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Pattaya Daily News

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10 June 2009 :: 21:06:40 pm 1311

Karen Exodus Approaches Humanitarian Crisis

In the largest single mass migration in decades, over 4000 Karen refugees are reported to have fled Burma over the past week, starting on June 3, 2009, to seek safety in Thailand. The refugees are apparently fleeing the Burmese Army’s offensive against the Karen National Union (KNU) insurgents, which appears mainly confined to Ler Per Her camp and five rebel positions nearby.
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The Karen Human Rights Group said the influx was “the largest exodus from Karen state on a single occasion” since the government launched a major offensive against the Karen rebels in 1997. The rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other organisations have called on the United Nations to intervene to prevent a humanitarian crisis along the Thai-Burmese border.

David Thaw, a Karen spokesman, said that Ler Per Her camp and neighbouring villages in Myanmar, which were previously home to ethnic Karen, have been abandoned and that government troops and those of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (a splinter group from the Karen National Union) were trying to capture five KNU rebel positions in the close vicinity of the camp. The refugees “fled because of danger and fear of capture and forced labour by the Myanmar army,” according to Thai Lieutenant General Thanongsak Aphirakyothin. “Most of the refugees are women and children.” Thai troops have been positioned along the frontier in recent days to prevent the escalating fighting advancing into Thailand. Thailand has been attempting to act as an intermediary between the Burmese military government and the KNU to try to end the fighting, but so far to no avail.

Thailand could also soon be embroiled in the escalating conflict as Democratic Karen Buddhist Army troops have threatened to bombard Thai villagers adjacent to the border if they don’t supply them with food, according to aid group, Free Burma Rangers, who have been providing assistance to the Ler Per Her refugees.

The ethnic Karen villagers from Ler Per Her have been fleeing the shelling, crossing via the border town of Mai Sort, Tak Province, to take refuge, along the banks of the Moei river and elsewhere within an area spanning 100 kms. Thailand has already given shelter to hundreds of thousands of Karen and other refugees over the past few years in camps along the western border with Burma. Aid agencies maintain there are almost half a million others who are internally displaced inside Eastern Burma.

Thai government spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn, is reported to have stated that “We believe that, with the experience of Thailand handling this situation in the past two decades, where at times there were several hundred thousand (who) came over the Thai borders – this is, on one hand, (a) serious issue,” said Panitan. “But, on the other hand, I think Thailand is capable of handling this. And, there shouldn’t be any problem.” The Thai government has emergency procedures already in place for dealing with large influxes of refugees and they will be given temporary shelters and medical care, while immigration authorities decide what to do with them. The new refugees, however, are not being allowed into the existing camps, but are seeking refuge in Buddhists monasteries and elswhere.

The key aid provider to border refugees, The Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which is providing food, blankets, mosquito nets and plastic sheeting for shelter, estimated that 4,060 Karen, mainly women and children, had crossed into Thailand. Because the refugees are dispersed over four areas, the Thai government was considering consolidating them into one central location.

The Burmese Junta has been accused by the UN and human rights groups of the torture, killing and rape of Karen civilians in their attempts to curb the insurgency. But the Junta has remained oblivious to criticism.

The Burmese Army has been increasing pressure on Karen rebels to end their over six decades of fighting for greater autonomy from Burma’s military government, ahead of next year’s controversial Burmese elections. Burma’s government wants the country’s many ethnic groups to support the elections. The results of previous elections in 1990 are a sore point with human rights groups ever since Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide, but that notwithstanding, the Junta still went ahead and placed her under house arrest.

 

Her situation may be further exacerbated by her being put in prison for up to five years for breaching the terms of her arrest and allowing an uninvited guest to stay in her house without official permission.

Zoya Phan, a Karen with the Burma Campaign UK, had this final word: “Once again the international community is looking the other way while my people are attacked and forced to run for their lives”.

 

COVER STORY
A Life in HidingKaren Internally Displaced Persons wonder when they will be able to go homeBy Yeni/Ler Per HerSitting in his new bamboo hut in Ler Per Her camp for Internally Displaced Persons, located on the bank of Thailand’s Moei River near the border with Burma, Phar The Tai—a skinny, tough-looking man of 60 who used to hide in the jungles and mountains of Burma’s eastern Karen State—waits for the time when he can return home.“We are living in fear all the time,” he says about the lives of IDPs. His words reflect the general feeling among IDPs from Karen State, which has produced the largest number of displaced people in Burma.

Since 2002 at least 100,000 ethnic Karen have been displaced because of fighting between the Burmese army and the Karen National Liberation Army, and to avoid abuses at the hands of Rangoon soldiers. The livelihoods of these people have been undermined by the “systematic use of forced labor, restrictions placed on farmers’ access to their land and the confiscation of land and property,” according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

At least 650,000 have been displaced along Burma’s eastern border—most are living in Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan states—because of armed conflicts and human rights abuses such as forced labor and forced relocation by the Burmese army and its proxies. The majority of IDPs were the direct result of the Tatmadaw’s (armed forces) “four cuts” counter-insurgency strategy, which involves cutting off the ethnic rebels’ access to food, revenue from taxes, recruits and information, as numerous human rights groups have noted.

Ler Per Her is a jungle camp located about 100 kilometers north of the Thai border town Mae Sot. A group of 670 people, including many children, lives in fragile bamboo huts in this small Karen National Union-controlled area. The camp operates like a well-organized and stable village situated within the mountainous border region of eastern Karen State, and contains a clinic, school, church and a water system.

The camp’s clinic is a busy place, with patients registering for healthcare, having their blood tested, and receiving a host of other treaments. Children are particularly at risk in the camp. Malaria, pneumonia and serious gastrointestinal problems like diarrhoea and dysentery are common in the rainy season to those living in the deep monsoon forest. The largest aid group working with Burmese refugees, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, has reported that child mortality and malnutrition rates among IDPs are double Burma’s national average.

Saw Eh Nge, a 42-year-old chief medic, worries that the children will suffer greater incidents of illness as the rainy season progresses.

“We can still take care of them,” he says, “but if the patient reaches a critical point, we will transfer them to the hospital in Mae La refugee camp, which is better than here.”

Access to education is also limited for IDPs. Despite the presence of a primary school in the camp, students lack textbooks, pencils and other educational materials—they even lack sufficient light to study at night. Nevertheless, the young Karen teachers are hopeful and enthusiastic, and the KNU education department has established a curriculum and examination system. “Whether or not the students continue their studies afterwards, the education they receive here provides the foundation for a better life in the future,” says 28-year-old Rainbow, who heads the school.

There may be hardships in Ler Per Her, but life across the border can be precarious. The Burmese army continues to

“target civilians in its war against ethnic insurgents, forcibly displacing large numbers of poor villagers,” New York-based Human Rights Watch has reported.
Traditionally, the Karen people—7 percent of Burma’s population and the second largest of Burma’s ethnic minorities—have lived a peacful life of cultivating rice and vegetables, hunting in the jungle and fishing in the streams to get supplementary food. However the continued aggression in Karen State by the army has prevented many Karen civilians from earning a living and compelled them to flee their villages. Their survival depends on their ability to hide safely in the jungle. 

According to Phar The Tae, his family and 50 other Karen families moved frequently in the jungle until their arrival at Ler Per Her. “We had nothing to eat, but we didn’t want to meet the Burmese soldiers,” he said. “We were afraid of being conscripted as porters.”Some displaced Karen have entered Thailand as refugees to avoid exploitation at the hands of Burmese soldiers. However, they are not always allowed to cross the border; and when they are allowed, the Thai authorities can only provide a short-term solution.
 
“If there is fighting, they [Thai authorities] grant the civilians permission to cross the border. But when there is no fighting, they don’t,” said a local KNU commander. 
The KNU has said that the resettlement of IDPs is a top priority. Since it reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” for a ceasefire with the junta in December 2003, “some parts of Karen State have begun to see less fighting and fewer incidents of human rights violations, such as extrajudicial executions and torture, than before,” says secretary of the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People, Saw Hla Henry. “But there is still widespread use of forced labor,” he adds.
Saw Hla Henry is also a member of the central executive committee of the KNU. Refering to the regime’s frequent accusation that the KNU is playing politics with refugees, Saw Hla Henry responds: “The KNU is working for the Karen people, so we are always with them.”

Nevertheless, IDPs in Ler Per Her, such as Phar The Tae, are obviously not armed Karen fighters. They are victims of Burma’s ongoing civil war. “The current situation is not clear yet,” said Phar The Tae. But he has not given up his dream of going home. “I hope it will be a sweet home someday. I have still enough strength to build a new house and farm again.”
 
 

 

Reporter : PDN staff   Photo : Internet   Category : Editorial

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