MAE SOT, Thailand — Their battle for self-rule is one of the world's longest wars, a struggle that spans 52 years and generations of death. But today the ethnic Karen of Myanmar are facing a harsh awakening: Their long, lonely journey may be leading them nowhere.
Here along the Thai border with Myanmar, often referred to by its previous name, Burma, more than 100,000 Karen are cloistered in 11 camps of bamboo huts spread out along the frontier. There are thousands more refugees living outside the camps.
International attention to their plight--minimal in the best of times--is waning. Their military capability is dwindling. Their refugee population is growing, at the rate of 500 a month, and even Thailand, their traditional protector, increasingly considers them a burden, which some Thai politicians want eased with their repatriation within three years.
The Karen, along with a similar number of East Timorese in the Indonesian province of West Timor, represent the last large concentrations of externally displaced people in Southeast Asia, where the refugee population has sunk to its lowest level in more than 20 years with the resettlement of the masses who fled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
"We look to the East, and we see nothing," said Saw Tay Tay, director of the Karen Refugee Committee, who works out of a garage adorned with pictures of Myanmar's dissident leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. "But we look to the West, and we see moral support, maybe even a solution, because of its opposition to the Burma government. We know where our bread is buttered.
"But times have changed. We're no longer under any illusion that we can defeat the Burmese army and achieve independence. And we realize that countries should not be divided. We feel people can coexist if they are treated fairly. If we can be assured our dignity, that would be enough. We could live at peace with the Burma government."
If the Karen have scaled back their aspirations, it is largely because they have had no choice. Myanmar's army overran the Karen National Union, or KNU, stronghold at Manerplaw in 1995 and continues to nibble away at its border enclaves, pushing the Karen--many of whom fought for Britain during World War II even as Burma supported Japan--near or into Thailand. The KNU's fighting strength has dwindled to 2,000 to 3,000 men, and the war has ebbed into spasms of platoon-level engagements.
Meanwhile, Myanmar's government, a repressive band of soldiers known as the State Peace and Development Council, has signed peace treaties with the country's 15 other ethnic groups. In return for laying down their arms, some of the groups, such as the Wa, have been given a large degree of autonomy and the OK to produce drugs, which flood into Thailand and make their way to distant corners of the world.
The Karen, many of whom were converted to Christianity by U.S. missionaries two centuries ago, have never played by the same rules. They have shunned the drug trade and held nothing more than preliminary peace talks with the Myanmar government. But their influence inside Myanmar has diminished with their falling numbers, as tens of thousands fled to Thailand, some to escape fighting, others to seek economic opportunity.
"There's no jobs in Burma, not enough food, very little medicine," said Aung Kyaw, 26, as a medic at Dr. Cynthia's Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand, examined his sick daughter. After two years in Mae Sot, Aung Kyaw, a high school dropout, earns the equivalent of $50 a month as a gardener, more than a university professor with a doctorate would make in Myanmar.
Aung Kyaw is one of an estimated 100,000 illegal Myanmar immigrants, many of them Karen, in Thailand, in addition to those in the overflowing refugee camps. Over the course of many years, dating back to the Vietnam War, Thailand has been Southeast Asia's most hospitable country for refugees. But its patience is running thin with Myanmar refugees after two embarrassing incidents that could result in the welcome mat being withdrawn.
In October 1999, five Myanmar rebel gunmen took over the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok, the Thai capital. After releasing their hostages unharmed, the rebels were allowed to go free, much to the annoyance of the generals in Myanmar. Then in January, 10 Karen rebels stormed a Thai provincial hospital and held the staff and patients hostage. The rebels were killed by Thai commanders. On both occasions, the goal of the attackers was unclear.
Thailand responded to the crisis by sending about 200 Karen back across the Friendship Bridge that spans the Moei River on the border and increasing security at the camps. Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who toured several camps, said, "The refugee situation is a problem, which must be urgently solved." Myanmar, though, is reluctant to accept returnees who are political dissidents and an economic burden.