Military Review

The civil war in Burma: "The Army of God" and other peripetias of the struggle for the independence of the Karen people


The proclamation of the state sovereignty of Burma (now Myanmar) entailed the growth of serious contradictions within the Anti-Fascist League of People’s Freedom that came to power. The result of aggravating relations between the socialist and communist wing of the ALNS was a civil war between government forces and armed formations of the Communist Party of Burma, more precisely, its two factions - the Red Flag, operating in the state of Arakan, and the White Flag, which operated in the north and east of the country . But if the civil war initiated by the Communists began to decline after the liberalization of China’s political course, then separatism of national minorities was a much more serious problem for the country.

Myanmar is a multinational state. About half of the population is made up of Burmese (Myanmar) - the Buddhist people, who stood at the origins of the country's statehood. The rest of the population is represented by numerous ethnic groups belonging to the Mongoloid race and speaking Tibeto-Burmese, Thai, Mon-Khmer languages.

During British colonial rule, the British managed to play on the contradictions between the Burmese as the main and state-forming people of the country, and numerous national minorities, which were opposed to the Burmese precisely in order to turn them into a pillar of the colonial regime. Naturally, the proclamation of the sovereignty of Burma was perceived by national minorities as a chance for their own national independence. Moreover, the separatist sentiment was actively fueled by the British, who had promised independence to several Burmese states before the departure of the colonial administration.

One of the centers of resistance of the central government arose in the South-East of Burma, in the territory of the state of Karen. The main population of this territory is Karen - a people, or rather, a conglomeration of ethnic groups and tribes belonging to the Karen branch of the Tibeto-Burmese language family. In modern Myanmar, the Karen population has up to 7 millions of people, and only about half a million Karen live in neighboring Thailand. In the famous film “Rambo - 4”, the events of which unfold in the territory of Burma, the main character assists the Karen people, who are represented by a national minority oppressed by the central authorities.

For a long time, the Southern Karen were subjected to the cultural influence of neighboring monks. Mona - now one of the most peaceful peoples of Burma - lived on the territory of the country long before it was inhabited by the Burmese proper. It was the monks who were Khmer relatives who created the first states in Lower Burma. Naturally, the subsequent expansion of the Burmese from the north and the defeat of the monarchal kingdoms, accompanied by the excision of the most passionate part of the monks, contributed not only to the pacification of the mon lands, but also the flight of a part of the monks to the neighboring Karen lands. Since then, the feudal elite of the Karen was subjected to Mon influence, absorbing, among other things, hatred of central Burmese power.

The British colonial administration, following the principle of "divide and conquer", saw reliable assistants in the southern Karen influenced by the monastic influence. The Karen leaders themselves, who were eager to take historical Burmese revenge. In addition, unlike the Burmese - staunch followers of the Hinayana ("little chariot") Buddhism, the Karen were willingly Christianized, accepting the faith of British missionaries. Today, up to 25% of the Karen, mainly in the Irrawaddy Delta, identify themselves as Christians - Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Catholics. At the same time, Christianity is intricately combined with the preservation of traditional tribal beliefs.

The Karen Christians were positively perceived by the British colonialists and had advantages in entering military and civil service. During the years of the Japanese occupation of Burma, the Karen actively resisted the new authorities, acting under the guidance of the British. The beginning of the armed confrontation of the pro-Japanese Army of Burma’s independence, from which the entire post-war Burmese elite, and the Karen formations subsequently grew, also dates back to this time. In retaliation for the participation of the Karen in the war on the side of the British, the Japanese and the Burmese allies (before 1944) destroyed the Karen villages, killed civilians, which also could not but affect the relations between the two peoples.

Despite the fact that the British colonial administration promised to resolve the issue of Karen statehood after the war, in reality no steps were taken to this end. Moreover, tensions between the leadership of the Burmese socialists and the Karen leaders grew. At the time of the proclamation of independence, many Karen soldiers, former British soldiers, served in the armed forces of Burma. For obvious reasons, the authorities sought to get rid of the Karen component in the army. Thus, General Dan Smith, a Karen by nationality who held the post of chief of staff of the Burmese army, was dismissed and arrested.

To protect their interests, the Karen National Union was created. He was led by General Bo Me (1927-2006), a religious Baptist, began his political career by participating in anti-Japanese resistance on the British side. Despite his young years, he was able to quickly take up leadership positions in the Karen national movement. After the Karen National Union proclaimed independence of the Karen state from Burma in 1949, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) was created under the direct supervision of Bo Mea, which for half a century remained the most serious actor of the Burmese civil war. The purpose of these structures was the creation of an independent state of Cochol (“Recovered Land”) in the territory of the state of Karen and other areas densely populated by Karen ethnic groups.

At first, the Karen rebels managed to attack the Burmese positions so seriously that the world community doubted the very prospect of the existence of Burma as a single unitary state. In particular, in 1949, the Karen besieged the Burmese capital Yangon (Rangoon), not to mention full control over the territory of the state of Karen.

The seriousness of the intentions of the Karen National Union regarding the creation of their own national state was confirmed by the fact that the Karen people fought against drug trafficking and the cultivation of narcotic cultures. For Burma and Indochina in general, it was on the verge of nonsense - the fact is that almost all the armed groups that participated in civil wars in the region of the famous “golden triangle” (the junction of the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos) scooped a significant part of their budgets precisely drug trafficking. Even the communist detachments did not disdain control of the opium poppy plantations.

The Karen National Union not only conducted military operations against the Burmese government with the hands of its armed wing - the national liberation army, but also sought to develop infrastructure in the territories under its control. To the best of opportunities, new schools, medical institutions were created, trade between settlements was streamlined. The efforts of the Burmese army to neutralize the Karen formations were complicated by the fact that the latter retreated to the mountains, which the central government had no control over. As a result, the Burmese recouped the peaceful population of the Karen villages, which supported their rebels and was the last resource and human base. During the years of confrontation, more than a million people left their villages and became refugees in neighboring Thailand.

The Karen’s desire for secession from Burma grew the stronger, the more tough government forces acted against the civilian population of Karen State. The destruction of civilians, repression against adherents of the Christian religion, the use of banned mines - all this was abundantly present in the war of the Burmese government and the Karen National Union.

As is the case in such conflicts, other states, primarily the USA and Great Britain, who patronized the Karen movement as a natural way of weakening central Burmese power, also relied on Karen. Significant assistance to Karen national resistance was also provided by neighboring Thailand. Between Thailand and Burma, there has been a long-standing military-political rivalry dating back centuries, when the Burmese even managed to defeat the Thai kingdom for a while and occupy its capital. Naturally, the Karen in this situation were considered by the Thai leadership as an excellent tool for weakening the centuries-old rival, all the more flirting with socialist ideology.

The 20,000 Karen army, which controlled the southeastern territories of Burma, received all-round assistance from Thailand, including weapons. On the territory of Thailand, there were military camps of the Karen rebels. With the help of a protracted civil war, Thailand has seriously neutralized Burma as a rival in the region, but nothing can last forever. After the Cold War began to decline, Thailand significantly reduced support for the Karen separatists. Burma, renamed Myanmar, normalized relations with its closest neighbor and the royal government, there was nothing left but to gradually oust the Karen formations from its territory.

By 1990. the split of the Karen national movement on religious grounds also applies - Buddhists accused the dominant Christians of discrimination and encroachment on their interests and formed their own Democratic Karen Buddhist army, which rather quickly found itself on the side of their co-religionists - the central Burmese government. At the same time, more radical and exotic splits from the Karen National Union - the Karen National Liberation Army appeared.

One of them was the Army of God, which became famous throughout the world for children and adolescents not only of the majority of its militants (a common thing for Indochina - children and adolescents always met in abundance among the Khmer Rouge and other rebel groups), but also leaders . The brothers John and Luther Hthu, who appropriated the title of colonel to themselves, began to command the Army of God at the age of twelve, which was too young even by local standards. The army of young brothers came to the center of attention of the world community in January, 2000, when ten of its militants seized a hospital in the Thai town of Ratchaburi. The “soldier of God” was taken hostage by 700, and then (after partial release) of 200 hospital staff and patients. However, the training of Thai special forces turned out to be more serious than faith in charismatic brothers - the terrorists were destroyed as a result of a special operation. A year later, in the Myanmar, the Khtu brothers themselves were captured.

It is noteworthy that Khtu brothers negatively assessed the more moderate and numerous wing of the Karen resistance, consolidated around the Karen national liberation army - the hopes for a peaceful outcome of the struggle for independence do not even leave the Karen movement veterans who had fought for decades.

However, the armed resistance of the Karen rebels with some intensity continues to this day. In 2012, a truce was concluded between the central leadership of Myanmar-Burma and the Karen National Union, but not all Karen armed groups, as is the case during civil wars, agreed with the “opportunist” line of their leadership. Therefore, the territory of the state of Karen and its border areas of Thailand are still considered one of the troubled areas of the region.

The conclusion from the foregoing review of the Karen armed resistance can be drawn as follows. While the activity of the Karen national movement corresponded to the interests of neighboring Thailand, the British and Americans looming behind the Bangkok government, it was viewed as national liberation, worthy not only of sympathy and assurances of moral support, but also quite tangible material and military assistance.

Changes in the political situation in the world and the region showed that the Karen were only pawns in the game of the larger actors of world and regional politics, when the time they were used as a tool came to an end, they were left to themselves. And now the prospects for independent or autonomous existence of the territories inhabited by the Karen depend exclusively on themselves. The Americans and the British did much worse with the national movements of Burma that were involved in the production and trafficking of drugs. On the "opium wars" in the "Golden Triangle" - in the following material.
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  1. Ptah
    Ptah 23 May 2014 09: 36
    Burma Civil War:

    Yeah, well ...
    Are these there too .... "keeping up with world trends"?
    1. ilyaros
      23 May 2014 15: 48
      yes they have been fighting there for a long time, the whole history of post-war
  2. The comment was deleted.
  3. Landwarrior
    Landwarrior 23 May 2014 14: 34
    In Southeast Asia, there is a "golden triangle" where drugs are produced on an industrial scale. Therefore, a certain "heat of passions" is always maintained there, so that the authorities of the countries are engaged in the fight against the rebels, and not against the drug mafia. That's all hi