Since 2008, I have been documenting tribal groups from Burma who have been pushed off their ancestral lands by the Naypidaw junta. Some have moved into rebel-controlled zones. Others, such as the Karen, have left the country, only to languish for decades ‘warehoused’ in overcrowded refugee camps in Thailand. At the frontlines with two of Burma’s largest rebel armies, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Shan State Army South (SSA), I photographed the soldiers and the hundreds of displaced who live alongside them.
The SSA is headquartered at Loi Taileng, a ‘liberated’ area in the far northeast, on the border with Thailand. Here, their world is a barren hilltop no more than 500 metres wide by 3.5 km in length – which they cannot leave. Landmines lie scattered in the valleys below. On one side is the Thai border patrol; on the other, the enemy – Burmese government troops, based on the adjacent mountain. The Shan are not recognised as refugees by the Thai government.
Moo Jai is a Karen woman who has spent most of her life living in Thai refugee camps. When she was young, however, she lived in Karen state. ‘When the government troops took over our village I was only six years old,’ she says. ‘If the Burmese military attacked a Karen village, they would kill everyone. It didn’t make a difference whether you were old, young, man or a woman.’ So, Moo Jai and her family fled. ‘We hid in the jungle for a couple of weeks,’ she continues. ‘By the time we reached the Thai refugee camp, our rice was finished.’
The KNLA has been engaged in one of the longest civil wars in written history. But nearly 62 years of fighting has taken a toll on its army. In November 2010, the Karen National Union, the KNLA’s political wing, signed a historic alliance between six armies belonging to different ethnic communities. This was groundbreaking in that all of the six major military groups previously operated autonomously, but now are in agreement to defend each other if attacked by the government military.
However, the SSA and many other key players have yet to get on board, thus significantly weakening the alliance. Even while many have been pushing for Burma’s ethnic minorities to reconcile their differences and create a unified force against the SPDC, in recent months a new dynamic has transpired. Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from detention in mid-November, has renewed her call for a new so-called Panglong Conference, to try to chart a new course of engagement with the country’s ethnic minorities.
For the moment, though, the people of Loi Taileng – and all those outside such ‘liberated’ zones – continue to wait for the day they can awake without the shadow of the Burmese army and militancy
Brennan O' Connor is currently based in northern Thailand, where he is working on a book on ethnic minorities from Burma.