Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thousands of Karen Seek Safety in Thailand

The Irrawaddy News

MAE SOT — Thousands of ethnic Karen villagers have been forced to flee
across the border into Thailand during the past few weeks as the Burmese
army launched a major assault on Karen military units.

Fierce fighting and constant mortar fire close to the Thai border by Burmese forces has forced an estimated 4,000 ethnic Karen to leave their villages since the beginning of June.

“Every day more people are arriving, looking for refuge,” Poe Shan of the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) told The Irrawaddy. “We expect many more to cross the border in search of safety in the coming weeks as the rainy season sets in.”

So far, the refugees have mostly come from seven villages in Burma near the Moei River; there are more than 40 villages in the area where the fighting is intense.

“If the fighting continues, at least 8,000 more villagers will have to escape across the border,” said Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU).

“The key thing now is to provide them with more adequate shelter,” said Sally Thompson, the deputy head of the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC). “They have food and medical attention, but the flimsy, makeshift homes they are now in provide inadequate protection from the weather.”

Local Thai authorities are drawing up an Action Plan, which would then be discussed with the international aid agencies and local NGOs before implementation.

Many recent refugees are crowded into the grounds of a Thai temple, a couple of kilometers inside the Thai border, where they lack access to basic necessities, aid workers said.

“They are in relatively good condition,” said Kitty McKinsey, the regional spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mae Sot.

“They are not emaciated, though many have walked for more than seven days to escape from the Myanmar [Burma] army,” she told The Irrawaddy. “They hurriedly left with nothing but the clothes on their back.”

Ma Theingyi, 33, the mother of five children, said: “We desperately need soap, toothbrushes and cooking utensils. More than anything though, we need clothes for our children.”

Most refugees are women and children. Some of the men stayed behind to look after the fields, aid workers said. Others were already in Thailand as illegal immigrants working in foreign-owned textile factories along the border. Others are soldiers in the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

The mass exodus of villagers from inside Burma began after the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Burmese army launched a major offensive against KNU strongholds. This recent assault began about two weeks ago when the army started shelling the border area and terrorizing villagers with the help of the DKBA, a breakaway Karen faction that signed a ceasefire agreement with the military government.

Two weeks ago, the DKBA had called many village headmen to a
meeting where they said they would conscript more than a 1,000 soldiers—around 10 men per village, which prompted the mass exodus. Headmen were also told that each village had to buy two hand-held radios for the DKBA.

“We knew what that meant; all the able-bodied men would be used by the army in one way or another and on top of that we would have to give them money and food rations,” said 41-year-old Pa Naw Naw, who fled with his wife and three children. He left his 11-year-old son behind to keep an eye on their fields and livestock.

The UN says there are some 2,000 new refugees in Thailand. Some aid agencies estimate the figure at 4,000—with many people secretly living with friends or hiding in the jungle on either side of the border.

Refugees are receiving aid at five sites, including Noh Bo temple in Mae Sot. Thai authorities have set up medical centers to provide health care and medical examinations. The TBBC has distributed rice, beans, fish paste and salt, while the Karen Refugee
Council has provided blankets and clothes. The UNHCR has provided plastic sheeting and tarpaulins for the shelter.

The rain, which is already falling heavily on most days, is making life more difficult. Most refugees are reluctant to be moved far from the border.

“They all say they want go back as soon as possible, said McKinsey. “But to what—they all said their crops and livestock had been confiscated by the authorities. They are clearly traumatized. They have lived with this kind of suffering all their lives.”

A 66-year old grandmother, Noh Thay May, told The Irrawaddy. “I have been on the move since I was five-years-old. My days are numbered. All I want is not to have to move again.”

Meanwhile, in Burma many villagers are bracing themselves for more fighting and shelling. The next few days are likely to see the Burmese military substantially step up military operations, a Thai military officer told local journalists a few days ago.

As fighting continues, more Karen refugees are certain to seek safety across the border in Thailand.

“We want an end to all this fighting,” said Pa Kyaw, 30, who found shelter at Noh Bo monastery. “All we want is to be left alone in peace and to be able to return to our homes.”

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too