David Mathieson: 'War crimes are happening'

Refugees continue to move back and forth across Burma’s border with Thailand as fighting in Karen state shows no sign of abating. Thai authorities have been criticised for treating those who fled like ‘ping pong balls’, refusing them sanctuary and forcing their return. But although it’s a complex situation, says Burma researcher at Human Rights Watch, David Mathieson, the refugees must be given a safe haven.

Are there any signs that fighting will end soon?

No. All the signs from the past six weeks show that fighting’s either going to continue the way it has, which is sporadic outbreaks in more areas for a couple of hundred kilometres south of Mae Sot, or it will intensify. I don’t think there are any indications that it will peter out now, and that’s something that all the NGOs and communities on the ground, but also the Thai officials, have been saying in the past couple of weeks.

Is the Burmese junta looking to eliminate these groups once and for all?

Their plan seems to be to either rout the breakaway faction of the DKBA – Na Kham Mwe’s group – and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council, or take advantage of the situation and try and rout elements of the Karen National Liberation Army that operate in the area. Or maybe the whole thing is an elaborate scheme to negotiate a better deal for the Border Guard Force: how much of what we see that looks like conflict in Burma is actually the many sides manoeuvring to get better economic deals out of things? But whether it’s politics or economics, the civilians get caught in the middle and they’re the ones who have to suffer.

Is it a warning of wider conflict in the border regions?

I wouldn’t drag it out. It seems like there are a lot of people who are egging on a broadening of the conflict, but all of these conflicts have very local and specific factors and conditions behind them. Of course they are united in a national sense by the fact that it’s all happening in Burma and that the military government is the one main impediment to seeking a deal, but I would be very careful about saying that what’s happening in Karen state is going to kickstart a broader conflict throughout the country.

There’s a very good indication of why the situation in Kachin state, for example, is much more different: in Karen state they’ve got the Thais to deal with, and it’s very different because Thailand’s a lot more tolerant of the refugees, whereas China doesn’t want any refugees – it just wants to do business and keep all the troubles in Burma within its borders. I don’t therefore think that the Wa and the Kachin will start fighting – if they do then that’s going to be completely up to local dynamics.

Has Thailand’s response to the refugees been adequate?

In terms of letting them come across and providing sanctuary for them, Thailand gets a very high grade – it’s done very well over the past five weeks. Where they’ve spoiled this is in sending people back too early, so what’s happened is you’ve got this case of people crossing the border several times: they come across, and they’re allowed to come across, but the Thais prematurely say that it’s safe to go back, and whether it’s a couple of hours, days or weeks, the fighting starts again and they’re forced to come back.

Why is Thailand keen to send them back early?

I really don’t know; all evidence points to the fact that the fighting will continue and that the situation is not safe. Just because you can’t hear artillery fire doesn’t mean that the situation’s safe, and I think partly it is just wishful thinking; that Thai authorities wish it could go back to normal. In a situation like this, the last group of people you should trust are the Burmese military: if they tell you the fighting’s stopped, you’d be crazy to believe them.

Is there pressure from the Burmese junta on Thailand?

If there is any pressure it would be to try to normalise the situation by sending the refugees back. I hazard a guess that there are a couple of reasons for that: one is in terms of public relations, that the Burmese don’t want the world to be focused on the fact that there’s fighting after the elections and after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. Second, and a more local and brutally practical reason, is that civilians in a lot of these areas provide a human shield around Burmese army troops, so if they come back to a village where the army’s set up, their opponents will be less likely to attack built-up areas. They need the people there as a resource, to carry their supplies and walk through landmines. All the things that countries have denied are happening in Burma, and who refused to support a Commission of Inquiry, well, here you go. If you went and asked one of these refugees what they are afraid of, they may not tell you that they’re suffering war crimes or crimes against humanity, but that’s exactly what it is.

Is there any international protocol that makes it illegal to send refugees back early?

Even though Thailand’s not a party to the 1961 Refugee Convention, or the 1967 optional protocol, they are bound by customary international law which says that sending people back when they’ll still face persecution or fighting in that area, is defined as refoulement, or forced return. What needs to happen is that the UNHCR has to ascertain whether cases in the past month have amounted to refoulement. I think it’s pretty clear that there have been cases that probably would.

But what’s happening is that the Thai authorities are not using violence or over-intimidation. In some cases it’s inaccurate information – if they have an assurance from the other side that there’s no fighting, then they’ll tell the village head to take the people back. It’s also got to be said that it’s a complex situation: there are people who are in the middle of the harvest season, so they want to go back and forth to check their land, and if it’s quiet for a couple of days, then they may begin harvesting.

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