In the jungles of southeastern Myanmar, the army was shooting and oppressing civilians long before last month’s military coup.
This largely invisible repression continues even now. In the remote southeast of the country, an army offensive has prompted 8,000 Karen people to flee their homes in what aid groups say is the worst upheaval there in nearly 10 years.
They now live in the jungle, with growing fears for their health and safety, and no prospect of an early return.
This crisis in the border areas has been overshadowed by the deadly crackdown on the mass movement protesting the military seizure of power by the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
But it is also a reminder of the brutal force that the Myanmar military has long used against civilians and, in particular, the country’s ethnic minorities.
The Karen National Union, the leading political body of the Karen, is for now assuming all the basic food, shelter and security needs of displaced people.
But in the long run, that will be a challenge for the group, Padoh Saw Taw Nee, head of KNU’s foreign affairs department, said in an email interview.
“Therefore, the international community must provide humanitarian assistance to these people who need it as soon as possible,” he said.
The Karen are among more than a dozen ethnic groups that have been seeking greater autonomy from the central government since Myanmar, then known as Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948.
At times, the guerrilla forces of ethnic groups have been involved in a total armed conflict with the government; In recent years, many have reached a disturbing ceasefire. His talks with the Suu Kyi government failed to reach a comprehensive political resolution before he was deposed by the coup.
Meanwhile, the military has aggressively expanded its reach in at least two districts in Karen state since 2017, building new bases and roads to try to dominate an area that doesn’t want it there.
In recent months, the number of troops and activity have increased dramatically, according to relief organizations active there.
Karen’s own armed force, the Karen National Liberation Army, has responded. In retaliation, the army has increased its attacks and shelled the surrounding villages.
Aid agencies say the 8,000 people who fled their homes to the deprivation of the jungle are safe and are adapting as best they can, building bamboo shelters and teaching outdoor classes.
But no one knows when they can return or if their villages will still stand when they do. Meanwhile, the fields where their crops would be grown are neglected, threatening the food supply by the end of the year.
A humanitarian group, Free Burma Rangers, has been bringing aid since the attacks began and documenting the plight of the Karens. The group was formed in the late 1990s during intense attacks that displaced more than 100,000 Karen people.
Its founder and director, Dave Eubank, is a former member of the US Special Forces who combines evangelical activities with well-disciplined raids by Karen volunteers to deliver medical aid to the villagers.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press via satellite phone from the affected area, Eubank spoke of what displaced Karen desperately needs.
He said that stopping attacks by Myanmar troops – “security and survival” – is the top priority.
Food comes next. “As they move, they have to eat,” he said. “They cannot go back and start their crops. They cannot prepare for the next fields, they cannot take care of the animals, ”he said.
Medical care and shelter are also essential, Eubank said.
In 2012, the Karen National Union signed a ceasefire with the government, which it hoped would end decades of military aggression. But the Myanmar military has repeatedly raped him. This is the worst gap yet, aid groups say.
Hsa Moo from Karen Environmental and Social Action Network has just returned from the affected area. She herself, who was a refugee, says it’s heartbreaking.
“This is not a good time for us. This is after the ceasefire; But we think that the ceasefire can help them, but not really. So they have to flee and they have to hide, so it is very difficult for them to hide in the jungle, ”he said.
The Karens long ago learned the brutal nature of the military, independent analyst David Mathieson told The Associated Press.
“What’s interesting about the Karen state is that a lot of people see the fighting and now the coup and the civil disobedience movement as intricate links,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Look, we’ve been telling you for years that the enemy is the army.'”
“For all those people who wanted to accommodate the military, when they live in these areas of ongoing armed conflict, they know exactly who they are dealing with and they know that they cannot be trusted,” he explained.
The lesson he draws from the army’s actions in the cities and in the interior: “This is the army that tries to subjugate the whole country once again.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism