Despite Harsh Rule, Burma's East Proves Hard to Tame

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 17, 2007

KLERDEY, Burma -- For a repressive police state, Burma has borders that are curiously porous.

Here along the eastern border with Thailand, legions of displaced farmers, smugglers and army deserters slip back and forth with little trouble and no paperwork.

Quite unlike the control exerted by North Korea, the zippered-up and ethnically homogeneous police state far to the northeast, dictatorship Burmese-style is a dog's breakfast of ethnic insurrection, cross-border criminality and massive refugee flight.

To halt peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in Burmese cities in September, the generals who run this country had only to order soldiers to club, shoot and detain Buddhist monks. Taming the mountainous eastern frontier has not been so brutally simple.

The army periodically launches scorched-earth offensives, razing villages, enslaving farmers and raping women, according to human rights groups. Alternatively, it cuts lucrative deals with ethnic leaders, encouraging them to grow opium, manufacture methamphetamine and clear-cut teak forests.

Still, armed resistance boils on -- and the border continues to leak.

Consider Gen. Johnny, commander of the 7th brigade of the Karen National Liberation Army, military wing of the largest of the 20 ethnic groups that for more than half a century have intermittently fought insurgency wars against the government.

From a hut perched on bamboo stilts, he says, he commands about 1,000 guerrillas here in this tiny village on the west bank of the Moei River, a lazy waterway that separates Burma from Thailand.

In the past year, he said, the Burmese army has not mustered the resolve to force him to move.

"The order from headquarters is to attack us, but the battalion commander who is responsible in this area does not follow the order," said the general, who gives his name only as Johnny. "He doesn't want to fight."

The Burmese army is among the largest in Asia, with about 400,000 soldiers. But parts of it are a shambles, with poor morale, an officer corps that drinks to excess and an acute desertion problem, according to diplomats, human rights groups and the army itself.

Desertion grew by 8 percent last year, according to a report by the London publication Jane's Defense Weekly, which said in April it had obtained an internal army document that summarized a quarterly meeting of regional army commanders. During a four-month period in 2006, the army lost 9,497 people, mostly from desertion, Jane's said.

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