Thailand suspends Karen refugee return

Feb 5, 2010 (DVB), A meeting is underway along the Thai-Burma border after Thailand yesterday suspended the forced return of some 3,000 Karen refugees back to Burma.

Aid groups had warned that the refugees, who fled fighting in Burma's eastern Karen state last June, would be returning to similarly hostile conditions.

But the repatriation, which was due to start at 7 o'clock this morning, has been suspended and now talks are underway between the Thai army and representatives of the refugees in the town of Mae Salit, near to where the refugees had been staying.

Blooming Night, spokesperson for the Karen Women's Organisation (KWO), said that there was "heavy privacy surrounding the meeting". The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is reportedly in attendance, has not responded to requests for details of the talks.

The Karen National Union (KNU)'s Nant Bwa Bwa Phan warned however that despite the suspension, "we still have to be alert as [Thai authorities] often change their mind".

The exact reason for the suspension is not yet clear, although it follows demands from regional rights groups, as well as members of the international community, that any repatriation should be purely voluntary.

Yesterday, 27 US lawmakers wrote to the Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, warning him that the refugees will "suffer horrific human rights abuses" upon their return.

"They will undoubtedly be subject to forced labor, executions, torture and mutilations, forced recruitment as soldiers, including child soldiers, and theft and extortion, making their survival very difficult," the letter said.

Karen state has hosted a 60-year conflict between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Burmese junta, and the area remains heavily landmined.

Around 4000 refugees in total fled the fighting last June, during which Burmese troops captured the strategically important KNLA 7th Brigade headquarters.

Troops then began shelling the Ler Per Har camp for internally displaced persons, claiming that it was sheltering KNLA soldiers, before taking full control of the camp. As more people fled the area, reports surfaced of widespread forced army recruitment and extortion among those who remained.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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