Today, Nang Nang lives on the rugged Thailand-Burma border in the hamlet of Loi Tai Leng, the headquarters of the Shan State Army (S.S.A.) and the refuge for hundreds of families fleeing the Burmese army's long-running campaign of terror against ethnic minorities such as the Shan. They include more than 200 orphans: Nang Nang, a shyly smiling girl in a grubby tracksuit, shares a tin-roofed dormitory with dozens of other girls who sleep on a wooden platform over a mud floor. For many, this has been home for five years, but not for much longer. The dormitory lies in Thai territory, insists the Thai army, which on June 1 ordered the orphanage and more than 60 Shan families living nearby to move back into Burma—and closer to the scene of the fighting in April between the S.S.A. and the Burmese junta's ally, the 16,000-strong United Wa State Army (U.W.S.A.). "The Burmese army forced us to relocate," says Hku Hseng Lu, 21, who also helps run the orphanage. "Now the Thai army is doing the same. Where are we supposed to go?"
The Shan orphans are among the most vulnerable victims of policies hatched in faraway Bangkok and Rangoon. The Shan are the largest of Burma's eight main ethnic minorities, which form a third of the country's 43 million population. Many of the groups are fighting for independence from the rule of the military junta. In recent months, the Burmese army and its proxies have stepped up efforts against ethnic insurgents such as the Shan and the Karen, driving thousands of refugees into Thailand. There, they receive cold comfort. The Thai government does not grant official refugee status to the Shan, who are deemed illegal migrants unless they cross the border to flee war. "We have to act according to immigration law," insists government spokesman Colonel Chaleumdej Chompunuch, who says up to 900 Shan have now been moved back into Burmese territory. "If there is any more fighting, they can come back and we'll take care of them until the situation is normal again. But if there's no fighting, we consider them illegal immigrants."
This distinction is narrow and dishonorable, says Sunai Phasuk, a Thai academic and consultant for Human Rights Watch (HRW). "These people are not just fleeing war, but also forced labor, executions, mass relocations and systematic rape," he says. HRW accuses Thailand of "violating international law" for denying basic humanitarian assistance to the Shan. A recent report by the New York-based NGO also documents the murder, rape, enslavement and brutal displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians during the Burmese army's long-running assault on Karen insurgents; some 650,000 people, says HRW, have been made homeless in eastern Burma alone. The junta has dismissed allegations of army atrocities against ethnic minorities as "totally untrue."
Thailand and Burma share a centuries-old enmity, and a porous, ill-defined border. Even in recent years there have been clashes between the Thai army and its Burmese and Wa counterparts, usually over drug smuggling. Today, Bangkok is pursuing a policy of closer ties with Rangoon. Besides sending back the Shan, the Thai authorities have cracked down on illegal Burmese workers, and moved Burmese exiles living in Thailand to overcrowded border refugee camps. Thai officials say better relations with the pariah regime will not only help solve cross-border problems, such as the trafficking of narcotics, but also encourage democratic change in Burma. Critics like HRW assert, however, that the transfer of Burmese exiles is meant to stop their involvement in political activity that might offend the junta, and that the moves by Thailand, taken collectively, send a message of support for the ruling generals. "If this is the price of better relations between Rangoon and Bangkok," says Sunai, "I'm not sure it's worth paying."
Right now, the junta needs all the friends it can get. The 60th birthday over a week ago of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, has again put the spotlight on the repression practiced by the regime. Recent bomb attacks by unknown perpetrators in Rangoon and Mandalay have killed and injured scores of people. Unprecedented pressure exerted by other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations means Burma is unlikely to take its turn chairing ASEAN in mid-2006. The purge of Prime Minister and intelligence chief Khin Nyunt last October on corruption charges has caused hairline cracks to appear in a seemingly monolithic military, and the cease-fires he brokered with more than a dozen ethnic rebel organizations could crumble. Last month the Shan State National Army announced it was joining forces with the S.S.A., the first time in a decade that a group that had signed a cease-fire had broken with the junta.
Getting to the S.S.A.'s headquarters involves a four-hour trek through fields of maize and forests of dripping bamboo, led by Shan guides who stop only to flick leeches from their boots. They sneak past Thai army border posts in darkness while thunder booms off the mountains, then begin the long final ascent of the cloud-raked ridge to which the S.S.A. headquarters clings. More than 2,000 people live here, mostly in bamboo shacks with thatched roofs. A tenth of Loi Tai Leng's population are soldiers at arms, claims the S.S.A., while the rest are dependents or other refugees. Ignore the parade ground of packed mud, over which a Shan flag defiantly flies, and Loi Tai Leng could be just another hardscrabble hilltop community: there is a small clinic, a Buddhist monastery, and stalls selling basic goods. But this community is at war. Most men don military uniforms, and even when there is no fighting, there are mist-muffled retorts from a nearby firing range. Children walk to school along roadsides peppered with interconnecting foxholes.
"Some of the children watched Burmese soldiers kill their parents," says Hku Hseng Lu, a fragile beauty with an indomitable air on which her young charges depend. Others died as porters, like Nang Nang's parents, or simply perished from disease. Medical treatment is either primitive or nonexistent in Shan state, which is also hardest-hit by the country's unchecked AIDS epidemic. Chris Beyrer, a leading AIDS expert at Johns Hopkins University, estimates that a staggering 9% of Shan men are HIV positive. "This is among the highest rates reported in Asia," he notes.
The Thai army has given the school and orphanage until the end of June to move. The other displaced Shan families are already building new homes on a denuded hillside, which is nearer to fortified enemy positions. "I'm very scared because now we're closer to the fighting," says Nang La, 40. "But where else can we go?" Armed with a hoe and a machete, she and her husband, Ka Ling, 38, are leveling a patch of earth on which to build their third house, mostly from materials salvaged from their second, which they dismantled when they had to leave on June 1. It sat near the orphanage and had been their home for nearly five years. And their first house, near the Shan town of Mong Nai? "Burmese soldiers burned it down," says Ka Ling matter-of-factly.
The S.S.A. claims it killed 337 U.W.S.A. soldiers in the April fighting. If true, this is no mean feat. Much feared for their ferocity in battle, the 750,000-strong Wa traditionally live along Burma's equally rugged border with China; some are former headhunters. The U.W.S.A. struck a cease-fire with the junta in 1989 in return for keeping the peace. It also kept its weapons and, free to run its home region as a semi-autonomous state, expanded its trade in heroin—the Wa hills are opium-growing territory—and later in methamphetamines. Today, the U.W.S.A. is one of Southeast Asia's largest drug-trafficking organizations, according to the U.S. Justice Department, which in January indicted eight senior Wa officials in absentia on narcotics charges. By forcing its impoverished people to migrate, and through military action, the U.W.S.A. has greatly increased its influence over other parts of Shan state, particularly the area in which the S.S.A. now operates.
That includes the Shan stronghold at Loi Tai Leng, where almost every resident is a victim of the Burmese military or a witness to its savagery. Wi Ling, 34, stands outside his newly rebuilt shack on one good leg and one bad. Two years ago he was living with his family near Taunggyi, the Shan state capital, when Burmese soldiers dragooned him and 14 other villagers as porters. Three were shot dead, while Wi Ling was forced at gunpoint into a suspected minefield. A month after he was conscripted, he stepped on a mine, which blew most of his left leg off. The Burmese troops abandoned him. "They just threw me away," he says.
Local people carried him to Loi Tai Leng, where he was nursed back to health and given a rudimentary prosthetic stump. Later, his wife and three children—then aged 9, 7 and 1—trekked for more than two months through malarial jungles to join him. Four women from his home village were raped by Burmese soldiers, claims Wi Ling—credibly, since the systematic rape of women and girls by the junta's troops has been well documented by international rights groups, and many rape victims have sought refuge at Loi Tai Leng. "I'll return to my village," says Wi Ling, "when the Burmese soldiers leave."
His neighbor, Nan Tiya, 46, is sprinkling water on the earth floor of his unfinished house to banish bad spirits. A married father of two, he was dragooned as a porter for Burmese military units fighting Karen rebels. He rolls down his battered jungle boots to show scars caused by the shackles porters must wear. "When we were exhausted, they gave us nothing. Instead, they hit us. If someone didn't move, an officer would take a stick and beat the man to death." Nan Tiya claims he and other captives were ordered to bury the corpses of 17 porters who had been killed by Burmese soldiers. "I was terrified," he recalls. "The memory will stay with me until I die."
Nan Tiya eventually escaped to the comparative safety of Loi Tai Leng. His wife is in prison, so his two children are cared for by grandparents. He hasn't seen them for six years, and unless they make the perilous trek to Loi Tai Leng, he never will. He cannot safely return to his own village. "The Burmese soldiers will recognize me. I'll be killed for sure." Now remarried, he has two more children, and his new wife is heavily pregnant with a third.
The S.S.A.'s straight-talking leader is Colonel Yawd Serk, 47, who wears a dark suit and city shoes, resembling a bureaucrat rather than a rebel commander. He gives TIME a tour of nearby Gon Kha hill, scene of the recent fighting. When the rain stops, it can be reached by a narrow dirt road, which Yawd Serk negotiates in a blue Isuzu pickup truck, with his revolver tucked into the dashboard. Linked by deep, zigzag trenches, Gon Kha's bunkers look down upon a handful of fortified U.W.S.A. positions, the closest about 500 meters away. Around 800 U.W.S.A. soldiers charged up Gon Kha's steep, unforested flanks, sometimes in broad daylight—a suicidal tactic even for the battle-hardened Wa. Yawd Serk claims that some were drugged—a search of U.W.S.A. bodies, he says, revealed pills of methamphetamine, a powerful narcotic generally known by the Thai name yaba (crazy medicine). Others were simply too young to know better. "Some of their soldiers must have been 15 or 16 years old," says Yawd Serk.
Several kilometers away, from positions of relative safety, the Burmese army launched more than 3,000 heavy mortar rounds, Yawd Serk adds. These not only hit the S.S.A.—six Shan were killed and 31 injured, he says—but also caused U.W.S.A. casualties and sowed panic in its ranks. Today the Wa fortifications below seem deserted, but Yawd Serk's soldiers are taking no chances. Nearby, on grassy slopes recently littered with Wa corpses, they plant fields of punji stakes made from sharpened bamboo to prevent a repeat assault.
Yawd Serk says the U.W.S.A. want to crush the S.S.A. and secure new smuggling routes. Among those Wa indicted by the U.S. Justice Department is ethnic Chinese druglord Wei Hseuh-kang, who leads the U.W.S.A. troops now ranged against the S.S.A. The U.S. is offering a $2 million reward for information leading to Wei's capture. Yawd Serk denies old allegations that his own army is involved in the drug trade, and says the S.S.A. is funded by taxing goods such as logs and livestock and by donations from Shan exiles overseas. "Our door is open for anyone to come and see that we have nothing to do with [drugs]," Yawd Serk says. The junta's alliance with the U.W.S.A. makes a mockery of its supposed antinarcotics efforts, he says. "If the Burmese are serious about fighting drugs, then they'll have to fight the Wa one day," Yawd Serk points out.
Indeed, the junta's 16-year-old alliance with the U.W.S.A. is looking shaky. Rangoon is disquieted by the rebel group's bristling armory and aspirations for nationhood, while Wa resentment grows at fighting and dying in the Burmese army's own battles. Whatever happens next in the violent and complex relations between Burma's ruling generals and its diverse ethnic groups, Colonel Yawd Serk is not expecting peace for his long-suffering Shan anytime soon. "If the Wa don't come for us," he says from his hilltop redoubt, "the Burmese will come for sure."