11/24/2006, 00.00

Junta intensifies anti-Karen persecution

The junta has launched a ferocious offensive to wipe three million people out of the state by burning their villages and crops. The military operations are prompted by political and, even more so, economic interests.

Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Myanmar army is pressing ahead with an unprecedented offensive against the tribal Karen people. According to local observers, in the last eight to 10 months, soldiers torched more than 200 villages, destroyed crops and planted mines along paths to prevent the return of residents. Dozens of people have been killed and at least 20,000 civilians have been chased out of their homes.

The aim behind the ferocious military campaign against civilians is the creation of space around the new capital Naypyidaw ("royal city"), built in the jungle a few kilometers from the Karen State border. The junta has always hit out brutally at ethnic groups, of which the Karen is the largest with three million people. Proud of their tradition, they speak their own language and have always opposed the military dictatorship. Throughout 20 years of conflict, many fled to neighbouring Thailand, where 150,000 now live in refugee camps and 1.5 million – according to official estimates – are illegal migrants. The military junta has also launched an unprecedented offensive against the Karen National Liberation Army (around 10,000 men).

These offensives are prompted by both economic and political reasons: Myanmar has reached an agreement with Thailand about the creation of more dams on Salween River, which runs through Karen territory, so the population must now be "displaced". Jack Dunford, director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, a humanitarian aid NGO, said: "The new capital and the dam projects have become an incredibly destructive pretext for the Burmese military to take control of Karen state using indiscriminate force."

"What is now going on in Burma are crimes against humanity," said Sunai Phasuk, Myanmar expert for Human Rights Watch. "The military government has significantly stepped up their systemic policy of violence against the ethnic Karen."

According to local sources, more than 900 Karen ask for asylum in Thailand every month. Thailand is responding by tightening refugee status procedures. Eituta, a sort of emergency camp, has been set up at the border between the two states, with bamboo walls guarded by a squadron of Karen soldiers. There are already 1,500 refugees and the number is increasing by 10% every month.

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