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“I’m from a hiding place”

Reportage from ‘Brigade 5’ in Karen state of Burma (1)

Ei Tu Hta, Ueclo, WeiGyi (Burma), by Yu-Kyung Lee, 07 November 2009

“There’s no village. I’m from a hiding place. No food for 2 years….”

Saw Telly (75), who cannot hear well, answered in a harsh voice. He was mulling over when was the last time that he had lived in a ‘village’ but failed to remember, saying that he has continued to look for ‘hiding places’ since 1975.

“We were 10 family members including six of my grand children, who were crying all the time while fleeing. It took a week to reach here”

He was describing about his last ‘jungle trekking’ to search out another ‘hiding place’, which was ended up in Ei Tu Hta IDPs camp. The camp is located in ‘Brigade 5’ - which is defined as such by Karen insurgency group KNU - along the Salween River on the border with northern Thailand. The camp is allegedly surrounded by a couple of Burmese Army camps, which are two hours away on foot.  

“Even if another fighting would erupt here, I can’t move anymore. I’m too old” the 75 years old Karen man said.

No more flee

It was Mae Sam Leap, the quiet small town along the Salween River in northern Thailand, where boat would depart to reach Ei Tu Hta camp. Three Thai Army check points on Thai side and one ‘invisible’ Burma Army post on Burma side are positioned on this route. The area of Ei Tu Hta used to be a battalion post of KNLA - the armed wing of KNU -, but now accommodating some 4,000 IDPs who’ve fled their previous places 3 years ago. The people all were displaced due to the all-out military offensive in Eastern Burma, which was started from November 2005 through 2006 till 2007.  

Ei Tu Hta IDPs camp is located in KNLA’s Brigade 5, which is said to be a next target of Burma Army after the June offensive by DKBA combined SPDC forces in Brigade 7 area. Some 5000 IDPs in the camp are the ones, who fled the 2006 general operation in the Karen state by the Burma Army.
photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

“It was very different from the previous operations. We couldn’t find a shelter, as it was taking place all over my district” said Saw Mar Su (53), who fled Kolu village in Tangoo district to arrive in Ei Tu Hta after 12 days jungle trekking. His village has been burned down four times by the Burmese Army who forcibly displaced people to “Turmidoe” village which is 6 hours away on foot. It is generally understood that the Burmese military routinely burn down villages as a means to relocate people, often aiming at alienating villagers from insurgency and using them as porters. But it was not a typical scene that the Army didn’t retreat village after burning it, as this was happening in the said operation.
“So we couldn’t rebuild our house, no farming…. That’s why we fled to this edge” Saw Mar Su continued.  

The offensive in Eastern Burma was launched in November 2005 in coincidence with the launch of new capital Neypidaw, which is strategically located in a junction of the civil war-ravaged ethnic states. The Burmese Junta seemed to have attempted to root out any influence of insurgency around the area of new capital.   

Meanwhile, taking further boat trip from Ei Tu Hta to the north for about 30 minutes, another camp site was being emerged in Ueclo, where some 480 IDPs have been sheltering since July 2007. The camp is called ‘Section 6 of Ei Tu Hta’ and IDPs here are late arrivals after having endured the army assault utmost. As like other refugee camps, Ueclo used to be nothing but a deep forest, where people establish their temporary shelter, where they try to farm as much as they can. However Ueclo is not the place for farming because much of rocks surround the area. People complaint they cannot cultivate vegetables either.

“First we arrived here in 2006 to spend a week under the open sky without proper lying place. And then we moved to Ei Tu Hta”

Nancy (60), the English teacher for the ‘Post Ten School’ in Ei Tu Hta camp, recalled those days. She has fled to Ei Tu Hta with his ailing husband, whom she had to pick up on her back A-frame for 12 days in a jungle.

“I feel rather safe in Ei Tu Hta first in decades, during which I’ve had to move numerous times” she added.    

Yet ‘safe’ is not a sustainable word in this ‘Jungle world’. After the Burma Army and the pro-Junta Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (or DKBA) have jointly assaulted upon ‘Brigade 7’ – southern Karen state - in June, a sequent operation has been predicted in ‘Brigade 5’ in September, October or anytime soon after rainy season. The offensive in Brigade 7 was unprecedentedly conducted in rainy season but became a ‘success’ for the Junta and DKBA, as the area was fallen to them after 3 weeks-long fierce battle with KNLA. As a result, some 4,000 IDPs in Ler Per Her camp in Brigade 7 have been displaced to the Tha Song Yang refugee camp on Thai side. Remnants of KNLA since then have been ambushing the DKBA, which has been now controlling the area. With no one’s doubt, it was the greatest loss for KNU since the fall of Manerflaw in 1995, where it used to be headquartered.

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