The reopening of a prized trade point along the Thai-Burma border will rest on Thailand’s ability to effectively clear border towns of anti-Napyidaw armed groups, Burmese officials have reportedly said.
The remarks were made by Samart Loifah, the governor of Thailand’s western Tak province, during a recent press conference. He told reporters that the Burmese government has been pressuring authorities in the border town of Mae Sot to evict rebels believed to shelter there, and in return Burma would drop its blockade of the Myawaddy-Mae Sot Friendship Bridge, which has been closed for a year.
Samart said that three demands were made of the Tak provincial government, including that it “clear out” refugee camps along the border where Naypyidaw also believes rebels hide.
The issue of Thailand’s attitude towards the nine camps has triggered concern over the past year, with senior authorities making public their desire to see the inhabitants returned to Burma.
Samart also claimed the Burmese wanted Thai officials to locate the men suspected of a Rangoon bomb attack three years ago, whom it also claims are in Mae Sot. Added to this is Naypyidaw’s perennial wish to see senior members of the opposition Karen National Union (KNU) and its military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), arrested.
He said that “there are no less than 10 KNU leaders living in Tak province and Burma demanded their arrest”.
It echoes similar remarks made by the Tak governor in March this year, when he relayed concerns of the Burmese government that towns along the Thai border had become KNLA “enclaves”.
David Thackrabaw, deputy chairman of the KNU, claimed however that the group was not using Thai soil to launch attacks on Burmese forces. “We are based and operating in our own territory [in Burma],” he said, adding that no KNLA were hiding among refugees in the camps.
“According to international standards, peace should be fully guaranteed in the refugee’s native land before they are repatriated, and any return should be voluntary.”
The reason given by Burma for the closure of the bridge centred on complaints that Thailand was attempting to reroute the Moei river, although speculation about Thailand’s perceived sheltering of the armed opposition quickly arose.
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.
Thailand’s countrywide border trade generates around $US4.3 billion each year for the developing economy, nearly a quarter of which goes through Mae Sot. The closure of the crossing is thought to have cost the country around $US2.7 million each day.