Rival groups meet on Karen refugees

Jan 27, 2010 (DVB), A number of groups, including rival Karen armies, met yesterday in Thailand to discuss the repatriation of some 2000 Karen refugees back to Burma.

The refugees in June last year fled fighting between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), who are both vying for control of Karen state. The DKBA are supported by the Burmese junta.

Both groups however were present at the meeting yesterday, held in Thailand's Nupo village nearby the populous Nupo camp, along with delegates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC).

An official elected by the refugees who attended the meeting told DVB on condition of anonymity that the DKBA would ensure that returnees are not forced into labour or army portering; these were two of the main threats the refugees reported when they fled last June.

"However, the [DKBA] said they can't take responsibility on the landmines laid by the KNU in the region before the offensive began," he said. "The DKBA can clear the mines they laid themselves but not the KNU mines."

The KNU reportedly expressed concern that there would be little land available for the villagers to return to farming, although the TBBC has pledged to provide food aid both if the refugees return to Burma, or they remain in Thai camps.

The chairperson of the Nupo camp, Tar Su Nya, said however that "there would be a lot of difficulties" if the refugees returned.

"They are afraid to moved around in the area to collect materials such as wood and bamboo to rebuild their houses," he said. "If we cannot stay here, then we might have to go back, but to do so, we need assistance with food, health and education from the NGOs."

The Thai government is yet to announce whether repatriation will be forced or voluntary. The UNHCR has also vowed to help any returnees, but said that it is down to the Thai government whether they are pushed back to Karen state.

"We are refugees," said one of the camp residents contacted by DVB. "We will stay here if we are allowed and will leave if not allowed. But now, there has been no solid decision made and this is leaving us confused."

Reporting by Naw Noreen

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