The British ambassador to Burma, Andrew Heyn, conducted a fact-finding trip to the Thai border to meet with Burmese refugees and leaders of the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) on Thursday afternoon.
He toured Mae La refugee camp, 60 km from Mae Sot where he held talks with the camp committee and witnessed the living conditions in the camp—where more than 40,000 Burmese refugees are sheltered. Many of the refugees, the majority of whom are ethnic Karen, fled their homeland due to Burmese army attacks.
During his trip to the border, Heyn held a separate meeting with KNU leaders where they talked about the ongoing armed conflict in eastern Burma.
Zipporah Sein, the general-secretary of the KNU, said, “It is a fact-finding mission about what is really going on at the border and in Karen State. I think he [Ambassador Heyn] doesn’t want to listen only to the government. He wants to listen to both sides.
“We told him [Heyn] that we think there is no political change in Burma as fighting breaks out almost every day in Karen State, and the government hasn’t withdrawn its troops from the region,” she said.
The KUN leader said that the KNU would always welcome dialogue with the government to solve the ongoing political crisis. Armed conflict should be solved by political means, she said, adding that “if there is no tangible pressure on the government, we don’t see any sign the government will hold dialogue with us.”
During his trip, Heyn also raised the issue of a need of continued humanitarian support on the border.
Tun Tun, the chairman of Mae La camp, said that he had explained to the UK ambassador about the impact of reduced funding to the camp, highlighting a shortfall in education, health care and food.
Heyn also met and questioned several Karen refugee families who had recently fled from the conflict surrounding their villages in Karen State.
A housewife who talked to Heyn said, “The ambassador asked me the reason I fled to Thailand. I told him that I came here because I can’t stay a moment longer in my village because of the war.”
Tun Tun said that he told the ambassador that an end to the civil war depends on the Burmese government, which is the sole party that can bring about concrete changes, national reconciliation and peace in the country.
The camp committee told the ambassador that the fundamental rights of refugees must be fully respected when trying to solve refugee affairs, most notably repatriation.
Several observers said that repeated trips by foreign officials to refugee camps may be related to the repatriation of the refugees. Visits by foreign dignitaries frequently follow reports that refugee camps will be closed and refugees repatriated by the Thai authorities.
Thai officials have recently conducted visits to several refugee camps where they invariably ask refugees if they want to return to Burma. Thailand has promised that only those refugees who volunteer to return home will be repatriated. There are nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border housing more than 140,000 refugees.