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Burma’s continued refusal to reopen a key border crossing and trading point to western Thailand is down to what it sees as Thailand’s hosting of anti-Burmese government armed groups, the Tak governor has claimed.
The Friendship Bridge connecting Karen state’s Myawaddy town to Thaland’s Mae Sot closed in July last year, with initial speculation that Naypyidaw was protesting perceived attempts by Thailand to re-route the Moei river, which divides the two countries.
But that claim has been rubbished by the governor of Tak province, of which Mae Sot is a principal town. Samart Loifah told Deutsche-Presse Agentur (DPA) that Burma believed Mae Sot and the surrounding area had become a second home for members of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and its political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU).
“The main problem is that Myanmar [Burma] does not see the refugees in Tak as refugees,” he told DPA. “They see them as hidden KNU supporters. This is why they refuse to open the bridge.”
The KNLA has been fighting against the Burmese government for nearly six decades in what is perhaps the world’s most protracted civil war. A number of KNLA bases lie in the mountainous region along the porous frontier with Thailand where cross-border movement is easy.
This factor, as well as Thailand’s once lauded open-door policy for refugees, has led to hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing into Thailand to escape regular fighting in Karen state. Nearly 150,000 live in camps along the border, while thousands more are scattered in unofficial locations along the river. According to Loifah, the Burmese junta believes supporters of the insurgency lie among these.
Thailand’s Foreign Trade Department estimated in October last year that around $US3 million was being lost each day due to the closure of the bridge, the main land-crossing between the two countries. In 2009 trade through Mae Sot was worth about $US860 million, nearly a quarter of the total annual bilateral trade.
Perhaps as a result of the bridge’s closure, as well as attempts by Thailand to curry favour with the junta in return for winning lucrative investment contracts, Thai policy toward refugees has become stricter, and some 10,000 Karen who fled earlier this year have been forced to find shelter in makeshift camps along the river, with little access to food and healthcare.