NBC's Ian Williams reports from Thailand-Myanmar border where the Karen rebels, a Christian minority, are fighting one of the world's longest running civil wars.
KAREN STATE, Myanmar – At first light, a haze from dry-season fires hung low over the Moie River, which marks the border between Thailand and Myanmar (also known as Burma).
It was a good time of day for a discrete crossing from one of the many small clearings in the thick tropical undergrowth lining the Moei's muddy waters.
It took just moments for our long-tailed boat to reach the Myanmar side, where after making our way over a rickety make-shift bridge and climbing the steep river bank we were welcomed to the seventh brigade headquarters of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), which has been fighting the Myanmar government for decades.
We were greeted by Saw Hla Hgwe of the KNU, a short bespectacled man, wearing a red Ferrari baseball cap.
"We have two big problems in this country, ethnic rights and democratic rights," he said, "and until both these problems are solved there can be no peace and stability."
The mostly Christian Karen people have been fighting against Myanmar’s central government for 62 years, which makes this one of world's longest-running – and most brutal – civil wars.
It's also one of the world's great forgotten conflicts. Not even Rambo could change that; his last movie was set here (though filmed in Thailand), with Sylvester Stallone taking on what appeared to be the entire Myanmar Army in an effort to rescue a bunch of Christian missionaries kidnapped by soldiers as they were taking aid to Karen villagers.
Ian Williams / NBC News
A rag-tag group of KNLA soldiers listen to a pep-talk from their commander Saw Jorny. Some wore flip-flops and carried a variety of weapons from ageing AK-47s to newer-looking M-16s.
In January, though, the KNU signed a ceasefire deal with the Myanmar government, and KNU leaders are in Yangon this weekend for further talks. They are also planning to meet pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose election to parliament last weekend is just the latest and most significant development in a fast-moving reform process.
But it’s a reform process that has been greeted with extreme caution by the KNU.
"Right now I think that they are not trustworthy," Saw Hla Hgwe told me. "We have heard this kind of talk many times, but it never comes to reality, so this time we are being careful and cautious."
It doesn't help that the KNU itself is faction-ridden and has been much weakened by successive army onslaughts. It is also just one of a patchwork of ethnic groups that make up 30 percent of Myanmar's population. Most have their own militias, and the U.S. has said that ethnic peace is a precondition for fully lifting sanctions on Myanmar.
"For genuine peace, the government must prove that it is willing to share power," said the KNU's Saw Hla Hgwe.
Soldiers in flip flops
The seventh brigade camp consisted of a series of small wooden buildings, set around a dusty parade ground, where their commander, Saw Jorny, gathered about 50 members of his rag-tag army for a pep-talk, reminding them not to break the ceasefire – but to remain on their guard.
His soldiers carried a variety of weapons – from ageing AK-47s to newer-looking M-16s. Many wore only flip flops on their feet.
One young soldier had a prosthetic foot, and when I asked him what had happened he just shrugged. "Landmine," he said. "Over there, behind the mountain."
Ian Williams / NBC News
Some young Karen refugees in Thailand.
In fact I was surprised not to see more missing limbs, since this is one of the most mine-infested areas on the planet.
The Myanmar army has been accused of gross human rights abuses against the country's ethnic minorities – ranging from rape and forced labor to torture and murder.
Tens of thousands of Karen have been forced from their homes, their villages destroyed. Many have fled across the Moie River to take refuge in sprawling camps that cling to the Thai side of the river.
Aid groups say there are around 160,000 refugees in Thai camps and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced inside the country. The biggest single group is the Karen people.
‘Hope to go back’
Most Karen refugees we met said they wanted to return to Myanmar – someday. Few had heard about the reform process in Yangon, and for many the horrors they'd experience were still raw.
Ian Williams / NBC News
Ma Aye, a Karen refugee, who fled to Thailand with her children two years ago.
"They came to our village, shooting at us and planting landmines," said Ma Aye, who fled to Thailand with her children two years ago. "We just couldn't stay anymore."
Nearby, Wee Thwa was building a new home from wood and dried leaves. "We were afraid. We couldn't stay after the army came to our village," he told me. He too had heard nothing of the reforms sweeping Myanmar, but he added: "I hope to go back when the situation is good."
By all rights, Karen State should be a prosperous place, sitting on a wealth of raw materials and minerals, including rich deposits of gold. But the conflict has impoverished the area, now riddled with malaria and malnutrition.
The success of Myanmar's reforms may well be determined here, and in other ethnic areas, rather than in Yangon or Naypyitaw (the newly created capital city), and by the government's ability – and willingness – to make a lasting peace and overcome decades of conflict and mistrust.
"It's all about trust," Saw Jorny, the seventh brigade commander, told me. "The Karen people want peace – but genuine peace."