Thousands of Karen Flee

Women and children belonging to the Karen ethnic insurgent group flee a Burmese military assault in the largest exodus in years.

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karen-305.jpg Burmese refugees at a camp near the Thai-Burma border, Sept. 29, 2007.

BANGKOK—Thousands of ethnic Karen have fled their camps in Burma for refuge in Thailand after an assault on their camps by the Burmese junta, according to a spokesman for the Karen and aid groups in the area.

Thai Lieutenant General Thanongsak Aphirakyothin, whose unit operates along Thailand’s western border, said Monday that nearly 1,800 Karen had entered Thailand from eastern Burma since fighting erupted close to their camp on June 3.

“They fled because of danger and fear of capture and forced labor by the Myanmar [Burmese] army,” Thanongsak told reporters. “Most of the refugees are women and children.”

But one aid group set the figure far higher, at more than 6,000 refugees.

Thai-Burma Border Commission director Sally Thompson estimated the number of Karen refugees at about 6,500 people, mainly women and children from four different locations, who have fled Burma since June 6.

“What we don’t know yet [is whether] it will be short-term and then they could go back if the Burmese army and the DKBA [Democratic Karen Buddhist Army] retreat. At the moment the support being given is just for the immediate short-term, to cover their emergency needs,” Thompson said in an interview.

The refugees are now north of the Maihla refugee camp, near Mae Sot, Thompson said, and they are taking refuge anywhere they can find it in small border villages.

The emergency aid they are receiving includes food, blankets, mosquito netting, and pastic sheets required during monsoon season, she said.

Burmese junta troops were shelling and trying to advance on five encampments of the Karen insurgents as small groups fled across the border, Karen spokesman David Thaw said.

Thai troops have been deployed along the border in recent days to contain the fighting and keep it from spilling over.

Analysts had expected an upsurge in attacks on insurgents ahead of Burma’s national elections, which are scheduled for next year.

Massive exodus

This is the largest exodus of Karen refugees since 1997, according to the Karen Human Rights Group.

The ethnic Karen National Union has been fighting for more than 60 years for greater autonomy from Burma’s military rulers, but its force has shrunk in recent years under continuing army assault and as a result of internal divisions.

Some 100,000 mostly ethnic Karen refugees were already sheltering in Thai camps after fleeing previous military offensives, and aid agencies say nearly half a million others are internally displaced inside eastern Burma.

David Thaw said Ler Per Her camp in Burma, which was sheltering internal refugees, had been abandoned and that government troops along with those of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army were trying to overrun five Karen positions in the area of the camp.

The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army split from the predominantly Christian Karen National Union in 1995, joining the government side.

About 25 opposing troops have been killed or wounded since the fighting began over the weekend, the spokesman said. He said he had no information about Karen casualties.

Original reporting by Son Moe Wai for RFA’s Burmese service. Additional reporting by news agencies. Translated by Soe Thinn. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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