaims its intention to "preserve and understand the culture and good traditions of the national races".

Yet ethnic minorities are deprived of their economic, social and cultural rights on a massive scale.

The regime has forced most minorities into various forms of ceasefire, but the Karen are still holding out.

Correspondent joined them on a trip behind Burmese lines. Our aim was to find evidence of the regime's brutality.

According to Amnesty International, the military regime commits a wide range of human rights violations including forcible relocation, torture, and extra-judicial killings.

For the past 13 years Amnesty has documented the widespread use of forced labour of ethnic minorities by the army.

The Karen have borne the brunt of this repression.

American volunteers

A young Karen girl being treated by medics
A young Karen girl being treated by medics

Early one morning we crouched in the undergrowth with a small group of people on the Thai-Burma border. They call themselves "Free Burma Rangers".

As soon as the sun came up they were to sneak past the Burmese checkpoints and into Karen State.

Their plan - to smuggle thousands of dollars of medical aid past the Burmese army lines to their own people.

Don Acker, American volunteer
Don Acker: "I am here to help these people"

We joined two men who were waiting in the shadows. They are American, middle-aged volunteers in the war against Rangoon.

Shannon's a dentist from Louisiana. He's a veteran of the trips. An ex-Special Forces soldier, he loves the adrenaline rush.

His partner Don isn't so sure. Don is a Probation Officer in middle America. It's his first trip here and he knows the risks are high.

"I am not here as a soldier of fortune or as a mercenary, I am here to help these people. But I will not sacrifice my life; I will defend my life, in anyway possible."

Free Burma Rangers

The Free Burma Rangers are a strange mix - young medics, soldiers and nurses. All trained by ex-American soldiers, running missions behind Burmese lines helping the internally displaced.

Highly dangerous and illegal, the humanitarian assistance they give keeps the dream of Karen identity alive.

Shannon Allyson, American volunteer
Shannon Allyson: "It's the same thing the Nazis tried to do to the Jews"

I couldn't understand why the Americans were here - it's not their war.

Shannon and Don's response was simple - somebody should do something.

Shannon ignores the political dimensions of this conflict - for him it's a simple matter of good versus evil.

"If they give up their arms, and give up their right to freedom all of a sudden the Karen tribe will exist no more. When you see that happening in front of your eyes in the modern day that is scary. It's the same thing the Nazis tried to do to the Jews. It is what was happening in Kosovo."

Survival at great cost

The regime denies a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. It claims the war is against the rebels, not the civilian population.

But a few miles away the Burmese army was on the offensive, burning and looting its way through the Karen villages.

From what we could see the aim was simple - to force the civilian Karen out towards Thailand and strangle any support for the rebels.

It works - already 100,000 Karen are in refugee camps over the border.

Paw Htoo, a nurse and team leader
Paw Htoo: "I have to be strong"

One of the nurses and team leaders, Paw Htoo, was reserved, hardly speaking to me.

It took two weeks before she would tell me her story. Burmese soldiers attacked her village, killed her husband and threw her in prison.

She was forced to give up her baby son so that he would survive. She escaped but returns to the jungle every year to give support to others in the same position.

"Yesterday one woman told me her story and tears were flowing down her face but I didn't cry. If they cry, I don't. As a medic, I have to be strong. If I cry everyone would break down."

Her tale was echoed by nearly everyone we met on our journey.

Living in fear

Maw Hla, WW2 veteran and Karen leader
Maw Hla, the Karen leader

It's a forgotten war here. There are no bodies or mass graves - the regime knows better than to leave evidence of murder for outsiders to see.

But the weapons it uses - starvation, terror and forced labour are just as effective.

As we proceeded through the jungle on a journey of over 200 kilometres, we found pocket after pocket of frightened villagers hiding in the jungle, their homes destroyed by army raids.

The Karen guerrillas are hardly an effective force any more - they cannot protect the people from the attacks.

It is only outside groups like the Rangers who can make a difference to help the civilians. And even they can do little more than administer basic medical aid and encouragement.

As we travelled through Karen State the most they could do was administer malaria pills and tend to simple illnesses like dysentery or wounds from landmines.

By the time we left Burma, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi had just been released from house arrest and it seemed the regime had begun to show a willingness to talk to the outside world.

But in the jungle itself the army was still on the move. The danger is - by the time the world wakes up to the plight of the Karen it will be too late.

The forgotten war: Sunday 28 July 2002 on BBC Two at 1915 BST

Producer & Reporter: Frank Smith
Cameraman: Dean Johnson Deputy Editor: Farah Durrani
Editor: Karen O'Connor

Frank Smith
The forgotten war
Don Acker
"There is a cause here"
Paw Htoo
"They are dying for no reason"
Saing Khan Myint
"I dare not run, I don't want to die"
See also:

25 Feb 02 | Country profiles
17 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
07 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
10 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
20 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
23 Jan 99 | Asia-Pacific
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Correspondent stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |