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Burmese Christian Refugees Increase in Thailand

12/09/09 Thailand (ICC) – After sunset, Thailand’s highway bordering Burma becomes pitch dark and shows no sign of human habitation. However, as the road progresses from Mae Sot to Mae Sariang town, cutting through the dense forest on the hills of Tak Province, several offshoots begin to appear along the way.

These narrow, steep, curvy and rocky turns descend into jungles leading to clusters of thatched huts. Such are the camp sites that house thousands of refugees from neighboring Burma, many of who are Christians.

Burma’s ethnic minorities have been fleeing military junta’s mortar attacks and the decades-long civil unrest for the last two decades. Currently, there are over 160,000 Burmese refugees, many of them Christians from Karen ethnic minority, in nine camps along the 300-mile Thai-Burma border.

New asylum seekers arrive in Thailand almost every month, but influx of refugees in the run-up to and after the 2010 Burma elections may be unprecedented.

As the elections are drawing nearer, Burma’s ethnic minorities, mainly in the south-eastern parts of the country bordering Thailand, are increasingly coming under attack by the junta, say news and relief agencies covering Burma and Thailand.

Many areas in the Karen and Karenni States of Burma, which border Thailand, are outside the control of the military junta regime and are designated as “Black Zones” – mostly inhabited by ethnic minorities involved in a struggle for a separate state or autonomy within Burma for over six decades, says a spokesperson of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a humanitarian service movement.

These are “free-fire” zones where the Burmese army can kill anyone it comes across, he explained, adding that the Burma army regularly launches attacks, involving up to four battalions, on villages where resistance is active and suspected hideouts of internally displaced people.

After mortar and machine-gun attacks, the soldiers make their way into the villages to loot homes and beat, rape and torture the villagers, says the FBR spokesperson. “Then, they lay landmines in and around the villages. And villagers are shot on sight.”

The Burmese junta wants to eliminate non-ceasefire armed groups in the Black Zones, says Mungpi, Assistant Editor of Mizzima News, an independent Burmese news agency run by Burma’s journalists in exile.

The Burma army will now increase its offensive against organizations such as the Karen National Union (KNU) in the run-up to the elections, which are expected anytime after May 2010.

“In Karen State, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), an armed militia group aligned to the junta, has increased its military activities significantly in recent months,” says Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

“It is believed that the junta is using the DKBA to take control of areas rich in natural resources for logging and mining interests and is strengthening the DKBA to play a significant role in the elections in 2010,” adds Rogers.

A spokesperson of the Partners Relief and Development (PRD), a relief agency, points out that a spate of mortar attacks on villages in the Karen State by the DKBA – which forced over 4,000 people, mostly Christians, to flee to Thailand in June – was directly related to the elections.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) 2010 country operations profile of Thailand also states that fresh displacement into Thailand is expected in the near future.

The PRD spokesperson warns that even after the elections in 2010, influx of refugees may continue or even further increase.

“If the Burmese junta gains legitimacy while not entering into the ethnic areas with political means, the ethnic people will still continue their struggle, which could result in Brown Zones (contested areas) becoming Black Zones and White Zones (where the junta has full control) becoming Brown Zones.”

Given that Burma’s refugees are already reeling due to poor living conditions, it is feared that a larger influx of refugees can lead to more misery.

The PDR spokesperson said when new asylum seekers flee across the border, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) try to arrange food, shelter, essential supplies like medicines, and clean drinking water as soon as possible.

But the process can be slow sometimes, as INGOs have to move through government authorities, adds the PRD spokesperson. And since new arrivals include babies, children, women and old people, any delay can result in casualties. Moreover, the fuel is more expensive in border areas and closest markets are more than 100 miles away from the camp sites.

Thailand has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is a mere statement of intent to give asylum to and protect externally displaced people. Refugees and asylum-seekers not registered with the camps can be legally arrested, detained and deported by Thai authorities. It is estimated that there are over 50,000 unregistered refugees in Thailand, and the number may swell in the near future.

Even the registered refugees are neither allowed to work and nor can they go beyond the camp areas.

“None of us is allowed to work. We do not have any personal money,” says a youth, resident of the Mae La camp, biggest among the nine refugee camps which houses more than 50,000 refugees. Clothes, toiletries and other essential items are donated to the residents by relief agencies and benevolent visitors, he explained.

Others complain they feel like “prisoners”. “I have not gone out of the camp area even once since I arrived at the Mae La camp 11 years ago,” says Wah Ray, now 32 years old. “I hope to be resettled in another country sometime in the future. I also want to live a normal life.”