Sunday, June 21, 2009

Burmese Refugees: Thousands of ethnic Karen flee following attacks by Burma's army

Thousands of ethnic Karen have fled in recent weeks

Thousands of ethnic Karen villagers have fled across the border into Thailand in recent weeks in the wake of Myanmar army attacks on Karen rebels.

“Every day more people arrive looking for refuge from the fighting,” said Pastor Robert Htway, chairman of the local Karen Refugee Council, which has provided assistance to Karen refugees in the area for more than 30 years.

“The key thing now is to provide them with more adequate shelter,” said Sally Thompson, deputy head of the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an NGO consortium involved in providing assistance to Burmese refugees.

“They have food and medical attention, but the flimsy makeshift homes they are now in provide inadequate protection from the weather.”

Some of the recent refugees, mostly women and children, are crowded into the grounds of a temple, a couple of kilometres inside Thailand where they are healthy but lack access to basic necessities, aid workers said.

“They are in relatively good condition, even though many have walked for more than seven days to escape from the Myanmar army,” said Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for UNHCR from Noh Bu temple near the western Thai border town of Mae Sot.

“They hurriedly left with nothing but the clothes on their back,” she said.

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

Many of the men stayed behind to look after the fields, aid workers said.

Political background

The mass exodus of Karen villagers from inside Myanmar began after the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army [DKBA] - a pro-government guerrilla group - and the Myanmar army launched a major offensive on 6 June against the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), according to the German news agency DPA, AP and others.

The Karen are one of many ethnic groups in Myanmar that have been persecuted by the government, according to rights groups. The KNU formed 60 years ago to fight for autonomy and independence. Their guerrilla force controlled a substantial part of Burma, before independence from Britain in 1947.

But since then the army has forced them back into the eastern part of the country, now known as Kayah or Karen state, along the border with Thailand.

Most of the other rebel groups have ceasefire agreements with the military government, but the KNU continues to fight against Myanmar’s military government.

Recent assault

The 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 faction from the KNU in the mid-nineties.

“These people are not just fleeing fighting and shelling. They are fleeing out of fear of being forced to work as porters and being conscripted into the army,” said McKinsey, after the UNHCR had interviewed most of the recent refugees last week.

According to UNHCR, there are 2,000 new Karen refugees in Thailand, though many aid agencies put the figure at over 4,000 - many secretly housed with friends or hiding in the jungle on both sides of the border.

Five camps

The refugees are currently being cared for in five different sites, including Noh Bu temple. The Thai authorities have set up medical centres to provide health care and medical checks for anyone who needs them. Several aid groups are providing assistance. The TBBC has been distributing rice, beans, fish paste and salt, while the Karen Refugee Council is giving out blankets and clothes.

But the rain now falling daily is making everything much more difficult and there is concern over possible health risks. However, according to TBBC's Thompson, "no [disease] outbreaks have been reported so far, only some cases of malaria."

Apart from the need for proper shelter, the greatest fear now is for the refugees’ health. “No outbreaks have been reported so far, only some cases of malaria,” TBBC’s Thompson said.

Most of the refugees are reluctant to be moved far from the border so that they can return home when the fighting eases.

“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,” she said.

The UNHCR says there are over 100,000 registered Burmese refugees inside Thailand today, most of them Karen.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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