'27,000 displaced' in Karen township

Upland areas in northern Karen state demand urgent humanitarian aid efforts in light of consistent and “intense” military attacks, a report released by a local human rights group has said.

The study, conducted by Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) from January 2009 to April 2010 in northern Papun district, which borders Thailand, claims that the atrocities faced by civilians in Lu Thaw township as a result of army attacks in the past two decades is one of the worst cases in Karen state.

Reports indicate that over 3300 villages have been destroyed by the Burmese junta in eastern Burma alone, thereby making it Asia’s worst internally displaced persons (IDP) crisis zone.

“The [Lu Thaw township] area was a site of a very intense offensive from 2005 to 2008. As of today, 27,000 people continue to live in hiding in the forests, the mountains. Some have been displaced to urban areas or forced relocation sites in lowland areas, while others have escaped to refugee camps in Thailand,” Matt Finch, spokesperson for the KHRG, told DVB.

Lu Thaw township has been subject to army attacks for the last two decades. The military offensive tactics include shelling in villages, burning down houses, schools, churches and food storage areas, and planting landmines so villagers are unable to return home.

Such onslaughts have caused widespread displacement of people and deterioration of humanitarian conditions. Health, food security and access to education have been severely affected.

“There are a couple of inter-related reasons for attacks on civilians in these areas. The civilian population here has been able to evade control by the Burmese army. The attacks are therefore designed in such a way that they can drive the civilians into areas from where they can be better controlled,” Finch said.

According to Finch, the Karen people in the specified area provide the Burmese army with “a crucial support base with respect to forced labour, source of taxation, source of intelligence, and so on.”

Another reason for targeting populations in Papun district is their assumed affiliation with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) – a rebel army which has fought the Burmese forces for over two decades. It is a priority for the army to keep civilians out of the KNLA’s reach.

Currently, there are no international humanitarian aid efforts undertaken in the upland areas of Papun district. The majority of the external support received by the population here is from local organisations based in Thailand.

“Deliberate attacks on relief workers have kept away many humanitarian organisations from continuing their work in Lu Thaw. For example, a member of a mobile medical team was killed in an army attack in July earlier this year. [Events like] this have significant impacts on other humanitarian organisations’ ability to work here,” Finch explained.

International aid workers also face many hurdles with the junta laying down strict rules that make functioning increasingly difficult for them. The International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) is said to have stopped working in the area in 2007 owing to harsh restrictions laid down by the Burmese government regarding accessing civilian populations.

Finch said that any assumption that attacks would drop in the run up to the 7 November elections in line with the junta’s move to warm to civilians and their votes should be approached cautiously. “We do not expect voting to be held in the upland areas of Karen state, so the attacks will continue until, during and after the election,” he said.

The report recommends that immediate humanitarian aid begin in Lu Thaw township. However, given the numerous constraints laid down by the Burmese government – flushing out of humanitarian aid workers countrywide prior to the election – will make it difficult for the recommendations to materialise.

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