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Karen Armed Rebellion in Burma Takes a New Turn: Ex-American Marines as Military Advisors/Trainers: US Watching

Daya Gamage – US Bureau Asian Tribune Investigative Report – Part One

Washington, D.C. June 25 (Asiantribune.com): Along the Thailand’s western border with Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a small but active Thai frontier town Mae Sot considered the rendezvous of foreigners, with military skills, to offer their expertise to the five-decade old rebellion of the Karen ethnic group to destabilize the most undemocratic and oppressive regime in Burma.

The Karen people’s liberation struggle was intensified with the advent of General Ne Win’s military regime in 1962. And, took a new turn since the current military junta (SPDC- State Peace and Development Council) denied the nation’s democratically elected leader Aug San Suu Kyi her legitimate right to govern in the aftermath of her party’s landslide victory at the 1988 parliamentary election and put her in prolonged house arrest.

And currently, the Karen armed rebellion is taking a different shape and turn with former U.S. Marines who have expertise in combat training, counter-terrorism operations, intelligence and weapons procurement entering the scene. And this time, giving combat expertise to the Karen rebels, as learned by Asian Tribune, looks serious.Karen rebelsKaren rebels

The most significant twist is that a section of the United States Government, notably the State Department, is aware of the combat involvement of the ex-Marines but has chosen to be a distant observer but very much abreast of developments.

President Bill Clinton’s secretary of State Madeleine Albright, last week appointed a top foreign policy and national security advisor to Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama in an OP-ED piece written on June 11 The New York Times advocates intervention in Burma for a ‘regime change’.

The Asian Tribune had the rarest opportunity of an ‘up close and personal’ enlightenment of ‘Karen Country’ and the ‘battle front’ in the Karen rebellion districts.

The journey starts in that Thai frontier town of Mae Sot.

Former U.S. Marine Jack Slade was a weapons trainer, counter-terrorism expert, counter-drug personnel, military intelligence expert, and above all a seasoned Marine whose eight an a half carrier sent him to Cuba, Columbia and Ecuador in the South American region, and Tanzania and Kenya in the African Continent. He has been a weapons trainer in military camps on U.S. soil.

For security and other obvious reasons Asian Tribune decided not to disclose his real identity.KarensKarens

In mid March this year Jack Slade was sitting here in MAE SOT expecting a call from a top military leader of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Colonel Saw Ner Dah. Another ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran 62-year old Thomas Bleming (he gave the writer the clearance to use his real name), who is now in contact with Asian Tribune US Bureau, wanted Colonel Ner Dah to contact Slade to enter the Karen territory in Burma. Incidentally, Bleming is currently exploring the feasibility of the ‘militarization’ of the KNLA, a militarization that the KNLA has never experienced.

Karen, a major ethnic group in Burma whose desire for an autonomous homeland has triggered relentless and most brutal attacks by the SPDC military junta. The Asian Tribune learned during its familiarization exercise, or call it a familiarization tour, that despite the KNLA insists their fighting cadres are holding their ground it has just 4000 fighters and weapons from the Vietnam War era and earlier and its rebels are outgunned and outmanned. The Burmese military has an estimated 500,000 in its cadre. This is where the ex-Marines of the U.S. are going to be handy with new strategy, modern weapons and a gaming plan that can outfox the military junta.

Awaiting the call from Ner Dah in MAE SOT the veteran former US Marine had already gone through the American Embassy in Bangkok. So, Jack Slade’s credentials were no secret to the officials of the embassy.

This writer who is aware of the manner in which US foreign diplomatic missions operate because of his long employment with the US State Department knows full well that the Bangkok US Mission routinely notifies in classified cables of such developments to the United States Department of State in Washington.

This confirms that both US offices in Bangkok and Washington, DC knew the intention of Jack Slade and his associates. And, Asian Tribune is aware that the State Department is knowledgeable of Bleming’s current role. Bleming is a well known talking point among American Foreign Service Officers who are either knowledgeable of the developments in Burma or are officially involved in Burmese Affairs Asian Tribunealso learned that KNLA military leader Colonel Ner Dah, despite his status being below to that of the supreme commander, had met State Department officials in Washington more than once, according to Thomas Bleming.

Despite Bleming’s on the phone instructions to meet, and introduction of Jack Slade to Colonel Saw Ner Dah, the latter, a six-year undergraduate student at the prestigious University of California, Berkley in the nineties, previously had had Slade’s credentials whetted from the officials of the American Embassy in Bangkok. Colonel Ner Dah, now a veteran fighter, did not want to take chances. Ner Dah and Slade are now in electronic contact figuring out where and how to meet.

The journey from Mae Sot was in a truck to another border town within Thailand, Umphang, accompanied by Ner Dah’s acolytes. It was about 200 miles that took little over four hours. The journey in the truck ended in Umphang awaiting the arrival of Colonel Ner Dah to enter into the Burmese territory and on to the Karen province. But there was some disruption of communication with the Colonel and Jack Slade’s party when the latter’s party had to travel further in to the jungle area but about half a mile close to the Burmese border.

After about four hours of confusion in the most rugged terrains in the Thai-Burma border finally the two parties met. Ner Dah, who is seeking to modernize his fighting cadre to oust the Burmese military junta, met a veteran ex-Marine who has all the credentials to make the Karen rebellion an invincible force in its march toward democracy, rule of law and civil liberties, and above all an autonomous homeland. The rendezvous of Jack Slade and Colonel Ner Dah was possible because of the efforts by Thomas Bleming on phone with both parties. Bleming was operating from his U.S. residence in Wyoming.

The party, led by Colonel Ner Dah, entered the Burmese territory. At a distance not very far report of gun fire by the military of the SPDC could be heard and the rebels knew how to avoid them.

The Asian Tribune exclusively documents here the current twists and turns of the Karen rebellion for independence, self-determination and democracy with active involvement of former American Marines who are well knowledgeable of how to conduct a rebellion. If the impression is that the U.S. officials both in Bangkok and Washington, D.C. are having a passive attitude of this significant development it is a gross understatement.

The Background: The Karens

The Karen, an ethnic group of Sino-Tibetan origin, is the second largest of the 135 ethnic groups that represent more than one-third of the population in Burma.

Members of these groups mainly live in the seven states around the central Burma plain, each named after the ethnic group that predominates its population. However members of these ethnic groups are also resident in the other seven divisions, populated mainly by people of the majority Burman ethnicity, that make up Burma (Also known as Myanmar).

According to official statistics, nearly 3,500,000 Karen live in Myanmar, with more than 830,000 residing in Kayin State. Among the Karen are practicing Buddhists, Christians and animists.

Karen Armed Opposition

Since Burma’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, armed opposition groups from different ethnic minorities have fought against the central government for independence or greater autonomy. The Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), were formed in 1949 with the aim of independence or greater autonomy for the Karen.

While the majority of other ethnic armed groups have reached cease-fire arrangements with the Burmese military junta known as the SPDC, which has granted them certain administrative powers over their territories, the KNU has continued to fight for a political settlement. Having lost several of its key bases, the majority of the KNLA’s activities against the military in recent years have been small-scale attacks.

In January 2004 a provisional cease-fire was agreed between the KNU and the SPDC. However, low-level skirmishes continued and civilians were displaced by military operations against the KNU, particularly in northern Hpa’an District, Kayin State and Nyaunglebin District, Bago Division. KNU leaders reported that, following a visit to Rangoon (Yangon) in October 2006, nearly a year after the state police offensive against the Karen commenced, the ceasefire was formally cancelled. The SPDC stated that they were not prepared to discuss a political settlement. In December 2006, the KNU’s leader, General Saw Bo Mya, died.

The KNU was dominated in the last three decades by Bo Mya, who was president from 1976-2000. The KNU was for many years able to fund its activities by controlling black market trade across the border with Thailand. After a failed uprising of the Burmese people in 1988, the Burmese military government turned to China for help. Various economic concessions were offered to China in exchange for weapons. The Burmese Army was massively expanded and began to offer deals to groups fighting the government. The groups were offered the choice of cooperating with the military junta or being destroyed.

The KNU’s effectiveness was severely diminished after the fall of its headquarters at Manerplaw near the Thai border, in 1994. At that time, a group of Buddhist soldiers in the KNLA went over to the side of the Burmese military junta. This group, known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), was given territory inside of Burma to rule over in exchange. They played a significant part in the capture of Manerplaw. While the DKBA claims to be fighting against anti-Buddhist discrimination inside the KNU, it is in practice the small private army of a warlord in alliance with the Burmese military junta.

Since then, the KNU and KNLA have continued to fight the Burma state military (known as Tatmadaw) by forming guerilla units and basing themselves in temporary jungle camps on the Thai-Burma border. Following its principle of no surrender, the KNU continues despite a precarious state of existence. Nonetheless, their fight continues to garner the sympathy of the international community since the KNU represent the Karen people, one of the many ethnic nationalities of Burma that are experiencing ethnic cleansing under the military junta.

In January 2007, the commander of the KNLA 7th Brigade, Brigadier-General Htain Maung, announced the formation of a separate group, the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council (KNU/KNLAPC). This followed his reported negotiations with the SPDC, that did not have the sanction of the KNU leadership – which subsequently dismissed him. In February 2007 the SPDC announced that it had arranged a peace agreement with this group, which numbered some 300 fighters. In April 2007 the KNU/KNLAPC took part in joint operations with the DKBA and the state military/police, and attacked KNLA forces close to the Burma- Thailand border.

When the Asian Tribune was talking to many who are connected with the Karen rebellion one could see a clear ideological and tactical division between the KNU and KNLA.

In January 2008, Brigadier-General Htain Maung’s son-in-law, Colonel Ler Moo, was killed in a bomb attack near the KNU/KNLAPC’s headquarters. In February 2008, Mahn Sha, General Secretary of the KNU, was shot to death at his home in Mae Sot, Thailand possibly by the agents of DKBA

Ethnic Cleansing

For over two years the Burmese army has been waging a military offensive against ethnic Karen civilians in the eastern parts of the country. The ongoing offensive includes widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, according to a Amnesty International report released 5 June 2008. The report describes these violations as crimes against humanity.

The report, Crimes against humanity in eastern Myanmar, says that nearly 150,000 people have been internally displaced in Kayin State and the eastern Bago Division. Many have also been subjected to unlawful killings; enforced disappearances; the imposition of forced labor, as well as the destruction of villages, crops and food-stocks and other forms of collective punishment.

Such violations have been directed at civilians, simply on account of their Karen ethnicity or location in Karen majority areas, or in retribution for activities by the Karen National Liberation Army.

Amnesty International has said that it is concerned that the violations are the result of official State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, the Burmese government) and tatmadaw policy. The organization has called for an immediate halt to all violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by government forces and aligned militias and for UN Security Council to impose a comprehensive mandatory arms embargo on Burma.

Burmese (or Myanmar) government has unleashed a seven point ethnic policy:

1. Destroying Villages: Many villages have been totally destroyed in an attempt to ensure that the ethnic Karenni residents do not return.

2. Looting and Burning: Thousands of houses, rice barns were burned to the ground and all the valuable things were looted including were looted from the Karenni villages

3. Detentions: There are consistent refugee reports that the Burmese army are separating military-aged men from their families in a systematic pattern for porters and later killed.

4. Summary Execution: Refugees have provided accounts of summary executions in towns and villages In addition to random executions; in Arakan area some were burned alive

5. Systematic Rape: Ethnic nationalities women are reportedly being raped in increasing numbers. Authenticated accounts of systematic and organized mass rapes in Shan, Karenni areas have already reported worldwide.

6. Poisoning the Water: All the streams and wells in the Karenni areas were poisoned so that not only men but also animals that drink the water may die.

7. Violations of Medical Neutrality: The apparent goal is to effectively deny health care to ethnic nationalities and extinguish the community base health care systems.

The Asian Tribune in its investigation learned that nine battalions of Burmese soldiers had been deliberately sent to the Karenni area to implement the ethnic cleansing, while at the same time blaring out the ‘7-point road map’ to democracy.

(The Second Part of this Investigative Report will be carried tomorrow)

– Asian Tribune –

Karen Armed Rebellion in Burma Takes a New Turn: Ex-American Marines as Military Advisors/Trainers: US Watching

Daya Gamage – US Bureau Asian Tribune Investigative Report – Part Two

Washington, D.C. June 26 (Asiantribune.com): In this second installment the Asian Tribune exclusively documents here the current twists and turns of the Karen rebellion for independence, self-determination and democracy with active involvement of former American Marines who are well knowledgeable of how to conduct a rebellion. If the impression is that the U.S. officials both in Bangkok and Washington, D.C. are having a passive attitude of this significant development it is a gross understatement.

In the first installment, besides the historical struggle of the Karen rebellion, it was documented the initial rapport established between the ex-US Marines and the Karen rebel leaders. This installment gives further evidence of that emerging rapport and the conducive environment toward making the Karen rebels a formidable force to face the mighty Burmese military junta. Political changes in the United States may contribute toward the emergence of this conducive environment to allow to surface the American interests in a different form.

The Ex-US Marine-KNLA Rapport

Now, back to the developing rapport between ex-US Marines and Karen National Liberation Army.

Colonel Ner Dah, in early forties, is fluent in English obviously helped while been a six year undergraduate student in the early nineties at one of America’s prestigious universities, University of California Berkley. The Asian Tribune learned that Ner Dah has been in contact with the American Embassy in Bangkok and with several US State Department officials.

State Department officials who are engaged in the Burma Desk in Washington, and Foreign Service Officers in the American Embassy in Thailand, obviously get to know the developments within Burma through activists like Colonel Ner Dah that go on to formulate the US policy toward this South East Asian nation and the USG attitude toward the military junta.

While at dinner with him Ner Dah gives a vivid description of the brutality of the Burmese military junta toward the Karen people and the ethnic cleansing to the veteran ex-Marine Jack Slade recorded earlier in this report.

The Colonel said that while the KNU is for autonomy for the Keren ethnic entity, KNLA is for separation from Burma. But what the Asian Tribune understood after conversation with the ex-Marines is that the KNLA objective was to end the military rule in Burma and restore democratic rights to the masses of the people including the restoration of human rights to the Karen people and other ethnic entities.

However, about a third of Burma’s 47 million populations are ethnic minorities, who have a troubled historic relationship with the dominant group, the Burmans. Aug San Suu Kyi is an ethnic Burman (so are the generals of the junta) and her supporters are largely focused on the Burman homeland. Meanwhile, the Chins, Kachins, Karennis, Karens, Shans and other hill tribes have been fighting against the government. The real issue in Burma, should the regime fall, would be less about forging democracy than a compromise between the Burmans and other ethnic groups.

The ex-US Marines who have come in close contact with the KNLA are aware of this scenario.

Colonel Nar Dah becomes the tour guide to Jack Slade the following day visiting Karen villages.

Couple of weeks before the KNLA fighting cadres was in a thick battle with Burmese military in an area controlled by the Karens, and to the amazement of the KNLA the guerrilla strategy they used worked for the junta’s military to retreat abandoning a large catch of sophisticated military hardware. Asian Tribune was told that the KNLA was not surprised to note that all the military hardware the junta soldiers left behind had the Chinese trade mark.

This is how they acquire military hardware. KNLA gets a supply of arms from sources in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. But the rebels are outnumbered and outgunned.

The ex-Marine Jack Slade spent eight days with Colonel Ner Dah and his fighting cadre. The May 3 cyclone has affected 70 villages in the Irravadi Delta. The cyclone hit majority of areas e populated by those the military junta consider as enemies.

Here’s the story going around in MAE SOT in Thailand and in Burma, an amazing story that the Asian Tribune learned:

This is a typical Asian story. The Generals of Burma’s ruling SPDC about two years ago had consulted a prominent and widely respected-recognized astrologer to get a reading of the nation’s horoscope and their own. Asians do strongly believe in the placement of planets and stars, the movement of the stars and their effect on them. The astrologer has convinced the Generals that a severe calamity will visit the Irrawadi Delta region and its surroundings that included the Burmese Capital City Rangoon (Yangon). The military junta immediately took steps to move the Capital to a mountainous region far away from the region the astrologer predicted will be devastated.

Naypyidaw (pronounced nay-pee-DAW) is Burma’s new capital, built in secret by the ruling military junta and was officially unveiled in November 2005. The name denotes ‘royal capital’ in Burmese. From Rangoon (or Yangon) it is a nine hour drive.

The New York Times in a special feature about the capital carried in its June 24 edition says: “Even the most charitable observers of Myanmar’s junta portray its members as out of touch. Now they are literally out of sight: the generals live and work in a guarded zone of Naypyidaw that is off limits to all but senior officers.”

To the amazement of everyone a deadly cyclone hit the very area the astrologer predicted on May 3 this year. The interpretation of some in Burma, and also in Thailand, is that the credibility of the Generals of the military junta went up bringing support from unexpected quarters of the Burmese population.

The New York Times further states: “When the Cyclone Nargis swept through the Irrawaddy Delta last month with winds up to 155 miles per hour, it killed about 130,000 people and damaged many buildings in Yangon. But the generals and civil servants ensconced in Naypyidaw felt only a zephyr, residents say.”

The KNLA is fully aware of the psychological factor of this outcome in their struggle against the most ruthless military junta in the history of Burma.

And the American voluntary support to help the rebellion of the KNLA arrived in this atmosphere at a time the generals of the military junta who are out of touch with their own people and live and work in guarded zone in the new capital.

It has been established that the air power of the junta was greatly diminished due to the effect of the cyclone. There are absolutely no air attacks on the Karen territory or its combat positions by the junta.

The ex-marines have realized the importance of KNLA fighting cadre equipped with modern sophisticated weapons. Jack Slade was talking about providing them with night-vision goggles that will help them to successfully demobilize the junta’s military. The Burmese military lacks this vital weapon, it was learned.

Asian Tribune did not get the idea of what type of night-vision goggles Jack Slade and Tom Bleming were talking.

The battery-operated AN/PVS-7D night-vision goggles use an infrared light source to amplify existing light.

The goggles can switch from amplifying light to sensing heat for use in smoky conditions.

The range: a human-size target is visible 328 yards away in the moonlight, almost three football fields.

So, this is the Herculean task the American ex-marines and their companions already within Burma who belong to several European nationalities face in equipping the KNLA fighting cadre with sophisticated weaponry to fight the military junta. And, they are aware of China, India, and to some extent Thailand are behind the military junta for numerous reasons.

China – along with India, Thailand and, to a lesser extent, Singapore – has been put in a very uncomfortable diplomatic situation. China and India are invested in port enlargement and energy deals with Burma. Thailand’s democratic government has moved closer to the junta for the sake of logging and other business ventures. Singapore is suspected of acting as a banker for the Burmese generals. The United States, half the world away, is a passive onlooker.

But, according to the knowledge of the Asian Tribune the United States is fully aware of what’s going on in Burma, the militarization effort by ex-US Marines and an impending development of the fight between the KNLA and Burmese military that can take new turn in this six-decade struggle for democracy, rule of law, human rights and autonomy for ethnic minorities to which the successive American administrations gave a lip service support issuing statements from the White House and Congress.

Nevertheless, no United States administration can afford to get directly involved in bringing justice to the Burmese people if Iran-Contra episode is remembered.

Iran-contra affair

The tangled U.S. foreign-policy scandal known as the Iran-contra affair came to light in November 1986 when President Ronald Reagan confirmed reports that the United States had secretly sold arms to Iran. He stated that the goal was to improve relations with Iran, not to obtain release of U.S. hostages held in the Middle East by terrorists (although he later acknowledged that the arrangement had in fact turned into an arms-for-hostages swap). Outcry against dealings with a hostile Iran was widespread. On Nov. 25, 1986, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese disclosed that some of the arms profits had been diverted to aid the Nicaraguan “contra” rebels who were fighting to oust the legitimate Sandinista regime—at a time when Congress had prohibited such aid. An independent special prosecutor, former federal judge Lawrence E. Walsh, was appointed to probe the activities of persons involved in the arms sale or contra aid or both, including marine Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council (NSC) staff.

Reagan appointed a review board headed by former Republican senator John Tower. The Tower Commission’s report in February 1987 criticized the president’s passive management style. In a nationally televised address on March 4, Reagan accepted that judgment without serious disagreement.

Select Congressional committees conducted joint televised hearings from May to August 1987. They heard evidence that a few members of the National Security Council (NSC) staff set Iran and Nicaragua policies and carried them out with secret private operatives, that the few officials who knew about these policies lied to Congress and others, and that the Contra rebels received only a small part of the diverted money. Former national security advisor John Poindexter (currently the Deputy Secretary of the US State Department) stated that he personally authorized the diversion of money and withheld that information from the president. William J. Casey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who died in May 1987, was implicated in some testimony, but the extent of his involvement remained unclear. The congressional committees released a report on Nov. 18, 1987, saying that President Reagan bore “ultimate responsibility” for the events of the Iran-contra affair.

Barrack Obama Advisor Advocates Intervention in Burma

Nevertheless, the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright under President Clinton in an OP-ED piece in The New York Times June 11, 2008 opined “the concept of national sovereignty as an inviolable and overriding principle of global law is once again gaining ground. In such a world, the international community would recognize a responsibility to override sovereignty in emergency situation – to prevent ethnic cleansing or genocide, arrest war criminals, restores democracy or provide disaster relief when national governments were either unable or unwilling to do so.”

One needs to give special attention to Secretary Albright’s pronouncement as she was appointed as one of members of the national security team to Democratic presidential candidate Barrack Obama on June 18. Should Senator Obama enter the White House on January 20 next year undoubtedly Ms. Albright will be one of the top foreign policy advisors to the new president of the United States.

Advocating her hard-line policy toward Burmese military junta the following policy statement of Secretary Albright may bring some solace to those ex-US Marines who are in an endeavor to militarize the KNLA cadres, and one could visualize how both the Pentagon and the State Department under an Obama administration would act to restore human rights, rule of law and democracy in Burma:

“At the heart of the debate is the question of what the international system is. Is it just a collection of legal nuts and bolts cobbled together by governments to protect governments? Or is it a living framework of rules intended to make the world more humane place?

We know how the government of Myanmar would answer that question, but what we need to listen to the voice – and cry – of the Burmese people.”

Conclusion

Colonel Ner Dah is willing to accept expert military assistance to fully equip and modernize all regiments of the KNLA. There had been several attempts in the past toward achieving this goal but had not materialize. With Thomas Bleming and Jack Slade’s serious involvement in the ‘fight of the Karen rebels’ against the Burmese military junta a pattern seems to be emerging for the veteran ex-US marines and their associates to make the KNLA fighting cadre a formidable force to face the junta.

Asian Tribune understands that serious attempts are being made to get military hardware to the Karen territory. And, the veteran American Marines expect to make it happen this time.

As for the U.S. State Department: Asian Tribune is confident that the Department officers based in Bangkok and in Washington are fully aware of what’s going on and that they are closely watching the developments.

The New York Times wrote in its June 24 edition: “People in Myanmar regularly ask foreign visitors whether the United States has plans to topple the leadership. When British, French and American warships sailed to waters off the Myanmar coast in May to offer assistance to the victims of the cyclone, at least one Western embassy in Yangon received phone calls from exited residents.

The callers said, “You’re coming to save us, aren’t you?” a diplomat remembered.”

Should Senator Obama enter the White House next January taking Secretary Albright with him to occupy a foreign policy or national security position the Burmese military junta may face a somewhat different situation in the battle front with the KNLA. It is expected here in the U.S. that a Obama administration’s guiding principles will be based on liberal far left policies that will take a fresh look at rebellions in the Third World nations that have no connections whatsoever with the US War on Global Terrorism.

– Asian Tribune –

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