May 15, 2006

Refugees brave mines, malaria to flee Myanmar junta

By Ed Cropley

NEAR THE SALWEEN RIVER, Myanmar (Reuters) - Ta Kler Too was
two weeks old when he had to go through his first minefield.

Born on the run from the army in the jungles of eastern
Myanmar, he and his family -- all ethnic Karen -- are now in
the relative security of a makeshift refugee camp protected by
Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) guerrillas.

One mile from the Thai border, they remain at the mercy of
infection, diarrhea and malaria but consider themselves the
lucky ones after a terrifying month-long flight from soldiers
of the former Burma's ruling military junta, or State Peace and
Development Council (SPDC), as it is officially known.

"I thought I would die on the way because I was so
pregnant, so weak," said his mother, Enne Paw, 31, who took to
the forests with her family when two people in their village
were shot dead in an army raid.

After a week on the run, she went into labor and gave birth
in a bamboo hut in another Karen village before resuming the
desperate flight eastwards to the Salween River and the Thai
border, where the rebel Karen militias are at their strongest.

First though, they had to make a night-time crossing of the
main road bisecting that part of Karen State -- a thoroughfare
teeming with soldiers and landmines.

"I had to rock the baby in my arms all the time to keep him
from crying," said his 39-year-old father, Bwer Nee Tha, with a
thin smile that revealed teeth stained crimson with betel nut.

"Either that or we would feed him. Otherwise, we were
scared his cries would alert the Burmese patrols," he said,
clutching the tiny child to his chest in a medical hut where he
was being treated for a throat infection.


Besides 1,800 Karen who have entered Thailand since
December, 805 people have made similar journeys to the Salween
camp to escape what appears to be the biggest SPDC offensive
against the Karen in 10 years.

Around three quarters of them are children and the numbers
grow almost daily as new arrivals emerge sick, exhausted and
starving from the trees.

Some of them used the word "myo dong." In Karen, it means

In a rare lifting of their veil of secrecy this weekend,
Yangon's generals admitted they were targeting the Karen, a
mainly Christian ethnic minority of around 7 million people, or
just over 10 percent of Myanmar's population.

But Information Minister Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan said
the offensive was to quell anti-government military action by
the KNLA, who have waged a 50-year civil war with Yangon -- one
of the world's longest-running conflicts.

Accounts from dozens of refugees interviewed by Reuters
suggest civilians are bearing the brunt of the assault.

With empty eyes, they spoke of neighbors murdered, villages
burned to the ground and the ashes seeded with landmines.
Hidden stores of rice had also been destroyed, meaning many
communities faced starvation if they tried to stay.

The Free Burma Rangers, a Christian refugee relief group
which estimates 15,000 Karen are on the run, has provided
photographs of SPDC notices pinned to trees "For the hiding

"No one is allowed to live in this area," reads the first
line. Lower down: "Anyone who stays in this area will be shot.
This is a command from above."

In several cases, soldiers had mined the path leading to
the notice, the Rangers said.

At the entrance to the camp, Saw Da Pulo, a 43-year-old who
lost his right leg to a land mine four years ago, sat waiting
for his parents and children to arrive. His wife is already

Separated from the group a month ago, he managed to make it
on one leg to the Salween, where he was picked up by a KNLA
patrol. All he can do now is sit and pray that one day he will
see his family again.