village of Burma to praise Jesus Christ in song and dance.
In Burma, a country the military junta calls ‘Myanmar’, Thue Mwe Nee is one of several settlements being shelled by government forces in recent months despite promises of a ceasefire, BosNewsLife has established.
Thue Mwe Nee is located in the troubled border area of Burma’s predominantly Christian Karen people, who are on the run in an ongoing jungle war the military rulers are apparently eager to hide from outsiders. A BosNewsLife team was therefore smuggled into Burma to witness them clinging to their lives and faith in Christ amid reports of genocide.
In this region, near Thailand, possibly thousands of Karens were killed, tortured and raped in recent years. Bodies of at least hundreds of children have been seen laying in rivers, Karen and church sources say.
"We everyday live in fear," says 37-year old Manner, who supports the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), a group of mainly ‘born-again’ Christians fighting to defend their villages and dreams of an autonomous Karen state. As with all Karen villagers here, Manner does not have a family name.
Thue Mwe Nee was set up over a year ago, after locals were driven out of their homes in nearby areas by the army of Burma’s governing State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The SPDC consists of a group of generals who have governed the Asian nation by decree without a constitution or legislature since 1988, when armed forces suppressed massive pro-democracy demonstrations.
"They even burned down the hospital," Manner says about a recent attack by SPDC troops on his village. The Freedom One Hospital, a large windowless hut where patients are fighting Malaria and other diseases, was rebuild, but a lack of medicines and equipment means many villagers in the region will die.
"However I have hope," says Dee, a 35-year old farmer suffering from Malaria who was forced from his home by SPDC troops. In a move that worries Christian rights groups the SPDC has managed to divide the majority Christians and minority Buddhists within the Karen community in recent years.
Buddhist Karen people established their own small army, known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) with the active support of the military government.
"The military junta is now using the Buddhists to divide the Karen people as it is increasingly isolated by the international community. It has successfully managed to describe Christianity as a danger for the nation," says Jim Jacobson, president of the advocacy and aid group Christian Freedom International (CFI), which helps Karen Christians.
Christianity as observed by many within the Karen community, he says, is seen as a threat to the state’s ideology and the government’s powerbase, and one of the reasons why attacks have been stepped up since the 1990’s. Of the estimated 5 or 6 million Karens still living in Burma, about 1.5 million are now displaced, CFI estimates. "It means that nearly one in three people are on the run," confirms Jacobson as he visits patients at the local Freedom One Hospital, which his organization supports.
Burma’s government has strongly denied allegations of human rights abuses. However critics point out that despite its claims of no wrongdoing, the military regime prevented 1991 Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy from taking power after it won the 1990 national elections overwhelmingly.
"The Karen people dream of the day that Aung San Suu Kyi will become the leader of Burma. Although she is not a Christian herself, they believe she will respect the rights of all groups and minorities," says Jacobson.
In 1999 the United States designated Burma as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ under its International Religious Freedom Act for "severe violations" of religious freedom, but human rights watchers say the move came too late. CFI and other human rights groups point out that although violence increased in recent years, the Karen people have been on the run since the end of World War Two when their British allies abandoned them.
As one of the largest ethnic minority groups living in the mountain ranges of eastern Burma and northwestern Thailand, the Karen fighters assisted British troops in their struggle against the Japanese occupation of Burma.
For their loyalty, the Karen people are believed to have suffered torture and death at the hands of Japanese forces.
British General William Slim was so impressed by their faithfulness, he was quoted as saying that "the Karen [people] are no fair-weather friends."
Analysts believe the current conflict could have been avoided if the British government had fulfilled its promises to them of an independent state and protection. Outnumbered and outgunned, their estimated 20,000 KNLA fighters and supporters are desperately trying to defend their families, or what is left of them.
They managed to get weapons, including AK 47 rifles, through illegal channels from countries such as neighboring Thailand as well as China with money from trade in wood and other products, but this is not enough to beat government forces, KNLA officials say.
Therefore "for me it is always difficult to train recruits," says 45-year old Second Lieutenant Pape, who supervises KNLA troops in the Thue Mwe Nee area. "You know that many of them will die," Pape tells BosNewsLife as he looks at the anxious teenagers and men in their early 20’s.
Yet 24-year Manner, a smiling man with a rocket launcher on his back, has no fear of death. He wanted to fight since the age of 12 when he came home from a village school only to find the dead bodies of his father and two sisters who had been "butchered" by government backed troops.
"But I will forgive them and the enemies if they ask for forgiveness, because this is what Jesus Christ is teaching us. I don’t want to kill them." And he is not alone. Unlike other guerilla fighters the KNLA claims it takes prisoners and releases them later after taking away their weapons.
Manner suffers often of a lack of food, as government forces do not allow Karen people to have rice fields. Those being planted anyway, are many times difficult to reach because of ongoing tensions. Human rights groups say the measure is part of a the so called Four Cuts Policy identified as cutting supplies of food, funds, recruits and intelligence to the Karen people, which General Ne Win reportedly initiated in the 1970s.
Manner has no money. "But I don’t need money, the only thing I like is an English language Bible," he says. An American family that is part of the BosNewsLife trip soon hands him an old, used, small Bible. "This is the best way to learn English," says Manner, with emotion in his voice.
There is a lack of Bibles in Burma, where Karen Christians make sure their church is among the first buildings to be rebuild after an attack. In an attempt to better protect their churches and jungle villages, KNLA forces have begun laying landmines around their areas.
Some of them explode prematurely, and at least one went off as a BosNewsLife reporter traveled in an active war zone near Thue Mwe Nee. In nearby Ler Per Her, villagers make often 100 land mines a day during battles. They claim the many Karen children do not have to be afraid as fighters have maps where they are. Yet 30-year old Mo Mije lost his right hand in making them. He and other fighters proudly explode a newly produced landmine, made of fertilizers.
He and other Karen soldiers say they do not want to kill, but slowdown the advance of government troops. But the landmines only last about three months, after which KNLA fighters have to go back to the mountains to lay new objects in a country that is already among the most mined nations in the world. In Ler Ber Hux, another village, children look beyond the mountains.
"Peace in Jesus", say and sing Karen kids, as they welcome a CFI team bringing food and medical supplies following an agonizing journey on a small boat in a violent river and muddy, slippery roads. Opposite the border, Thai soldiers can be seen.
"They will be the first to leave if we are attacked again, even when some shells fall inside their territory," villagers say. And with peace not on the horizon any time soon, Karen fighters continue their spiritual and physical battle, on their own.
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