UN staff sent to assess Karen refugees

June 10, 2009 (DVB), The United Nations has sent its staff to five sites along the Thai-Burma border where Karen villagers have stationed themselves after fleeing a Burmese army offensive against the Karen National Union.

Following a series of offensives over the past week by Burmese government troops against the KNU, up to 6,400 Karen villagers, many of whom are women and children, have now fled into Thailand.

Reports have emerged of Burmese troops shelling the populous Ler Per Har refugee camp in Burma's eastern state, while the junta-allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army have allegedly being forcibly recruiting Karen villagers to act as army porters.

According to the Karen Human Rights Group, some are being forced to walk in front of army patrols as minesweepers.

A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, William Spindler, said yesterday that staff had been sent to a villages and a cave in northern Thailand where villagers were hiding.

In one case, he said, villagers were holed up in a cave "accessible only by river and by a 40-minute climb up a steep mountain which is very slippery right now because it is raining heavily".

A number of those who had fled were from the Ler Per Har camp, home to refugees of Burma's internal conflict.

"Most of the new arrivals say they want to stay as close to their villages as possible in order to go home quickly once the situation calms down because they left cattle behind and because it is time to begin planting rice," Spindler said.

The conflict between the KNU and the Burmese government began in 1948 and is thought to be the world's longest running.

Several attempts at building a ceasefire agreement have taken place but so far without success.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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