Myanmar Election Could Spark Rise In Refugees
1/6/2010 Myanmar (Reuters) - The rubbish dump outside the Thai town of Mae Sot steams with rancid rotting fish and other debris, a squalid haven for hundreds of refugees from Myanmar that aid groups say could swell in size this year.
Aid groups are bracing for a rise in refugees from military-ruled Myanmar into neighboring Thailand and China ahead of its first parliamentary elections in two decades this year, potentially straining ties with its neighbors and worsening crowded refugee camps in Thailand.
The Myanmar junta has long been accused of persecution of the country's ethnic minorities, sparking a continuing exodus. Some 140,000 refugees live in official camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
"Up here there is fighting every week," said David Eubank, a relief worker in Myanmar's northern Karen State and director of the Free Burma Rangers, a Christian group that helps refugees inside Myanmar. He said there were no large-scale offensives yet but that Myanmar's military was re-supplying its camps.
Myanmar is to hold its first parliamentary election in two decades this year but critics already dismiss it as a ploy to legitimize and extend almost 50 years of military rule.
The regime wants ethnic groups to take part, and their support would help the junta claim the country was fully behind its elections. Critics also say the regime is trying to forcibly recruit rebel fighters for an army-run border patrol force.
They say Myanmar's army is seeking to neutralize the Karen and other ethnic minorities, in part to seize rich natural resources for logging and mining, a crucial revenue source for the impoverished country, Southeast Asia's second largest.
Many of the ethnic groups, including predominantly Christian Karens, do not trust the military and its ethnic Burman leaders who they have long resented and feel they have nothing to gain by taking part in the electoral process.