June 5, 2009 (DVB), Around 700 villagers from Burma's eastern Karen state have fled to the Thai border to avoid forced recruitment into the Burmese army following rumours of an offensive against the Karen National Union.
Last week members of the junta-allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) began arresting villagers from T’Nay Hsah township in Pa'an district, Karen state, and forced them to carry supplies for military operations, reported the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG).
The DKBA split from the KNU in 1994 following the fall of the KNU headquarters in Manerplaw, near the Thai border.
Rumours of a joint offensive by the DKBA and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) troops against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU, have been circulating since last week.
"In the Pa-an and Dooplaya district [in Bago division], the SPDC is now forcing the DKBA to recruit more soldiers and our researchers reported that they have a plan to attack the KNLA areas situated in the border in Pa-an district," said September Paw, spokesperson for the KHRG.
The location of the rumoured attack is near the populous Ler Per Har camp for internally displaced persons and, say the KHRG, threats of forced recruitment into the army are causing hundreds of locals to flee.
"They are being forced to porter the military supplies to the frontline," said Paw.
"They have to go in front of the soldiers because for the attack, if you go in front of the soldiers then probably there are landmines and they will step on the landmines first."
Cases of civilians being used as 'minesweepers' by the Burmese army are common. Last month a group of British MPs cited forced minesweeping as justification for launching a UN enquiry into possible crimes against humanity committed by Burma's ruling junta.
The KHRG also reported that DKBA soldiers had offered villagers protection from government troops.
"We don't believe this , it can be like persuading the villagers to come back," said Paw.
"We don't think they would protect them."
David Htaw, a member of the KNU Central Executive Committee, said however that not all DKBA troops were allied with the government.
"It is not easy to clarify the relationship between DKBA and SPDC troops because some are working very closely with them and some are not," he said, claiming that there are "some grievances" between the two.
He added that in the event of an offensive in an area populated by civilians, it was unlikely that the SPDC would try to avoid civilian casualties.
"I don't think they would; I don't think the SPDC care much about the people," he said.
The conflict between the KNU and the Burmese government began in 1948 and is thought to be the world's longest running.
Several attempts at building a ceasefire agreement have taken place but so far without success.
Reporting by Francis Wade