Refugees return but fear remains

Thailand today began the repatriation of Burmese refugees who had fled fighting in the country’s eastern Karen state, despite warnings that violence could flare up again in the coming days.

One refugee told DVB that a Burmese army commander in Myawaddy, which erupted in gunfire and explosions on Monday, had guaranteed the safety of those who returned. Up to 20,000 fled in total, the majority to Thailand’s border town of Mae Sot, where many still remain.

“People rushed to go back since they all wanted to go back. A lot have gone now,” the man said. Burmese troops on Monday had given an hour’s warning to Myawaddy residents to evacuate the town, which triggered the exodus to Mae Sot.

Fighting flared after a breakaway faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) took over key military and administrative positions on Sunday evening, the same day Burma held controversial elections.

That faction, led by renegade commander Na Kham Mwe, had refused demands by the Burmese junta to assimilate its troops into the Burmese army, and sent some 1000 troops into Myawaddy. Similar fighting had broken out further south in Payathonzu, where around 2,000 people fled across the border.

Senior DKBA official, Major Sar Mu Say, said that Burmese troops had destroyed the group’s outpost near to Myawaddy, where Na Kham Mwe had been sheltering.

“They pounded our base with heavy weapons and small arms fire from 10am until 11am this morning,” he said. “For the first 30 minutes, they were only firing heavy weapons. Police with small weapons also assisted with the capture [of the outpost].”

The fighting appears to have died down as many of the refugees make the trip back across the Moei river towards Myawaddy, a key border crossing point between the two countries.

“So far about 5000 people have back to their homes inside and outside of the town,” said Thein San, who had been the helping those who fled in Mae Sot. “It is not exactly certain that the situation there is stable. [The refugees] fled here empty-handed – they didn’t even bring blankets or anything.”

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