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Junta threat may spur refugee exodus, Karen council warns

September 1, 2010

Mae Sot (Mizzima) – An exodus of refugees in numbers never before seen along the Thai-Burmese border could begin within days, the KNU/KNLA Peace Council has warned.
In a plea to the “international community”, the Peace Council this week said 6,000 to 10,000 people could initially be evacuated, but if the Burmese Army made a clean sweep of its capital, as many as 100,000 people could be affected.

The KNU/KNLA Peace Council signed an agreement with Burma’s ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), in 2006 when it broke away from the Karen National Union. Since then it has developed a capital on the western side of the Dawna mountain range at Htokawko village in Karen State and its leaders have entered into business arrangements with the Burmese Army.

Peace Council leaders have consistently been accused of switching sides merely to enrich themselves.

This year, the SPDC demanded ethnic groups transform themselves into its Border Guard Forces (BGF), taking orders directly from Burmese Army commanders.

The Peace Council has repeatedly refused to join the BGF as an armed wing of the Burmese Army and steadfastly refused to fight troops of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). But now the SPDC has demanded the Peace Council begin obeying orders or be declared an “unlawful or illegal organisation”.

Nerdah-HS

KNLA Colonel Nerdah Mya

Burma Army Lieutenant General Ye Myint recently met Peace Council leaders and delivered the ultimatum: “Join forces with us by Sunday or the population of Htokawko will be displaced and your capital destroyed.”

In a move that could be perceived as tactically unwise, Peace Council leaders said they dismissed the demand on the spot and began preparing to defend themselves.

The Peace Council is well armed – this correspondent has seen truckloads of brand new M-60s and M-16s and many thousands of rounds of ammunition in their possession.

A council spokesman said: “If the Burmese determine to breach and violate the peace agreement and initiate war, then the Karen will have no choice but to do everything in their power to defend [themselves].”

“However [if the] safe area [Htokawko] is no longer considered safe, the children and families may have to cross over the border into Thailand,” he said. “Acceptance by the Thais is not certain.”

Elements of the KNLA last night declared that they would flank KNU/KNLA Peace Council units if they were forced to evacuate to the Thai-Burmese border.

KNLA Colonel Nerdah Mya, eldest son of the late KNLA General Bo Mya, said: “We are all Karen and the people must be defended.”

He said his men would certainly help the Peace Council forces if they were attacked by the Burmese Army and found themselves in danger of being overwhelmed.

Nerdah’s primary concern was for the civilian population, he said.

By all accounts it is unlikely Thailand will accept thousands of Peace Council refugees pouring over the border. While contingency plans have been made for three sites around Mae Sot – at Tha Son Yang, Phop Phra and Umphang – there are strict conditions for people seeking refuge in Thailand.

Anyone who comes across the border must be directly fleeing fighting and no combatants of any side, or their families, will be given food or shelter.

The Thai Third Army, which controls an area from Kanchanaburi in the south to Mae Hong Son in the far north, maintains that the dispute between the SPDC and the Peace Council is an “internal affair”, one for the Burmese to sort out among themselves.

While NGO workers along the border are treating the situation developing between the Peace Council and the Burmese Army as a serious matter, they remain sceptical that 100,000 people might flee Burma.

Faced with reduced capacity because international donors are becoming fatigued from the effects of more than six decades of fighting in Karen State, the organisations providing for refugees are hoping they are not inundated with tens of thousands of new arrivals from Burma.

But, should the Burmese Army make a clean sweep from Htokawko to the Thai border, the number of people fleeing could well dwarf last year’s exodus to Tha Son Yang. Last year, during June and July, about 6,500 people ended up on the Thai side in Tha Son Yang district when the KNLA lost its Seventh Brigade region to the Burmese Army-aligned militia, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

What followed was a disaster, as people clustered in small groups along the border and NGOs scrambled to sustain simple needs, such as sanitation, food and shelter.

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