Reports are emerging that suggest the Thai army is blocking refugees from escaping conflict in eastern Burma and ordering those that had fled across the border to return.
Fighting has intensified in recent days close to the border, as the Burmese army continues to hound a breakaway Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) faction. Heavy artillery fire was heard towards the end of last week and sporadic bursts of fighting have continued.
Of the 1,200-odd refugees that crossed into Thailand over the weekend, the majority have returned. But aid workers claim groups are continuing to move back and forth across the border as stability in the area south of Myawaddy remains fragile.
Moreover, refugees interviewed by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), which has been closely monitoring the situation, claim the Thai army is obstructing their escape from Karen state.
“The Thais did not allow us to flee before the guns fired,” said a 38-year-old woman from Wawlay village, which has seen heavy fighting in the past four weeks. She added that “when it [the fighting] became quiet, the Thais asked [the refugees] to go back and so they had to go back.”
The KHRG said it was a case of the Thai army, which in many instances had allowed free movement of refugees, “viewing threats to civilians in the narrowest manner possible”.
“When fighting is audible or visible from Thailand, refugees report being able to enter Thailand. When individual clashes end – sometimes just hours after the sound of gunfire has subsided – refugees report being told it is safe for them to return, and that they must do so.”
Another man from Hpalu village, which was the scene of fighting over the weekend, said that he had had similar experiences with the Thai army.
“The Thai soldiers said [to villagers] ‘If you go back, go back and stay there [in your villages]. Don’t travel [back and forth]. You can stay here [in Thailand] for one or two days. But you can go back and stay there [in your villages], and come back when the fighting happens again.'”
The latest round of conflict follows a precarious period along the border which began on 8 November when the DKBA faction took key government positions in Myawaddy. In the days after, heavy fighting pushed up to 20,000 refugees into Thailand’s Tak province.
Thai policy towards refugees has come under fire several times in the past year. In February, following an exodus of up to 5000 Karen into Thailand, the Thai government said it would force them back across the border. That was suspended at the last minute following heavy pressure from rights groups, and the refugees were allowed to remain.
In December last year, however, Thailand successfully deported 4,500 ethnic Hmong back to Laos in a move that drew scathing international condemnation, given the likely persecution the minority group would face upon their return.
The movement of refugees across the Thailand-Burma has angered the Thai government, as well as catching the attention of the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc. ASEAN chief Surin Pitsuwan said last year in a rare rebuke to Burma that instability along the shared border was a blight on the region’s image.