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Date: Thu, 17 Sep 98 08:53:37 CDT
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: THAILAND-BURMA: For Karen Refugees, Life is Permanent Limbo
Article: 43401
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.19758.19980921121511@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 515.0 **/
** Topic: THAILAND-BURMA: For Karen Refugees, Life is Permanent Limbo **
** Written 3:36 PM Sep 16, 1998 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **
Copyright 1998 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

For Karen Refugees, Life is Permanent Limbo

By Prangtip Daorueng
13 September 1998

BANGKOK, Sep 13 (IPS) - With the onset of the rainy season and the possibility of new attacks on their camps, Karen refugees from Burma living in northern Thailand have performed their annual ritual - packed up and left.

There seems to be no end in sight for this routine, since the Huay Kalok camp, which lies about five km from the Thai-Burmese border, is prone to attacks by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a group loyal to the Burmese junta.

A total of 8,186 Karen refugees have been staying since 1977 in the Huay Kalok camp, located in Mae Sot district in Thailand's Tak province.

Every refugee there knows only too well how terrifying can be an attack across the border from Burma. Several deaths and scores of injuries among the refugees occurred after DKBA attacks in January 1997 and March this year.

Like the more than 110,000 Burmese refugees in 19 camps along Thailand's northern border, Huay Kalok refugees find that life is nothing but continued uncertainty. This is due to the unpredictable political situation in Burma, as well as the unsettled policy on refugees of the Thai government.

For Thai officials, the attacks on Karen refugee camps in Thailand is another security threat. In the past, the fighting came so deep into the Thai border that refugees had to flee and settle in temporary camps along the main highways deep inside the country.

Aid workers providing services to the refugees say that many still wish to go back to Burma when that is possible.

"From my experience, many refugees in the camps want to visit relatives and friends in their homeland if the situation in Burma becomes settled," Dr Aziz Kumardas, medical coordinator of Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), said an interview.

MSF has been working in Burmese refugee camps since 1984 and receives funds from the Brussels-based European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) to provide refugees with health care and aid. "What we see in terms of the number of refugees on the Thai side is the result of the fighting inside Burma. If there are new areas of fighting there, there will be more refugees coming in, but it difficult to foresee it from here," said Aziz.

Most of the refugees in Thailand are Karen belonging to the Karen National Union (KNU), which is the last among Burma's many minority groups that continues to resist the Rangoon regime. The KNU has long fought for independence from Rangoon.

Burma's attempt to stamp out long simmering hostility and armed action by restless minorities is the root of the Burmese refugee problem in Thailand.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of the Burmese refugees in the country increased last year as a result of the continued fighting inside Burma, forced labour and other forms of abuse, and an economic downturn there.

While the Karen are allowed to stay on in the camps and get help from international NGOs, they have not been given refugee status by the Thai government but are considered only under the more narrow category of displaced persons.

Life in the camps is sometimes no different from a war zone. NGO workers say sudden armed attacks make their work difficult. "An urgent notice to move notice doesn't give us enough time to prepare, which means we won't be able to provide immediate help to those who need it," Dr Aziz said.

NGOs have tried to develop contigency plans. "Before one such moving the last time, we were able to discuss with the Thai authorities to have our health care staff moved earlier. It worked very well," he recalled.

Despite the fact that attacks from across the border continue, Dr Aziz said health indicators such as mortality rates in several camps improved last year.

Officials with MSF, which works on basic health care and water sanitation, say they try to give equal level of services to every camp they cover but the provision of basic needs is only part of the bigger problem the Karen face - Thailand's policy toward refugees.

Thailand has yet to find a more permanent solution to the refugee problem beyond housing them in camps. Yet such a solution might not be possible without the involvement of the region, and Burma itself.

After being criticised by international community for the lack of transparency in dealing with Burmese refugees, Thailand agreed in May to establish a mechanism with UNHCR to better deal with the refugees on its border.

According the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the new system would involve providing refugees coming in with immediate assistance, with UNHCR help. New arrivals would be given the option of returning to their homeland or staying in the relocated new camps in Tak planned by the interior ministry. Some camps in Mae La and Hua Kalok districts of Tak province have been torched by pro- Rangoon Karen forces.

The aim of ongoing discussions between Thai authorities and UNHCR is to have mechanisms that allow voluntary repatriation in the long run and the camps' relocation away from the border.

In 1997, UNHCR proposed the inclusion of representatives of Thailand, the Burmese regime and Burmese refugees in efforts to resolve the plight of refugees. But UNHCR's attempts to talk with Rangoon have failed, as in the past.

Last year, UNHCR regional representative Amelia Bonifacio said that solving the refugee problem depended ultimately on the outcome of talks between Rangoon's junta and its political opponents, including the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the KNU.

"We never lack international support on the question of Burma, but bilateral and regional initiatives need to be put together to unblock the situation," she said.

The UNHCR believes that a real end to refugee problems can come only with political settlements to conflict, apart from humanitarian aid. Critics in Thailand have also urged South-east Asian nations to take a more active role in negotiations with Burma over the refugees, who remain in limbo.

But in the eyes of an exiled Karen like Paul Sainwa, who lives in Chiang Mai, a brighter future is impossible to picture.

"To return home for a peaceful life for us is something we can hardly hope for, no matter how much we want it. The only way to get it is through democracy in Burma, and we really don't know when it will come true," he said. (END/IPS/ap-pr/pd/js/98)

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