LOI TAI LENG, Myanmar (AP) — The soldiers arrived unexpectedly in 15-year-old Sai Noom Mong's village in eastern Myanmar with a brutal message: Leave your homes, they told hundreds of startled residents, or we'll burn them to the ground.
Fearful of their fate but too frail to flee themselves, the teen's parents made a painful decision the following night. They secretly delivered their son to sympathetic rebels from their minority Shan ethnic group and said goodbye, unsure if they'd ever see him again.
"My father said there's a place you can go and get an education and be safe," Sai Noom Mong told The Associated Press in the rebel-controlled village of Loi Tai Leng, where he arrived in May after an arduous monthlong escape through the forest on foot. He has lived as an orphan ever since.
EDITOR'S NOTE — AP journalists crossed into rebel-controlled Myanmar to interview refugees fleeing human rights abuses allegedly committed by the army, despite a new government.
His family's breakup is one of myriad tales told here that underscore how fundamental change has yet to come to one of the world's most repressive nations, even though its all-powerful military government officially disbanded in March.
The civilian administration that replaced it is dominated by retired generals promising democratic reform, but many say the new government is only a proxy for continued military rule. Here in the east, ethnic minorities live in fear of an army and government that Amnesty International says are still committing human rights abuses on "a massive scale." Long-running clashes between the armed forces and ethnic rebel groups have not only ground on, they've spread to areas that haven't seen fighting for close to 20 years.
The upsurge in violence comes amid an unprecedented flood of foreign investment in lucrative dam and pipeline projects, much of it from resource-hungry China. Foreign investment pledges totaled $20 billion over the last year — dwarfing the amount of the last 20 years combined — and critics say commercial interests are trumping human rights concerns, especially in the east.
"Solving the ethnic conflicts is the biggest issue facing Burma right now," said David Scott Mathieson, a Human Rights Watch expert on Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
"A lot of people are optimistic the new government could be sincere about reform, but they are not factoring in the ethnic dimension," he said. "There's been a marked upswing in fighting, and that's not an improvement. It shows the state hasn't prioritized the issue."
The result: at least 50,000 people forced to flee their homes in the last few months alone; this in a nation that already counts nearly half a million displaced and at least 215,000 refugees abroad.
Myanmar is home to about 55 million people, 40 percent of them from ethnic groups including the Shan, Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Arakan, Chin and Mon. The Burmese majority, which comprises the other 60 percent, effectively rules the country and holds key positions of influence throughout society.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the then-ruling junta reached cease-fire agreements with 17 rebel movements, allowing them to keep their weapons and a degree of autonomy. But in the run-up to elections last year, the military insisted they transform themselves into "border guard" forces and submit to army leadership.
Most refused, and two cease-fire agreements that had held for nearly 20 years disintegrated — first in March with the northern faction of the Shan State Army, then in June with the Kachin Independence Army.
Now, "with power transferred to a 'new' government, the army seems to have increased the political and military pressure on ... ethnic groups to persuade them to submit," said Trevor Wilson, a fellow at Australia's College of Asia and the Pacific.
Some of the latest fighting, in Kachin state in particular, has taken place in zones where new dams are being built. The dams will generate revenue worth billions of dollars per year, but environmentalists say they will produce electricity primarily for export — a cruel irony given that only around 20 percent of Burmese have power.
"The military wants to control land and resources," said Yawd Serk, who commands the Shan State Army's southern faction from its headquarters in Loi Tai Leng. "They don't care that people are still suffering atrocities or living in the dark."
The government denies such claims, arguing the nation must develop. And rebels also profit from the country's resources, including jade, rubies and opium, to finance their struggle.
The government has boosted hope for change by unblocking the long-censored Internet, calling on exiles to return, and holding rare talks with prominent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from seven years of house arrest last year. Last month, its leadership also called for peace talks with rebels, though most of them dismissed the offer as insincere.
"They're trying to show the international community that things have changed so there is less pressure on them," Yawd Serk said in an interview on the deck of his teakwood home. He wore a dark green military uniform. "But the reality is, they're waging the same battle they've always waged — they want to get rid of all ethnic resistance, period."
Rights groups and the AP have gathered testimony from victims confirming that even under the new government, the army is still subjecting citizens to forced relocation, forced labor, gang-rape and extra-judicial killings. Amnesty International says troops have used civilians as human shields and minesweepers.
One Burmese woman described troops shelling her village indiscriminately, killing four novice Buddhist monks at a temple. Another told how her husband was beaten unconscious by troops who accused him of collaborating with rebels; they spent their life savings to flee, but he died several days after arriving in Loi Tai Leng, which is on the border with Thailand.
Sai Noom Mong his father been hauled away repeatedly to dig ditches and build fences without pay for the military, sometimes two or three days a week.
The first time the army evicted his family from their home, he was just a few years old. The second time, this April, soldiers told villagers they needed their land to build a new military base. "You have no choice," Sai Noom Mong quoted the troops as saying. The soldiers didn't say where residents could go.
Today, at least, Sai Noom Mong no longer fears the army.
Every dawn, he watches as the flag of the rebel Shan State Army is hoisted up a pole at the school where he has been able to study for the first time in his life. Teachers teach in his native Shan language, which is banned at schools elsewhere.
Black hair cut short, he wears a new blue tracksuit and sneakers, and sleeps at a dorm with other boys who were either separated from their parents like him, or whose parents were killed in the conflict.
Sitting on a schoolroom bench as a heavy rain poured outside, turning the orange dirt to mud, he said his father "promised I would be OK, and he was right."
But Sai Noom Mong has no idea what became of his family. His father's apparent contacts with rebels, which enabled him to organize his escape, could have tragic consequences if discovered by the army.
When asked about their fate, he is quiet, stoic.
At night, when he dreams, he sometimes returns home — walking with his family through the emerald rice paddies of his childhood.
His nightmares tell a different story: He opens the door to his family's house and sees them all sprawling dead.