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Hospital seige puts Karens under Thai microscope

From BurmaNet News27 January 2000

TAKAULANG, Thailand - The bloody end to a hospital hostage siege this week marks a hardening of Thai attitudes towards guerrillas and refugees from decades of internal military conflict in Myanmar, much of it centred along the mountainous Thai-Myanmar border.

Once, ethnic minority insurgents held large swathes of territory along the frontier and were valued as a buffer between Thai and Myanmar forces. But as the rebels' military fortunes have waned in recent years, so has their use to Thailand.

Now two rash terrorist acts in four months involving Myanmar rebels has served to tighten the screw on remaining insurgents and the more than 100,000 refugees - mostly ethnic Karen villagers - encamped on Thai soil.

The 10 insurgents who captured a provincial hospital on Monday in Ratchaburi in western Thailand were identified as members of God's Army, a splinter Karen group led by twin 12-year-old boys, and an even tinier band of dissidents, the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors.

At Takaulang village, seven kilometres from the Myanmar border, where God's Army has its domain, Karens from Myanmar used to play soccer matches against Thai border police.

Now, Karens who have settled in the Thai village hide in the jungle, fearing likely deportation to their military-run homeland.

The crackdown started after the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok was stormed Oct 1 by five members of the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors demanding democracy in their military-run homeland.

They captors were given safe passage by Thailand to the Myanmar border to ensure the release of dozens of hostages.

The rebels found shelter with the God's Army, whose 200 fighters believe twins Johnny and Luther Htoo have magical powers that make them invincible in battle.

On Oct 9, one week after the siege, 148 Karens, including children, were rounded up and their simple houses then dismantled by Thai troops, villagers said. Today, only ashes and bamboo remain.

The apparent reason was that they did not have identification papers.

The hospital seizure this week will only increase perceptions the refugees pose a security threat.

"The Karens will be carefully watched," Chaiyachok Julsiriwongse, associate professor at the department of international relations at Chulalongkorn University.

"After a second incident like this, I don't think the Thai people will allow the government to sit by and do nothing," Chaiyachok said.

Myanmar dissident groups in Thailand and the Karen National Union, the mainstream rebel force that has been fighting the Myanmar government for over 50 years, rapidly moved to distance themselves from the hospital siege that triggered outrage among Thais.

Meanwhile, Altsean, an Asian group which lobbies against Myanmar's military regime, appealed to Thailand to show compassion and continue humanitarian assistance for the refugees.

Thailand says it will still let Karens fleeing battle find temporary shelter, as long as they were unarmed.

But Gen Mongkol Ampornpisit, Thai supreme commander, warned that a deal made with hospital raiders during the siege that Thai forces would not to shell God's Army inside Myanmar to keep them off Thai soil was off.

Since the raiders had refused to surrender, Thailand was at liberty to fire on them again, he was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post.

At Takaulang village, where Johnny and Luther Htoo used to sneak over the border to come and watch movies at the local open-air cinema, the days of peaceful coexistence with the rebels are certainly over.

But sympathy remains among Thai residents for the Karen villagers, caught in the crossfire of battle and changing Thai policy.

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