Burmese refugees in no man’s land as fighting goes on

MAE SOT, Thailand – At least a thousand Burmese are trapped in no man’s land on the border with Thailand as fighting between the Burmese army and a faction of a Karen armed group, which began soon after the November 7 general elections, entered its first week.


Burmese refugees being repatriated to the border town of Myawaddy on Wednesday, across the river from Mae Sot in Thailand to which they fled Monday, a day after Burma’s general elections, when fighting broke out between government troops and Karen rebels. Hundreds of refugees have since streamed back and sought refuge on the banks of the Moei River as fighting continued. (Photo by Friends of Burma)

Indications are that the clashes between Brigade 5 of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Burmese army have spread from Myawaddy, just across the river from here, to Phayathonzu, 190 kilometers to the south.


Burmese refugees huddle under tents on a bank of the Moei River separating Burma and Thailand. Although most of the refugees who fled the Burmese border town of Myawaddy on Monday, a day after Burma’s general elections, when fighting broke out between government troops and Karen rebels, have been repatriated, these people soon returned as hostilities continued, and to avoid being used as porters by the Burmese army. (Photo by Hseng Noung)

At least 2,000 Burmese, mostly women, children and the elderly, were also reported to have fled Phayathonzu to the Thai side of the border in Sangkhlaburi town.

However, on Thursday, they were reportedly asked by Thai authorities to move back across the border to a village controlled by the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the armed group of the ethnic Mon, some three kilometers from Phayathonzu.


Burmese refugees from the town of Phayathonzu receive food on Thursday, November 11. The refugees had crossed the border into the Thai town of Sangkhlaburi on Monday but were told to move back into Burma to a village controlled by the Mon ethnic armed group, the New Mon State Party. Fighting that had broken out between Karen rebels and Burmese troops in the town of Myawaddy soon after Burma’s general elections on Sunday has since spread to the Phayathonzu area, 190 kilometers south. (Photo by Mook Petchnamrob)


Burmese child refugees from the town of Phayathonzu on Thursday, November 11. The refugees had crossed the border into the Thai town of Sangkhlaburi on Monday but were told to move back into Burma to a village controlled by the Mon ethnic armed group, the New Mon State Party. (Photo by Mook Petchnamrob)

At the beginning of the fighting, apparently triggered by a protest staged by Brigade 5 against the elections, tens of thousands of Myawaddy residents had crossed the border here.

According to Irrawaddy, a news outfit run by exiled Burmese journalists, Brigade 5 commander, Colonel Saw Lah Pwe, condemned the elections, saying: “They (Burmese ruling junta) only shed their skin. They forced people to vote in this election.”

Brigade 5 broke away from the main DKBA after Saw Lah Pwe rejected earlier this year the Burmese junta’s plan to transform ethnic armed groups into the border guard force (BGF).

Tensions between Brigade 5 and the Burmese military have since risen, breaking out in hostilities the evening of November 7 when Brigade 5 fighters laid siege to Burmese units deployed around Myawaddy.

Most of the refugees in Mae Sot were repatriated by Thai authorities following assurances by the Burmese government that the situation was under control.

However, gunfire continued to be heard from inside Burma and soon another tide of refugees crossed over to Thailand on Wednesday, many of them seeking to avoid being used as porters by the Burmese army.

The refugees have sought shelter in local monasteries or in houses near the river. Some stay in tents on the banks of the Moei River, which separates Thailand and Burma.

One of them, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they came from Mawlamyine, some 300 kilometers southeast of Yangon, and worked as porters transporting goods across the Moei River between Myawaddy and Mae Sot in Thailand, where there is a thriving border trade.

When fighting broke out, he said, “Our employer fled to another place and locked the door so we could not go hide in his home. So we have to come here.”

One woman said Burmese soldiers had forced her husband to become a porter.

The new refugees have been provided food and drinking water by some Thai and Burmese nongovernmental organizations and Buddhist monks in Mae Sot. But aside from their tents, they have no facilities like toilets and kitchens.

According to a worker for the NGO Friends of Burma in Mae Sot, prospects of more refugees streaming out of Burma in the coming days were high. Burmese resident across the border was likely to continue into the next week and even beyond as the Burmese government continued to send reinforcements to Myawaddy.