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"They Make a Desert and Call It Pea
- Subject: "They Make a Desert and Call It Pea
- From: brelief@xxxxxxx
- Date: Thu, 21 Aug 1997 09:29:00
Subject: "They Make a Desert and Call It Peace" SLORC's War Against Shan State
AMPO: Japan Asia Quarterly Review Vol. 27 No. 4
"They Make a Desert and Call It Peace"
SLORC's War Against Shan State
By Donald M. Seekins
One warm evening last year I went with a friend to a Buddhist temple in
Chiang Mai where refugees were staying. They had fled from Shan State in
eastern Burma and had spent several months living hand-to-mouth in northern
Thailand. Abut forty to fifty people, men, women and children of all ages,
were sitting together in an ill-lit storage building in the temple compound.
Most came from the same village.
We sat across from a semi-circle of older men. There was a problem, one of
them explained. The group had decided to come to Chiang Mai, a major resort
and tourist area, because they were told they could purchase Thai work
permits there for only 200 baht each. The economy was booming and there
were plenty of jobs at construction sites. But employers demanded 4,5000
baht for a permit (one baht, the Thai currency, was worth about four U.S.
cents at the time). Without permits and without work, they were wondering
whether they shouldn't return to Fang, a town on the border where they had
stayed after leaving Burma. There wasn't much work in Fang, but they could
probably scrape by. They wanted my friend's advice.
They came from a place called Nam Zarng, deep in Shan State some two hundred
kilometers northwest of Fang. Most of them were rice and sugar cane
farmers. In February of 1996, Burmese soldiers burned down their houses
because they were suspected of harboring insurgents. The villagers stayed
in the area until April. Then the soldiers moved them at gunpoint to a
resettlement site located adjacent to an army base, something like a Vietnam
War-era Strategic Hamlet.
There was very little food. The soldiers sold them rice, but the people
thought it might be poisoned, since several of them died after eating it.
There was also an outbreak of cholera. My friend told me that the poisoned
rice story couldn't be proven but that he had heard it several times before
from other Shan refugees. In desperation, the group fled to Thailand.
Shan State ? bordered by Thailand, Laos, and China's Yunnan Province ? is
mountainous country, a rich tapestry of ethnic groups including not only the
Shan, who are related culturally and linguistically to the Thais, but the
Wa, Palaung, Akha, Pa-O, Kachin, Lahu and some Chinese. It is well-known to
the outside world as the world's largest supply area for opium, converted
into heroin in makeshift labs and shipped to markets from Hong Kong to
Harlem, Khun Sa, the notorious Shan-Chinese drug warlord who has a price on
his head in the United States, surrendered tot he Burmese military regime,
the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), in early 1996 and now
lives in comfortable retirement in Rangoon. The collapse of Khun Sa's
20,000 man private army enabled the regime to hammer down Shan State with an
Life has never been easy for the people of Nam Zarng. For years, their land
was fought over by Shan insurgents and central government troops. The
insurgents generally behaved themselves and refrained from stealing food.
But the SLORC soldiers, mostly members of the Burman ethnic majority who
live in the central part of the country, just took what they wanted and
extracted huge cash payments from the local people.
For most, the greatest hardship was forced labor and porterage. The troops
rounded up local men and women, tying them up to packs of 30 to 40 kilograms
each, so they couldn't escape, and marched them off to battle zones, often
for months at a time. According tot he refugees, each SLORC soldier was
served by an average of three porters. The porters were not fed or given
any kind of payment. To survive, they had to bring their own food or beg
for it from villages as they passed through. Sometimes, the refugees told
us, sympathetic villagers gave them meat and other good food but the
soldiers took it for themselves.
Why, I asked, were women forced to be porters, since women are usually not
as strong as men? One of the refugees explained that it was common practice
for the SLORC soldiers, when fighting insurgents, to get the women to be
human shields, walking in front of them so the insurgents would be reluctant
to shoot. Perhaps for reasons of shame, the refugees did not ? as human
rights observers have reported ? mention that women porters are often
sexually abused by the soldiers.
Hardship in Thailand
Life on the Thai side of the border was safer than in Shan State, but the
refugees could barely survive on day wages. The best work was during the
lychee season. For picking, sorting, and peeling lychee fruit, a person
could earn about 80 baht (about US$3.20) a day. But there was not enough
work to go around, and the lychee season was short, occurring in June.
After that, a little money could be made picking onions or working in rice
fields. Unlike the case of other ethnic minority refugees from Burma, such
as the Karen and the Karenni, the Thai government has not allowed the
construction of refugee camps for the Shan State people. Many come into
Thailand as individuals or small groups, hoping to get work as manual
The hardships which the Rangoon military regime has imposed on people in
ethnic minority areas are part of the long-established "Four Cuts"strategy:
to deprive insurgents of food, money, intelligence, and recruits. An
estimated 100,000 villagers in Shan State were forcibly relocated in 196.
Hundreds of people cross over from Shan State to Thailand every day. The
first century A.D. Roman historian Tacitus said it best: "they make a desert
and call it peace.
After some consultation, the elders of the group decided it would be better
to return to the border. My friend and I helped scrape together funds for
rice and transportation.
In late January of this year, SLORC began a brutal campaign to crush the
Karen ethnic minority group living to the south of Shan State, attacking
Karen refugee camps on Thai soil and forcing tens of thousands of people to
flee into the jungle. Karen guerrillas, supporters of the Karen National
Union, have fought the Burmese central government for more than half a
century. SLORC is determined to end Karen resistance once and for all. But
the experience of Shan State, where local insurgents and warlords have
signed cease-fire agreements with the regime, shows that if the guerrillas
surrender, their people's suffering will only become worse.
When we think of Burma, we usually think of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of
the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. While she and her comrades int he opposition
party, the National League for Democracy, deserve international support and
encouragement, it is easy to forget that most of the suffering in Burma is
silent, invisible. Getting the military regime to concede political space
to Aung San Suu Kyi is only one small step in the long struggle for
democracy in her country.
Readers interested in learning more about the situation in Shan State can
contact the Shan Human Rights Foundation, P.O. Box 201, Phrasing Post
Office, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand.