"Burma attacks on rebels triggers exodus
By Tim Johnston in Bangkok
Published: June 8 2009 12:48 | Last updated: June 8 2009 12:48
The Burmese government and its allies have stepped up attacks on insurgent groups on the Burma-Thai border causing thousands of refugees to flee to neighbouring Thailand.
Observers say the move is tied to complex political and strategic manoeuvring in the run up to next years elections.
“So far some 3,200 people have already crossed the border because of the fighting inside Karen territory,” said a spokesman for the Karen Refugee Agency who asked to remain anonymous.
The refugees fled when the Burmese army and its allies in the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army launched an artillery barrage on a nearby camp of rebels belonging to the Karen National Liberation Army as part of a broader move against ethnic Karen rebels on the Burma-Thailand border.
At one point in the 1980s there were some 20 different separatist groups fighting the government, but most have since signed so-called ceasefire agreements that grant them a degree of autonomy in return for stopping their attacks on the government.
The government is trying to tighten up their control over the ceasefire groups ahead of elections next year, in an effort to persuade their armed wings to become border guards under the command of the army and their political leaders to stand for election.
Many of the more powerful ceasefire groups, including the United Wa State Army and similar groups in Shan and Kachin states, have given the proposal a chilly welcome, but Stephen Hull, a researcher with the Karen Human Rights Group, says he believes that the DKBA has agreed to go along with the government plan.
In the meantime the government has stepped up pressure on the separatist groups like the Karen National Liberation Army, which have not signed ceasefire agreements.
Karen separatists believe the current offensive is aimed at removing the Karen camps along the Burmese border to allow the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which is allied with the Burmese government and has government soldiers among its command structure, to form a border guard along the porous border with Thailand.
“The DKBA is trying to ensure its dominance in certain border areas in the run up to the 2010 elections to get control of natural resources, land and trade routes through to Thailand,” said Mr Hull.
At 60 years old, the Karen insurgency is by some measures the world’s longest-running extant separatist rebellion, but in recent years it has been severely damaged by pressure from the government, which has used a combination of military force and encouraging internal splits in their attempts to break the back of the rebellion.
The strength of the Karen National Liberation Army – the armed wing of the Karen National Union – peaked at about 10,000 fighters in the 1980s, but is now closer to 2,500 strong, according to Jane’s Information Group.
The humanitarian fallout from the years of fighting has been devastating. The Karen Human Rights Group says there may be as many as 300,000 displaced people on the fringes of the battle. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there may be 140,000 Karen refugees in Thailand, but many of the rest are either in fortified government camps inside Burma or constantly on the move along heavily mined roads and jungle tracks to avoid government patrols and the shifting spasms of violence.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009"