January 2005

Photos: Saw Takkaw
Text: Saw Takkaw, Dictator Watch

On January 10th, the Burma Army attacked a Karen base on Burma's side of the border north of the Thai town of Umphang. As the Army approached, the Karen, who were preparing to celebrate their New Year, sent envoys asking that they please not be attacked. The Army attacked anyway and was routed by forces from the Karen National Liberation Army. Numerous Burmese soldiers were captured and killed. Among the captured soldiers were four children, boys aged 14 to 16 years old, who reported that they had been forced into the Burma Army and that they had regularly been beaten and also that they were given very little food.

The Burma Army then reinforced with additional battalions and attacked again. Facing such an assault the Karen withdrew from their base, and nearby villagers were forced to flee. The Burma Army overran the base, and also the largest village of Kalaw Waw.

The attack was a violation of the Gentleman's Agreement Ceasefire that the Burma Army has with the KNLA.

Some 700 villagers were forced to flee their homes and escape to Thailand, where they found sanctuary at a temple. Subsequently, the Thai authorities presented them with a choice: return home or go to a refugee camp.

Some of the villagers tried to return home on January 14, but they were fired upon by SPDC troops.

"We could see the troops approaching in the distance. They yelled at us to come to them. When we turned to run, they opened fire."

Since the Burma Army still occupied their village, they could not return home. But, they did not want to go to a refugee camp. Instead, they left the temple and moved close to the border where they set up basic shelter, including in a number of caves.

After waiting over two weeks, during which time they received food assistance from NGOs, some men returned to check if Kalaw Waw was safe. Ultimately, the Burma Army withdrew and the villagers were able to return home. They found on arrival, though, that everything of value in their homes had been stolen.

Karen National Liberation Army soldiers preparing to go out and meet the enemy.

Captured MA machine guns.

Captured porters. These three men are what are known as prison porters. They were taken from prison to the border and then forced to porter for the Burma Army. They were found wandering in the forest on January 11, by the KNLA. They said they had been forced to carry loads of 40 kilograms, twelve hours a day, and that they had witnessed Burma Army soldiers steal villagers' food.

Rudimentary shelter, while waiting to go home. The baby in the picture was ill. These are typical conditions for IDPs.

"We don't dare return to our villages if the SPDC troops are near."

IDPs hiding in caves.

The SPDC touts the Padalin Cave in Tangyi District, Shan State, as an official attraction. These are the caves the SPDC does not want the world to see.

Karen villagers quickl;y adjust to new circumstances; an unfortunate consequence of decades of Burmese military aggression. The villagers gather wild vegetables for food and medicine. Insects and small game are also collected. Maintaining a positive attitude is key for survival.

This boy is preparing a snake.

As an IDP you have to grow up quickly. There is no such thing as a normal childhood.

A baby with skin disease. It is not only food and shelter that IDPs must worry about. They also do not have access to medical care. And, there is never-ending worry about security. Kalaw Waw remains within striking distance of SPDC outposts.

Will the SPDC ever honor its ceasefire agreement?