Monday, June 8, 2009

Clashes Force More Karens to Thailand

The Irrawaddy News

Ongoing attacks by a joint force of Burmese army and breakaway Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) troops against the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 7 in southern Karen State have resulted in more than 3,500 Karen villagers from Pa-an District fleeing to Thailand since June 1 without sufficient food, shelter, clothing or medical care.

Emergency assistance for the new wave of Karen refugees is urgently needed, said Karen relief groups.

Children are among the 3,500 refugees who have recently been forced to flee Karen State. (Source: US Campaign for Burma)

Several observers have said that the recent wave of attacks against the Karen rebels could be part of a strategy to divert attention from the ongoing trial of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon. Others have speculated that the skirmishes are a belligerent response to the Thai government because of its public criticism of Burma’s handling of Suu Kyi’s trial.

Battalions of the DKBA and the Burmese army, also known as the Tatmadaw, have been reinforcing their troop numbers since early June and it is now estimated that about 9,000 armed soldiers—including an unknown number of porters—have amassed in strategic areas of Karen State in preparation for further military operations against KNLA Brigade 7, according to Karen sources.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist with the Bangkok-based English newspaper The Nation, reported on Monday that the ongoing attacks against the KNLA near the Thai-Burmese border were “timed to create chaos among Thai decision-makers,” perhaps indicating that Thai policy makers would be kept busy with the influx of Karen refugees on Thai soil.

In its current position as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Thailand had rebuked the Burmese junta for its trumped-up charges against Burmese opposition leader Suu Kyi. Burmese state-run newspapers angrily responded by accusing the Thais of interfering in Burma’s internal affairs.

Thai soldiers mobilize at Tha Song Yang District in Tak Province after clashes between the Burmese army and Karen rebels caused some 3,000 Karen villagers to seek refuge in Thailand. (Source: Bangkok Post)

The Nation columnist added that the military onslaughts also seem to have been designed to “drive a wedge in Thai-Chinese cooperation on Burma.”

Food, shelter, clothing and medical treatment are urgently needed as the Karen refugees could carry few belongings and are camped in the rain on the banks of the Moei River, with no proper shelter and little food. Some refugees are now hiding in jungle and will be at higher risk of diseases such as malaria as the rainy season commences.

Joint secretary 1 of the KNLA’s political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU), Maj Hla Ngwe, said that the offensive may be a part of a Burmese regime reaction to annoy Thailand.

He said the offensive is a signal that the Burmese regime does not seriously want to negotiate with the KNU and sign a ceasefire agreement.

David Thakapaw, the joint-secretary of the KNU, said the offensive was a smokescreen to divert world attention from the trial of Suu Kyi.

He concurred that the offensive was an indication that the Burmese regime does not want to talk about a ceasefire with the KNU.

However, Thakapaw said that the KNU was ready to fight against the Burmese army if the regime does not want to talk about a ceasefire agreement with the KNU and establish national reconciliation.

In April, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya passed on a message to KNU leaders reportedly sent by Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein that Burmese authorities wanted to negotiate with the KNU.

After meeting with the Thai foreign minister, KNU leaders reported to Kasit that they had agreed to meet with the junta’s representatives.

However, there has been no further contact from the Burmese authorities since then, according to KNU sources.

Htay Aung, a Burmese researcher with the exiled Network for Democracy and Development, said the offensive would appear to be part of the Burmese regime’s military activities to pressure the KNU to disarm.

“The Burmese regime does not want the KNU to be stable, because they think that the KNU is the leading player among the Burmese opposition groups in exile. So, they are always trying to destroy the KNU in any way they can,” he said.

According to Karen human rights and relief groups, clashes between the armed factions occurred throughout the weekend of June 6-7, but started during the first week of May.

Poe Shen, the field director for the Karen Human Rights Group, confirmed that an estimated 3,500 Karen refugees had fled their homes and are now staying in Tha Song Yang district in Thailand’s Tak Province.

Saw Steve, of the Karen relief group Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People, said the DKBA was aggressively arresting villagers in its controlled areas and forcing them to serve as porters during the fighting.

The most recent attacks were being launched by Burmese battalions under Light Infantry Division 22 and DKBA battalions 999, 555 and 333, said the Karen sources.

Hla Ngwe said that further attacks and further displacement of Karen villagers were expected.

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