Inside Burma's rebel army:
the struggle against a regime propped up by foreign oil
by Grace Lincoln and Evan Williams
October 2, 2006
When Zoya Phan was 13, she was happy.
Every day on her way home from school, deep in the thick forest
of Karen state in eastern Burma, she would scramble on her hands
and knees up hillsides to pick mushrooms for her mother. Before
the rains came that summer she chased scarlet butterflies through
lush banana gardens and mango trees, the sweet smell of ripening
rice heavy in the air.
But her life would soon change beyond
all recognition. In 1995, just days after the Karen people celebrated
New Year, Phan watched the Burmese army open fire on her village.
The massacre claimed the lives of most of the village and forced
Phan and her family to flee and live from hand to mouth in the
jungle. Months later Phan made it to a camp for internally displaced
ethnic minority groups on the Thai-Burmese border. She was one
of the lucky ones.
At around the same time, a trade delegation
headed by the British ambassador to Burma was enjoying a banquet
supper with the military junta in Rangoon. In 1995 British trade
with Burma already stood at £9m, but while other Western
governments were criticising the regime for its attacks on ethnic
minorities, chiefly on the Karen, the British delegates were pressing
Eleven years on, and Burma is still in
the grip of a ruthless military dictatorship that refuses to hand
over power to the elected National League for Democracy and carries
out regular attacks on civilians from the country's many ethnic
minorities. Those who refuse to bow are either killed or forced
into slave labour and subjected to the arbitrary rule of local
As Channel 4's Dispatches reveals inBurma:
a Secret War, the military junta - which has had the democratically
elected leader, the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, under
house arrest for almost 11 years - survives only because foreign
companies remain keen to tap into the country's rich natural resources.
"It is still going on today," Phan says from her home
in London, where she has sought refuge. "Still the British
Government has done nothing to stop foreign companies investing."
Phan now campaigns for democracy in Burma
and works closely with the Burma Campaign UK, which calls for
the British Government to impose trade sanctions, provide cross-border
aid to internally displaced people, and stand up for the Burmese
people's long fight for democracy. Tomorrow Phan will join William
Hague and Liam Fox in addressing the Conservative Party conference.
"We are asking for Britain to impose sanctions and to stop
foreign investment now. What is going on in Burma is genocide,"
The ruling military junta has ensured
that Burma remains isolated. Cut off even from its closest neighbours,
Thailand and India, the conflict that rages at its heart gets
little attention. On Friday, for the first time, the UN Security
Council discussed Burma, and the US is expected soon to submit
a draft resolution criticising Burma's human rights record and
demanding Aung San Suu Kyi's release.
But none of that will matter if the regime
continues to reap the rewards of foreign investment. One of the
regime's pillars of financial revenue, the French oil company
Total is estimated by the Burma Campaign UK to bring as much as
£200m in every year. Its Yadana pipeline has been accused
of being associated with organisations perpetrating serious human
rights abuses. But the company denies this, and maintains it plays
a positive role.
Increasing evidence that Britain is being
used to channel new investment into Burma has been denied by the
Government. Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK, says: "Foreign
companies are using British dependent territories to channel new
investment to Burma so that Britain is not directly implicated."
Britain also imports more Burmese goods
than any other country in Europe. "Companies no longer have
to put country of origin labels on their clothes so people are
buying clothes from Burma without knowing it. The British Government
refuses to release a list of companies importing clothes from
Burma," Mr Farmaner says.
The military junta's policies have led
to more than 600,000 deaths and up to one million people being
displaced. Mortality rates among the young in what was once the
rice basket of Asia are now among the highest in the world. The
World Health Organisation ranks Burma second to bottom in its
list of 191 countries around the world; the ruling SPDP party
spends just 19 pence on healthcare for each of its citizens a
There are indications that the regime
is beginning to operate even more tightly and with greater secrecy.
The inauguration of the new capital, Pyinmana, in 2005 - sequestered
in a remote jungle hide-out closed to all but government officials
- was directly responsible for the displacement of about 5000
Karen people alone. Attacks on ethnic minority villages are happening
with increasing regularity.
Of all the weapons at the Burmese army's
disposal, rape is the cheapest. Soldiers are often ordered to
rape women from ethnic minorities and leave them pregnant to breed
out the resistance.
The Karen have one of the last armies
offering real resistance but it is an increasingly hard struggle
as their supply routes are squeezed by neighbouring governments
more interested in business with the generals, and especially
Burma's new-found oil and gas reserves. Pado Manh Shah, general
secretary of the Karen National Union army said the situation
has reached a new low. "Everyday our Karen people are killed
... If there is no political dialogue we have only one way forward.
If the international community and the UN were to intervene, we
would support that."
Soon after Channel 4 reporters left the
Karen state, the area was attacked by thousands of government
troops. Eighteen thousand people were forced to flee, one of the
biggest movements of internally-displaced refugees in south-east
Asia since the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. A lucky few made
it to Thailand, where tens of thousands of people from Burma live
a life in limbo, forced to work for a pittance.
Speaking to The Independent, Archbishop
Desmond Tutu said that the time to act is now.
"The Burmese people have tried everything
possible and have been flatly refused help. The regime is only
getting stronger. There comes a point where it is better to die
on your feet than live on your knees."
44 years of military rule
* 1962 General Ne Win leads military coup
ousting Buddhist state led by U Nu, and isolating country with
a one-party, military-led state.
* 1974 Power is transferred from armed
forces to a People's Assembly headed by Ne Win and a new constitution
comes into effect.
* 1981 Ne Win relinquishes presidency
but continues as chairman of ruling party. San Yu, a retired general,
* 1982 People of non-indigenous background
are designated "associate citizens" and barred from
working in public office.
* 1987-1989 Burma becomes increasingly
repressed as currency is devalued, wiping out many people's savings.
Anti-government riots erupt, leading to thousands of deaths. Military
junta renames country Myanmar.
* 1990 Military ignores opposition National
League for Democracy's election victory, led by Aung San Suu Kyi,
right, who is placed under house arrest.
* 2000-2003 Suu Kyi has restrictions on
movement lifted by ruling council, but is later taken into "protective
custody" after clashes between her supporters and government.
* 2006 UN Security Council discusses Burma
for first time amid reports of repression, refugee crisis and
illegal drugs trade.