June 22, 2009 (DVB), Karen refugees in Thailand are reportedly being told by Thai authorities to return to their homes in Burma, despite concerns that many villages near the border are littered with landmines.
Around 4000 Karen have fled Burma in recent weeks as a Burmese army offensive against the opposition Karen National Union (KNU) has intensified.
The European Union has called for the Burmese government to comply with international humanitarian law regarding the offensive, amid reports that Karen villagers still in the conflict zone were being forcibly recruited into the Burmese army.
Thailand has so far remained quiet on the issue, despite the Burmese government mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper accusing the Thai government of providing "fertile soils to [Burmese] insurgent groups".
The Karen Women's Organisation (KWO) today released a statement saying they are "very concerned" about the possibility of forced repatriation because of what awaits the villagers upon their return.
"The local [Thai] authorities just come to the people and asked them to go back" said KWO secretary, Dah Eh Kler.
According to the KWO, Karen villagers face the prospect of being forced to walk in front of troop patrols as minesweeper, while rape of women is a real threat: last week two Karen women, both teenagers, were raped and murdered by the Burmese army.
"Wherever the Burma army goes there is widespread human rights abuses and rape is just another weapon used by them against the people to dominate and control them," said a spokesperson from the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) relief organisation.
There has been speculation that the reason for such a response by the Thai authorities is due to pressure from the Burmese government and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), who are fighting alongside Burmese troops in the offensive.
"It would be more likely for it to be the DKBA behind all this," he said.
"They basically want those people back in their area of control so they can dominate everyone and force them to be human minesweepers [and be used for] forced labour."
There are also suggestions that the DKBA will force villagers to help them with their new role as border guards.
"Now SPDC asked DKBA to become border guard, they need to recruit [and] if our people go back, they will be forced to become army" said Dah Eh Kler.
Reports last week stated that the DKBA and Burmese army had ceased firing mortars, some of which had landed on Thai soil.
Some are skeptical however as to how long the ceasefire will last, with "absolutely no guarantee that the DKBA won't again restart attacking their own people," according to the FBR spokesperson.
KWO meanwhile have described conditions that refugees are currently living as "very hard".
There have been mixed reports about whether there is sufficient food, although KWO confirmed that diarrhea is prevalent, while "most people are suffering from malaria".
Reporting by Daniella Nayu