The military government of Myanmar appears finally to have turned the tide against a rebel movement fighting one of the longest-running insurgent wars of modern times.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, appears to have adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy to get the upper hand over the Karen guerrillas, who are widely regarded as extremely tough adversaries.
The Karen make up one of the largest ethnic groups scattered along Myanmar’s eastern border. They have been fighting for independence from the rest of Myanmar since the early days of independence from Britain in 1948.
The military junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), apparently managed to exploit religious differences between the leadership of the Karen National Union, the main opposition group that is primarily Christian, and a group of KNU followers who are primarily Buddhist. A small group of Buddhists apparently defected to the government side, taking along details of defense works and mine fields leading to the guerrillas’ camps along the Thai border.
The Myanmar army has received massive amounts of modern arms from China in recent years, including warplanes, helicopters and artillery, and deployed the new firepower in the campaign to dislodge the Karens.
The most devastating loss was the main Karen base at Manerplaw, which fell to the SLORC army on Jan. 26. More than 100 artillery shells landed in the camp before the Karens withdrew across the river into Thailand after setting their homes ablaze.
Manerplaw not only had been the Karen base of operations for more than two decades; it also provided shelter to students and other opposition leaders who became outlaws when the military came to power in 1988. They included members of the National League for Democracy, which won a landslide election victory in 1989 that the military refused to accept.
The second blow fell on the Karens last month when a frontal assault on their last major base at Kawmoora forced the Karens to abandon the site without much of a fight. It became clear that dissident elements could infiltrate the camp’s defenses, and a strategic decision was made to abandon the base.
The Karens tried to put a brave face on the loss, saying they would return to guerrilla warfare inside Myanmar. “We have only lost the place,” said Nah Kaew, a KNU official. “We will continue the struggle.”
Thailand has managed to remain fairly neutral in the fighting between Myanmar and the Karens. It has allowed any Karen to enter Thai territory unarmed and has refused permission to the SLORC army to cross onto Thai soil in pursuit of the guerrillas.
Initially, it seemed as if the fighting might be causing friction between Yangon and Bangkok because two highlevel visits were canceled without explanation. Thailand has been leading the efforts with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to move closer to Myanmar with what it called “constructive engagement” - a belief that increased trade and human contacts lead inevitably to the liberalization of a regime.
Doubts about a split between the two countries were dispelled however when a senior Myanmar military official paid an official visit to Bangkok late last month.
In addition to forcing out the Karen military arm, the fighting has caused huge displacements of Burmese refugees along the Thai border. The Rev. Rpbert Htwe, chairman of the Karen Refugee Committee, said there were more than 70,000 people living in 13 camps scattered along the Thai border.
There is speculation among diplomats that the SLORC victory may provide the leverage to force the Karens to the negotiating table to reach a peaceful settlement of their demands for autonomy.