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 for business.

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 military commanders.

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," she says.

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 year.

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, takes power.

* 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.

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