Concerns raised about refugee repatriation amid more fighting inside Burma
BANGKOK – Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva believes that a new Burmese Government will be formed in three months, and anticipates that this “will help bring stability”, after recent fighting in Myawaddy sent 30000 Burmese refugees fleeing across the Thai border into Mae Sot. “We are led to believe there will be a transition period of about three months”, he said earlier today.
The refugees fled to Thailand on Nov. 8 after Tatmadaw forces moved to reclaim parts of the border town of Myawaddy from a splinter group from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), before being sent back to Burma yesterday by the Thai authorities.
Speaking in the sidelines of the 14th International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Bangkok, Abhisit said that “we had anticipated some instability” after the November 7 elections in Burma, but did not elaborate on what contingency plans Thailand is making should fighting continue or spread to other ethnic areas inside Burma. Thailand hosts around 140000 Burmese refugees, and the prospect of renewed fighting in Burma would likely add to these numbers.
On Wednesday morning an estimated 3000 Karen and Mon refugees crossed into Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province after more fighting near Three Pagodas Pass, south of Myawaddy. A combined Karen and Mon force is reportedly exchanging fire with the Burmese Army, fuelling speculation that a multiethnic force could materialise in the border areas.
Six of the largest ethnic militias have formed a mutual defence pact, to be activated should any one of them be attacked by the junta’s army. Five deadlines have passed for the militias to stand down and merge with the proposed Border Guard Force (BGF), which all have refused to do.
The party affiliated to the largest militia, the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) issued a statement on November 5 saying that it wants “to solve the problems arising between the Government and the Wa State though a peaceful dialogue with the new Government.”
While the DKBA faction that launched the surprise attack on army positions in Myawaddy on Sunday and Monday is not party to the militia agreement, it has broken from the main body of the DKBA over the latter’s agreement to join the junta’s BGF.
The Sunday attack on Government buildings in Myawaddy, and subsequent fighting 100km away at Three Pagoda Pass, was prompted by threats made at gunpoint to force Myawaddy residents to vote November 7, according to Col Saw Lah Pwe, commander of the breakaway faction.
The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is claiming a landslide win in the election, a victory which US President Barack Obama said was stolen. Allegations of forced voting, ballot stuffing and opaque counting are rife inside Burma, with various opposition and ethnic parties saying that they will contest or boycott the result.
ASEAN Chair Vietnam and junta ally China, both one-party states, welcomed the election as a key step in the junta’s seven step programme to what it deems “disciplined democracy”. However, at the recent ASEAN summit in Hanoi, both Indonesia and the Philippines took a critical line on the Burma elections, with Manila’s Foreign Minister calling the polls “ a farce”, signalling divisions within the ten-member bloc on how to deal with the Burmese issue. Speaking today in Jakarta, Obama said that the 2011 accession of Indonesia to the Chair of ASEAN could be a positive development for Burma.
Meanwhile, Thailand is busy dealing with the immediate fallout of the election in Burma. Asked whether the repatriation back to Myawaddy of the latest refugee influx was premature, given continued fighting along the border, Government spokesman Dr Panitan Wattanayagorn that ”our policy is to ensure that the safety of the people is assured once they go back”, but added that the Government would provide temporary assistance for any refugees that cross the border.
Burma Partnership issued a statement earlier today, on behalf of various Thai and Burmese civil society groups, saying that “in the current situation and given the likelihood of further armed conflict, we call on the Royal Thai Government to continue to allow people who are fleeing fighting inside Burma and who are afraid to return due to the unsafe conditions, to remain in temporary shelters in Thai territory.”
Earlier Thai army chief Gen. Prayuth told journalists that that no more refugee centres would be established, up as the existing number of camps around Mae Sot and elsewhere in the border regions are sufficient to handle any refugee influx.
As he left Bangkok to visit the flood-hit southern provinces of Thailand with PM Abhisit, Panitan added “the Prime Minister made this clear at a Cabinet meeting yesterday, and our military agencies are in contact with the army across the border to know the situation there”.
“The refugees often come to Thailand to do business and to trade, and many want to go back as soon as possible to tend to their belongings and property”, said Panitan.
Asked by The Irrawaddy about the repatriation of the Burmese refugees, Amnesty International Secretary –General Salil Shetty urged the Thai Government “to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement”, an aspect of international humanitarian law that says refugees cannot be sent back to their country of origin unless their safety is assured. Mr Shetty said that he met with Thai PM Abhisit, who said that the safety of the refugees would be the core criteria in determining Thai policy.
However, Shetty, speaking at the IACC in Bangkok, said that “the situation on the ground is fuzzy, some refugees have gone back voluntarily, bit others are crossing back to Thailand”, amid continuing fighting near Three Pagodas Pass.Show