An Old War Is Rekindled On The Myanmar-Thailand Border

For the first time in 20 years, Myanmar regime fighter jets dropped bombs on territory partly controlled by the KNU, an armed group that has been fighting the central government for seven decades and bears the name of a large ethnic minority, the Karen.

Barricades in Yangon, Myanmar
Barricades in Yangon, Myanmar
Bruno Philip

MAE SAM LAEP — Seen from the Thai side of the Salouen River, the Burmese army's outpost does not look like much: on the top of a bare hilltop, several shabby bunkers, plank walls and zinc roofs are lined up. There's no living soul, apparently, except for the crowing of a rooster whose stubborn cackle intermittently reaches the other bank. A little higher up, balancing on the void stands the silhouette of a building that looks like a Buddhist pagoda. Strangely enough, a red flag is flying there. The Thai police say that it is a sign of war for their Burmese neighbors.

This isolated outpost is not just a godforsaken hole stunned by the April heat, locked in the torpor of a foggy afternoon awaiting the monsoon rains. It is instead a military barracks of the Tatmadaw (official armed forces of Myanmar), the same forces whose soldiers have in just two months massacred more than half a thousand demonstrators opposing the Feb. 1 military coup.

The conflict is never far away. Under the cover of a sky still veiled by the smoke of the agricultural fires that mark the end of the dry season, the small border town of Mae Sam Laep, which faces the Burmese barracks, is recovering from recent events.

"There is no one left, all the refugees have been chased away."

Last week, for the first time in 20 years, regime fighter jets dropped bombs not far from here, on the other side of the river. In this region of incessant warfare, the territory is partly controlled by one of Myanmar's oldest guerrilla groups, the Karen National Union (KNU). This armed group, which has been battling the central government for seven decades, is named after a large ethnic minority, the Karen, who number seven million throughout Myanmar out of a population of about 56 million.

The airstrike came just a few hours after an attack by the KNU, on March 27, against a Tatmadaw strong point a little further north of Mae Sam Laep. Ten Burmese soldiers were killed, including a lieutenant colonel. This was followed by four days of consecutive bombardments— from March 27 to 30 — that both KNU and local NGO sources claim left around 20 people dead and forced some 10,000 to flee into the surrounding jungles.

The interminable war had been put on hold a few years ago following a ceasefire agreement signed in 2015 by a dozen ethnic guerrillas, including the KNU. But the rekindled flames of conflict have shaken these far-flung corners of the Thai kingdom. Nearly 3,000 Karen have fled to the Thai side of the border river. But most of them were quickly "summoned" by military force and forced to return home by men in black uniforms, members of Thai "rangers' regiments.

"There is no one left, all the refugees have been chased away," says a Karen activist based in Mae Sam Laep, where the army is blocking the road to the forests where several hundred of the fugitives had settled.

This "crisscrossing" of displaced populations has sparked controversy in Thailand. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has assured that "human rights will be respected." A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that his country's policy does not include "sending people home from the fighting in Myanmar." The reality, however, is quite different, according to activists and members of Karen advocacy groups.

"When I arrived by boat and we tried to land on the Thai shore, rangers rushed in, swatting us away," says Saw Eh Moh, a KNU local "government" official who was injured during the first shelling. He and a few others, whose health condition warranted surgery, were nevertheless allowed to be hospitalized in clinics in Mae Hong Son province, where the large border town of Mae Sam Laep is located.

Protesters are burning tires to block the sights of the police during the demonstration against the junta in Yangon — Photo: Thuya Zaw/ZUMA Wire

Doh Nay Saw, 15 years old, is also one of the "lucky ones' who have been treated in Thailand. When we met him on April 4, in a village near the Salouen River, he had just come out of a provincial hospital. Doh is a shy young man, visibly shaken: "On March 27, I was at home with two of my cousins when we heard the first sounds of bombs," he says, head down, eyes fixed on his shoes.

This first strike targeted the small Karen town of Day Pu Noh, the headquarters of the KNU's "5th Brigade," where his father is a combatant. "A neighbor ran to our house shouting "the Burmese are bombing us' and then he was hit by the bomb blast. I saw his body catch fire, disintegrate, he died before my eyes."

Doh received a piece of shrapnel in his thigh. Since his operation, he keeps this fragment of metal, stained with his blood, as a souvenir carefully preserved in a small plastic case. The young man gets into a car that drives him to the river. There is no question of staying in Thailand, even if he had intended to.

For the Thai government, which had announced a few weeks ago that it was preparing for an "influx of refugees," this prospect brings back bad memories of the 1990s. At that time, the war was already raging between a preceding Burmese military junta and KNU fighters. Not to mention other battles that took place further north between soldiers of the same junta and other ethnic groups. Since then, some 100,000 refugees from Myanmar have continued to live in camps along the 2,416-kilometer border between the two countries.

The links between the current Thai government — headed by a former coup general — and the Myanmar regime are close. The man behind the Myanmar coup, General Min Aung Hlaing, called Prime Minister Prayuth the day after the strike to ask him, without irony, for advice on how to protect "democracy" in the country. In mid-March, a new controversy erupted, fueling suspicions of "collusion" between the two countries. A mysterious shipment of 700 bags of Thai rice, ostensibly intended to supply the Burmese barracks opposite Mae Sam Laep, had been deposited on the riverbank.

A Thai general says his country's army "does not supply Myanmar in any way"

"I remember that a truck arrived and people got out before carrying the bags of rice near the pier," says Lah Paw, a 40-year-old boatwoman. What happened next is intriguing, to say the least. A boat came to pick up several soldiers from the Burmese barracks, taking them back to the Thai shore where the pile of bags was covered with a tarpaulin to protect them from the rain. Lah Paw says that the next day, the Burmese soldiers were in their barracks when a villager approached the bags. The soldiers "fired a shot in the air" to scare the intruder away.

A few days later, a truck returned, carrying the rice to an unknown destination. The bizarre episode, which has remained unexplained to this day, ended with a Thai general saying that his country's army "does not supply Myanmar in any way" and that the Burmese "have not asked us' to do so, "for reasons of their honor as soldiers."

The argument does not seem to convince many people in Mae Sam Laep. This predominantly Karen village is inhabited by many refugees who have fled to this side of the border because of successive conflicts. Lah Paw, who has lived here for 30 years, is one of them: "I fled with my parents to escape the war when I was a child. I never went back to Myanmar," she says, pointing to the other side, a few hundred meters away.

The other bank is so close that, in this late afternoon, some activity is visible in the Burmese barracks. Two men go down the path leading to the river. They carry yellow jerry cans that they fill with water from the Salouen. A black dog follows them. It is said that they cannot receive supplies, surrounded as they are by Karen guerrilla fighters since the cease-fire broke down. In the drowsiness of impossible confines, the "honor of the soldier" must be paid at the price of eternal boredom.

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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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