Saturday, June 27, 2009

Burma (Myanmar) Presses Rebels in Bid to Eliminate Armed Opposition

A four-week military offensive in eastern Burma (Myanmar) has pushed back ethnic Karen rebels and forced thousands of refugees to flee across the border into Thailand. The attacks appear to underscore the determination of Burma's regime to snuff out what little armed opposition remains to its rule ahead of elections next year.
Burma is already in the international spotlight over its treatment of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is on trial for breaking the terms of her house arrest after an American man swam across a lake to visit her against her will.

The trial is due to resume on July 3.

Burma is also the presumed customer for the cargo aboard a North Korean ship that the US Navy is currently tailing. Burmese state media reported Thursday that authorities had no information on the vessel. In recent months, Burma's junta has begun pressuring ethnic insurgent groups with which it has previously signed cease-fire agreements to put their fighters under military command as border guards. Most are expected to contest the elections, showing a willingness to participate in the process. But they have been reluctant to disarm after decades of strife with a military that is dominated by the ethnic Burman majority.

The largest group that has signed a cease-fire, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), has already rejected the regime's proposal. The UWSA has around 20,000 fighters and is accused of involvement with drug trafficking in northern Burma, which is second only to Afghanistan in opium production.

The Karen National Union (KNU) is among a handful of groups in Burma that haven't signed cease-fire agreements with the regime. Its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), has been fighting for six decades after Britain, the former colonial power, failed to deliver on a promise of self-rule for Karen people, who are estimated to number around seven million.

Burmese military offensives against the rebels normally intensify during the dry season. But, in a change of tactics, the current onslaught comes during monsoon rains that slow the advance of troops.

Since early June, Burmese troops, supported by a breakaway Karen militia, have forced the KNLA to abandon several bases along the border with Thailand. This has disrupted supply routes and raised fears of a wider collapse in its defenses that may trigger a larger refugee outflow.

More than 4,500 villagers have crossed the border to escape the fighting and out of fear of being abused by soldiers.Karen leaders are talking to Thai authorities and the UN's refugee agency about what do next. More than 140,000 mostly Karen refugees already live in camps along the border.

Hobbled by infighting, the KNLA appears to be on the ropes, outgunned and outnumbered. Supporters say that combatants organized into conventional military units may eventually return to guerrilla warfare, as it becomes harder to hold territory. Political leaders could also sue for peace, though that would open more fissures in the movement.

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