Friday, 1 August 2008

Caught in the crossfire

By Hseng Khio Fah /Saw Sai Sai
26 July 2008

(SHAN) - Burmese civilians are caught between a military dictatorship determined to drive them from their villages, and an unsympathetic Thai government more interested in trade than helping refugees.

In 2007 as many as 76,000 villagers were forced to leave their homes as a result of armed conflict and related human rights violations in Eastern Burma. Most of these people are still living in makeshift shelters in the jungle. Others who fled to the safety of Thailand are now being sent back to an uncertain future by the Thai authorities.

To enforce this new hard line policy on July 16, Thai military ordered Karen villagers, mostly women and children who had fled fighting in Northern Burma to leave the safety of a refugee camp in Mae Hong Son Province in Thailand.

The Karen Women’s Organization (KWO), based in Mae Sot, says these refugees are at serious risk if they are forced back to Burma.

“We are seriously concerned for the welfare and safety of these refugees. To repatriate women and children in the middle of the rainy season is particularly cruel and we appeal to the Thai authorities to reconsider their decision and allow them to stay,” said KWO.

The refugees were from Toungoo and Nyaunglaybin district, north of Karen State, Burma, and according to Human Rights Watch group, where the military offensive continues with widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law on a scale that amounted to crimes against humanity.

Increased militarization and occupation by the Burma Army in ethnic states has made it impossible for villagers to stay in their own land.

According to a 2007 survey by the Thailand Burmese Border Consortium (TBBC), 273 infantry and light infantry battalions are active in the country’s eastern States-a third of the army.

Saw Hla Henry, secretary of Committee for Internally Displaced Karen Peoples (CIDKP) confirms the Burmese army has increased their operations against villagers.

“The soldiers burnt their homes. Many villagers had to take refuge in hideouts. Others stayed on their farms, but were unable to work under the rule of the military. Many villagers prevented from farming, had difficulty finding enough food to feed their families.”

Saw Hla Henry says getting aid to the displaced villages is difficult.

“When IDPs areas are often patrolled by the military soldiers, they dare not came out from the jungle. We can only provide them a relief of three months by cashes and it is not enough for them to survive. They face diseases such as malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea and other minor disease.”

Amnesty International’s 2008 Report.found that in spite of government ceasefires with the armies of all but three ethnic groups, the destruction of houses and crops, forced displacement, forced labor, portering and killings by the military continued in all seven ethnic states.

Talking to CIDKP report, a Karen woman, Naw Wah, a mother of nine told of her experience the night the Burmese soldiers attacked her village.

“I heard a big shell come over me. One of my sons pulled me down to safety. I was very scared. To save our lives we ran. We tried to take rice and pots with us, but it was difficult because of the darkness. Many people ran to different places. Some villagers escaped across the border to a Thai refugee camp.”

Getting to safety in Thailand has no guarantees. Recent arrivals have been sent back by Thai authorities.

AI report classifies displaced people into three categories: these are IDPs in mixed administration, ceasefire areas, relocation areas and hiding areas.

The TBBC reports that more than 3,000 villages had been destroyed relocated or abandoned in the east between 1996 and 2006 and from 2006 to 2007, at least 167 more villages were displaced. Although the Burmese government denies these figures, satellite photos provides evidence of burnt-out villages, an increasing military presence, and growing populations of displaced people.

TBBC estimates 81,000 IDPs were living in Karenni State as of October 2007. The majorities were in conditions of absolute poverty in ceasefire areas administered by ethnic groups, but the most vulnerable were the 10,000 IDPs hiding from the SPDC and ceasefire party patrols in Shadaw, Pruso and Pasawng townships.

The numbers of displaced people has been increasing in their thousands, as fighting and militarization by the Burma Army continues to displace both civilians and rebels groups. In the past many villagers have taken refugee in neighboring Thailand country of recent action by the Thai military are an indications those days are now over.

The article was submitted to the Human Rights Reporting Workshop, organized by InterNews, 21-26 July 2008 – Editor

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