Refugees treated like ‘ping pong balls’

Thailand is treating Burmese refugees like “human ping pong balls”, Human Rights Watch said as another exodus of more than 1,000 Karen fled across the border.

Some 1,129 refugees escaped another eruption of heavy fighting close to the Thai-Burma border over the weekend, with some still arriving yesterday evening. They are staying at a border patrol police base close to Mae Sot, the Bangkok Post reported.

It follows a month of fighting in eastern Karen state that has caused thousands of refugees to move back and forth across the border. Reports that the Thai army had been obstructing men, women and children from escaping were met with criticism by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“People fleeing conflict in Burma are being treated like human ping pong balls – reluctantly allowed into Thailand when fighting flares, but then returned to Burma at the first sign of quiet,” said Elaine Pearson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.

“Thailand should not return refugees until the risk to them in Burma truly ends, but should allow them to stay in safe areas away from the border with access to protection services and assistance from humanitarian agencies.”

The first wave of refugees on 8 November returned to Burma within days of fleeing, despite many questioning the stability of the conflict zone. Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned at the time that fighting could stretch over three months, while the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) said last week that the clashes were not isolated incidents but part of ongoing fighting.

The recent conflict began in early November after a breakaway faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) took government positions in Myawaddy, which marks the crossing point to Thailand’s Mae Sot. Burmese troops have since launched tit-for-tat assaults on the DKBA, which has been aided by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

Pearson added that “so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire”, while the 7 November elections which pre-empted the fighting, hadn’t changed the junta’s policy of “terrorising” civilians.

The refugees that crossed at the weekend add to the nearly 150,000 that live in nine official camps along the Thai-Burma border, the majority of whom have fled decades of fighting in the volatile Karen state.

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