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Forced labour persists at Karen refugee camp

July 27, 2009 (DVB), Instances of forced labour, forced army recruitment and extortion are still being reported at the refugee camp in Burma's eastern Karen state that was overrun by a pro-junta militia last month.

The Ler Per Har camp was a focal point of fighting last month between government troops, supported by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), and opposition Karen National Union (KNU).

Around 4000 Karen civilians have fled across the border into Thailand, many of whom reported cases of being forced to act as porters for the army, and to walk in front of army patrols as minesweepers.

The Bangkok-based Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) last week said that while fighting had eased, reports of the forced labour, portering and exortion of money, food and livestock from villagers by the DKBA continued.

"These abuses continue to result in more people fleeing their villages and crossing to Thailand," the TBBC statement said, adding that a further 200 people had crossed the border into Thailand in the 24 hours prior to the statement's release.

The populous Ler Per Har camp accommodates internally displaced refugees inside Burma, although the Burmese government have said that KNU troops also reside there.

A source from the TBBC said that the DKBA were making the lives of villagers around the conflict zones "unbearable".

"The DKBA come to villages and tell families that they want their sons in the army," the source said.

"They come and ask for money; when the villagers cannot pay this, they ask for livestock."

Pressuring the DKBA and Burmese troops to end forced labour and extortion is very difficult, said the TBBC.

There has been talk however of a long-term plan by the Thai government to negotiate with the DKBA and the Burmese junta for the safe return of the refugees currently holed up in various sites on the Thai side of the border.

According to the TBBC statement, around 2000 people have moved from temporary sites in and around Nu Poh village near to the Thai-Burma border to a new camp nearby.

The fighting between Burmese troops and the armed wing of the KNU, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), began on 2 June.

Since then, Burmese troops have taken two strategically important KNLA bases. It is unclear how many people have died in the fighting.

Fighting between the Burmese army and the KNU began in 1949, and is thought to be the world's longest running internal conflict.

Reporting by Francis Wade


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