Karen and Shan face continued persecution in Burma

According to Thai officials, more than 700 ethnic Karen fled 22 villages this past week, as at least five villagers were killed when Burmese soldiers set fire to their houses, looking to oust separatist rebels. Some villagers had been beaten before the destruction of their homes was carried out.

Such reports are hardly rare in a country which has essentially been engaged in civil war for more than five decades, since independence in 1948. Many indigenous peoples inhabit the nation, the largest of which, the Burmans, control the government. Other indigenous peoples such as the Karen and Shan have sought either independence or autonomy since independence. The Shan were in fact given the option to secede after ten years in the original Burmese constitution, but this promise was never fulfilled.

As a result of the continuing war, Burma is home to an estimated 600,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and more than 140,000 refugees to Thailand. The majority of these displaced people belong to the Karen, Karenni, and Mon people.

While census records are inaccurate at best, it is estimated that the Shan and Karen peoples represent slightly less than 10 percent of the Burmese population each, while Burmans constitute about two thirds of the population. The Karen and Shan states both abut the border with Thailand, making them primary figures in the strained relations between Burma and Thailand.

Burma claims that Thailand provides aid to Shan separatists, undermining the power of the Burmese state, while for their part, Thailand points out that Burma essentially allows the drug producing and trafficking activities of the ethnic Wa to go unchecked. Burmese forces allow these activities in exchange for the support of the Wa against Shan and Thai forces. Burma ranks second only to Afghanistan (and perhaps now outranks it) in the production of heroin and methamphetamines.

In the end, ordinary villagers are caught in the middle of a conflict between nations as well as an inter-ethnic war for autonomy. Late last week, Shan rebels took two government outposts held by Burmese and Wa forces, increasing tensions among ethnic-based armies and between Rangoon and Bangkok. In the process, about 1,000 tribespeople living along the border were evacuated, adding yet again to the count of displaced people.