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More than 100 Thai police carried out a surprise raid at the Mae La refugee camp yesterday following a tip-off that drugs and firearms were being stashed there.
The early-morning raid on the most populous camp along the Thai-Burma border netted only three shotguns and a small amount of marijuana. Around 20 people were arrested, said the camp’s director, Saw Htun Htun.
The majority of those detained have now been released, while the owner of the house where the marijuana was found remains in custody at a police station in Thailand’s western Tha Song Yang district.
The Mae La camp is home to around 45,000 Burmese refugees, the majority of whom have fled conflict in neighbouring Karen state. Nearly 150,000 Burmese live in nine official camps along the border.
Saw Htun Htun speculated that the raid may have been carried out in preparation for a visit to the camp by a senior Thai government official on Friday.
The identity of the official is unknown, he added, but the visit could be related to remarks made last month by Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya that refugees may be repatriated following the 7 November elections in Burma.
The remarks prompted international outcry, but the foreign ministry quickly sought to limit the damage by claiming that Kasit was misinterpreted and there was no plan to send the refugees back.
Rights groups have long said that conditions in areas of return remain dire. Karen state has hosted a 60-year conflict between the opposition Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and Burmese junta, and the region remains littered with landmines. Karen civilians are often accused of being KNLA-collaborators and subjected to vicious treatment by Burmese troops.
Along with the refugees in the border camps – many of whom are restricted to within the camps’ perimeter fences – an estimated three million Burmese live in Thailand, with many working illegal in low-skilled industries.