Refugee camp under threat

by Daniel Pedersen
Saturday, 31 January 2009 18:32

Mae Sot (Mizzima) – As night closes in on Noe Poh refugee camp, about five hours south of Mae Sot in northern Thailand bordering town with Burma, the road that skirts its edge clears of people.

By 9 pm, should anyone be reckless enough to light a candle, Karen National Liberation Army, the armed-wing of Karen National Union, one of the longest running ethnic rebels in Asia against the military-ruled Burma, soldiers will quickly ensure it is extinguished.

By now though, after two weeks of bolstered security in the face of intrusions upon Thailand’s sovereignty by Burmese government-backed fighters, mostly no one would be foolish enough to dare light their surroundings.

No one moves from their ramshackle perches in the night, a strict curfew is policed by both Thai soldiers and KNLA foot patrols.

Two weeks ago the camp was shutting down at 8.45 sharp, but one inhabitant said the “situation has calmed down a lot now”.

Just weeks ago brazen sorties by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a break away Karen faction but aligned with the military junta, had everyone on edge.

DKBA “spies”, Karens not part of the camp population, were intercepted creeping around in the darkness four nights in a row.

So paranoid were camp security officers that, at the height of tensions in the area around the camp, one accused spy was arrested and executed.

“I don’t think he had a trial,” said Carl Browne, one of two foreign teachers working at the camp.

“They’ve caught nine or 10 so far,” he said, adding that a committee member of the school at which he teaches, the ESC (for English Speaking Course), came across three in one night.

The word “course” in the school’s name replaces college, because Thai authorities do not allow colleges, which would suggest permanency.

Serious fighting has come as close as 10 kilometres to Noe Poh camp.

The DKBA is pursuing remnants of the KNLA’s 103 Special Battalion, which early this year lost its base camp further north.

As the KNLA unit pulls back into ever-higher mountains in the south it lays landmines, creating a constant stream of DKBA casualties, the most serious of which are admitted to Umphang Hospital, run by the Thai government.

The base camp of 103 was one of the last two KNLA Sixth Brigade footprints in Karen State. Its loss means only Wah Lay Kee, further north, remains.

A foreign donor who helps humanitarian fund the Karen struggle for recognition said he felt KNLA commanders now accepted Wah Lay Kee would also be lost.

“I think, just strategically, because they’re so outnumbered, they figure it is better to keep the soldiers safe by keeping them on the move,” he said.

DKBA and SPDC troops have been poised to take Wah Lay Kee at their liberty for weeks now, but have not yet launched a final push.

But the Thais know Wah Lay Kee is bound to fall and vigilant patrols have sealed the border, waiting to deter any combatants or civilians fleeing the fighting from limping into Thai territory.

The foreign donor explained the apparent reticence of DKBA and SPDC troops thus: “They’re not keen to go in because they know the place will be booby-trapped and there won’t be anyone there.

“And they know they will take casualties.”

Benedict Rogers, author of “A Land Without Evil” lamented 103’s loss over coffee in Mae Sot.

“You know I come here two, maybe three times a year and every visit another bit of land is lost.

“I see that they [KNU/KNLA] are being ground further and further down,” he said, shaking his head.

On this visit Mr Rogers will meet with the KNU’s new leadership, filled with hope the orginization can revitalize its struggle against Burma’s State Peace and Development Council.

“You know since Mahn Sha’s death (the former KNU secretary-general who was assassinated at his home near Mae Sot on February 14, 2008) there’s not been any real leadership.

“He was a unifying figure who drew together different strands of opinion, religion and he maintained links with the various democracy groups. He saw the big picture.”

Mr Rogers said the SPDC’s latest offensives, which began in Karen State but have now pushed into Shan and Karenni States, are part of an outright bid to force rebels fighting for self-determination into submission before the 2010 elections.

Burman dissidents in Mae Sot agreed, saying the SPDC would pressure armed groups weakened by the current extreme military offensives to sign ceasefire deals before next year’s poll.

Mr Rogers said he feared the international community, irritated and embarrassed by the junta’s harsh and belligerent excesses, might be willing to accept a veneer of calm, no matter how artificial it might be.

“That’s particularly the case with Asian countries, they’re tired of it,” he said.

The “official” population of Noe Poh camp is about 14,000, but each week new arrivals bolster that figure, as Thai brokers deliver their quarry hidden in cars or trucks.

People living in the camp, which is largely forgotten by the constant stream of foreign volunteer teachers, Christian groups and non-governmental organisations that pour into more accessible camps during the dry season, say passage from Mae Sot to Noe Poh costs about 5000 baht.

Carl Browne, who until this week was the only foreign teacher at Noe Poh and has more than 600 students, says once fugitives make it to Noe Poh, they’re safe.

“The real issue is getting in,” he said.

“But because we’re so far away from Mae Sot, we sort of get forgotten, or left alone – we have internet cafes, we have shops.

“There’s more and more activists seeking refuge at Noe Poh, from Rangoon, former political prisoners, there’s more than in Mae La even.

“That’s why Noe Poh is really under pressure, the junta wants to clean up before next year,” he said.

People living at Noe Poh know full well the junta wants to destroy the camp.

“Hell, the DKBA even contacted the Thai camp commander and said ‘get your people out, we’re coming in to burn it down’,” said Mr. Browne.

“The camp commander said no.”

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