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Karen Independence Movement: Seven Decades Of Futility?

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The Karen independence movement in Myanmar has entered its seventh decade.

Episode 1

Three years before she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national leader when thousands of protesting students and monks were mowed down by the ruling junta. The 8888 Uprising (August 8, 1988) was reprised, if on a lesser scale, in 2007 when over 100 civilians and monks were killed during the "Saffron Revolution."

The regime that has been in power since 1962 in Burma -- many are uncomfortable with the name Myanmar that the junta imposed -- has held Ms. Suu Kyi under house arrest for a total of 13 years, the last six consecutively. Nor has it any qualms about designating whoever it chooses to be a threat to the state.

A recent New York Times article reports that among those the junta has recently imprisoned are an 80-year-old Buddhist nun serving four years for, of all things, insulting Buddhism. Then there's the case of the popular comedian sentenced to 59 years for criticizing the government response to Nargis, the May 2008 cyclone that killed more than 130,000 Burmese. Others recently jailed include farmers, an ice cream seller, and a bus conductor.

If that's how Burma deals with civil protest, imagine how it treats the armed opposition. As early as 1948, when U Nu became the first prime minister, ethnic minorities seeking statehood rebelled against the central government. Some minorities, such as the Chin, Kachin, and the Shan, were granted the status of a state within the state. Others eventually signed ceasefires with SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), as the ruling junta was called before it was reconstituted as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) -- benign in name only -- in 1997.

Today, fighting is largely confined to the east where the Shans now seek secession and the Karens still seek statehood. The Karens inhabit the Burma-Thailand border regions, as well as the Irrawaddy delta, the region of Burma hardest hit by Nargis. At 60 years, the Karen resistance against the three A's -- annihilation, absorption, and assimilation -- is either the world's longest-running war for independence or its most extended exercise in futility.

Moviegoers were exposed to the plight of the Karens last year if they saw the fourth installment of Rambo, which was set in Burma (though filmed, in part, in Thailand). Sylvester Stallone demonstrated just how universal contempt for the junta had become, especially after it obstructed aid to Nargis survivors. When John Rambo killed off 236 of its soldiers, objections were raised to one of the highest body counts of any action movie ever, but not to who was killed. Understandably, the film was reported to have boosted the morale of Karen freedom fighters who viewed it.