Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Burmese Refugee Numbers Swell in Thailand

The Irrawaddy News

MAE SOT, Thailand — As the 50,000th Burmese refugee to be resettled abroad recently left Thailand for the United States, thousands of others fled their military-ruled homeland to seek shelter under tarps and in temples along the Thai-Burmese border.

"We would be happier if we were back home as this is not our land, but we will stay here because that side is not safe," said a 30-year-old medic treating a child for malaria, pointing across an open field to Burma.

Escalated violence in rural Burma means despite the world's largest resettlement program, Thailand's refugee population—numbering more than 100,000—is not likely to diminish any time soon. More than 4,000 ethnic minority Karen have crossed the border in the past month.

The exodus was sparked by fighting between the Karen National Union and the Burmese regime, a brutal conflict that has been going on for 60 years as the Karen seek greater autonomy.

In addition to the refugees in Thailand, the aid group Thai Burma Border Consortium estimates fighting has spawned nearly 500,000 internally displaced people in eastern Burma and countless atrocities against civilians.

Critics say Burma's army seeks to eliminate opposition from the Karen and other ethnic minorities to seize control of the area's natural resources, a valuable source of income for the impoverished country.

And with elections scheduled for July 2010, securing Karen State would help the ruling generals claim the entire country was behind the vote and their so-called "road map to democracy." Critics have said the moves are a sham designed to perpetuate military rule.

"The main thing is the election—the government wants the Karen out of the picture," said Ba Win, a teacher who worked as a government veterinarian in Karen State for five years.

The latest round of fighting erupted in early June as government troops and the allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, or DKBA, moved against Karen military positions and a large civilian camp, sending villagers across the border north of Mae Sot, a Thai border town 240 miles (380 kilometers) northwest of the Thai capital, Bangkok.

The Karen Human Rights Group says the government is also forcing Karen villagers to join the DKBA and turn the group into a border guard force to better control natural resources in Karen State.

Meanwhile, the thin tarps provided the refugees are not keeping the heavy monsoon rains at bay, but they fear if the rain stops, fighting will break out again.

No mosquito nets are available to stop the spread of malaria, and the refugees depend on Mae Sot-based relief organizations and a nearby Thai Karen village for food and supplies.

They won't return home unless land mines in areas surrounding their villages are cleared. "Fighting we can see and run away from, but land mines can be anywhere," said the Karen medic, who like others declined to give a name because of the refugees' precarious status.

A number of the displaced, living in tent clusters according to the village of their origin, say they lost family members to mines during the flight to Thailand.

Other newly arrived Karen refugees have taken shelter in temples and schools along the border, but were wearing out their welcome as Buddhist Lent celebrations began this week, said Kathryn Halley of the aid group Partners, Relief and Development.

The new Karen refugees are to be moved into a single temporary camp, but aid groups and the Thai military have yet to agree on an exact secure location. Permanent camps in the area are too full to accommodate them.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says it will resettle 6,000 of the 112,000 registered Myanmar refugees in Thailand this year. The United States, Canada, Australia and several Nordic countries participate in the resettlement program that began in 2004 and is now the world's largest, according to the agency.

Mae Sot-based aid groups say repatriation has slowed because of the global financial crisis.

The newly arrived are unlikely to become candidates for resettlement abroad and were not even aware of plans to move them to a new location inside Thailand, a trip that will require climbing a muddy mountain pass and crossing a river.

One 50-year-old Karen woman said she had traveled back and forth across the Thai-Burma border three times in her life. "I just want to stay still now," she said. "I am tired."

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