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Military junta puts new pressure on ethnic rebels

The KNU were the first to take up arms against the Govt, shortly after the nation then known as Burma, won independence in 1948.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2006 14:34 IST

Squeezed between the edge of a mountain and the Moei River that separates Myanmar from Thailand lies a small rebel camp that is one of the last areas still held by ethnic Karen forces.

This tiny outpost of the Karen National Union (KNU), whose armed wing once controlled vast areas along the border, reflects the fortunes of Myanmar's 128 ethnic groups, who find themselves pressured by the country's military rulers as never before.

The KNU were the first to take up arms against the government, shortly after the nation then known as Burma won independence from Britain in 1948, and once controlled broad swathes of territory as they fought what has become the world's longest-running insurgency.

Many others -- including ethnic Shan, Kachin, Karenni and Mon -- followed suit in fighting for control over their lands.

"We will never stop the struggle," KNU Colonel Nerdah Mya said.

But most of the armed struggles have stopped, or at least taken a break.

At the height of the violence, some 20 ethnic rebellions raged across the country and rebels controlled many border areas, until then-prime minister Khin Nyunt began negotiating ceasefires.

The generals have reached ceasefires with 17 armed groups, and talks were underway with the KNU when Khin Nyunt was ousted in October 2004.

The junta -- which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) -- then called off the talks and they have yet to resume.

"Those who have signed ceasefires with the SPDC, they are split into two groups. Some will be coming back and some will be joining the SPDC," predicted KNU general secretary Mahn Sha Lar Phan.

"Right now, the SPDC is asking them to surrender, to give up arms," he said.

That's something few of the ethnic groups say they are prepared to do.

The 17 groups that signed ceasefires agreed to stop fighting in exchange for control over the territory where their people live.

The junta told most of them to send delegates to the regime's on-and-off constitutional talks, which they have reluctantly attended for two years despite winning few concessions. The latest round ended Tuesday, still without visible progress.

"They're caught. If they don't go (to the talks), they'll be blamed for any breakdown... so they've got to be seen to be cooperating. But actually they're getting absolutely nothing back," said one source along the border.

Ethnic delegates to the talks said the regime wants the rebels to surrender and disarm before any possible elections, although everyone agrees that polls are unlikely any time soon and would likely only be used to entrench junta leader Than Shwe in power.

Few of the ethnic groups see any reason to trust the generals in Yangon.

"We have no idea yet whether to surrender our weapons when the elections are held. We will consider doing so when the time comes but it all depends on the prevailing situation then," said one ethnic delegate, who like most people spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The groups that have signed ceasefires are eager to maintain control over the areas that the government already allows them administer.

"Their main interest is for their races as well as for themselves. They have their desire to rule their people in their region," said Tin Tun Maung, a former member of the National League for Democracy who attended the talks as an independent.

"They never show their true feelings and keep any dissatisfaction to themselves... They want many things but are willing to settle for less at this time," said Tin Tun Maung, who belong to the majority Burman race.

The British had promised to seek some degree of autonomy for the Karen and many of Myanmar's other minorities once independence was granted.

The country's independence hero, General Aung San -- father of detained pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi -- also had dreams of unity among the ethnic minorities and the majority Burmans in the center of the country.

Those dreams fell apart after his assassination, as the country slid into military rule.

Some, like the Wa rebels -- whom the United States accuse of running a vast narcotics operation -- have allied with the junta, even staging attacks on other rebels on behalf of Yangon.

But most ethnic leaders say they remain wary of the generals and want mainly to secure the right to administer their regions.

"We will take as much as we can get... I think all the other groups have similar thoughts like us," an ethnic delegate said.

First Published: Feb 06, 2006 14:30 IST