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Refugee crisis deepens along Thai-Burmese border

kid February 25, 1997
Web posted at: 9:00 p.m. EST (0100 GMT)

In this story:

From Correspondent Tom Mintier

ALONG THE THAI-BURMESE BORDER (CNN) -- From a distance, high above the Morger refugee camp in Thailand, it looks peaceful enough. But for nearly 9,000 ethnic Karen refugees, life in the camp is anything but.

The Burmese army is less than two miles away. In recent weeks, the number of refugees has swelled along the Thai-Burmese border as the army tries to stamp out the Karen National Union (KNU), the last major ethnic group still fighting for autonomy from Rangoon.

As part of the government offensive, the military-backed Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) has attacked undefended refugee camps on both sides of the border, leaving thousands of refugees homeless.

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Aid workers warn that the situation is worsening as refugees wander back and forth from Thailand to Burma, seeking a safe haven.

The recent military clashes have created nearly 40,000 new refugees, many of whom have fled to Thailand, swelling the number of Karen refugees already in that country.

Thailand in a tight spot

Thailand faces a difficult diplomatic dilemma. There are nearly 100,000 Karen refugees in camps along the border. Those in Thailand are being pressured by that country to return home to Burma.

On Tuesday, the commander-in-chief of Thailand's army, Gen. Chetta Thanajaro, said the Burmese military had agreed to accept Karen refugees taking shelter on the Thai side of the border, but only if they wanted to leave.

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Thanajaro made the announcement after meeting with his Burmese counterpart, Gen. Maung Aye, at the Burmese border town of Tachilek. It was not immediately clear what the result of the offer will be.

Many of the refugees may not consider returning to Burma to be an option. Some of the younger ones are KNU soldiers, who sleep during the day and cross into Burma at night to go on patrols.

Camps being consolidated

Until now, most of the fighting has pitted Burmese soldiers against the Karen.

In one incident, three men were arrested in Thailand when police discovered hand grenades in their pickup. One was a Thai police officer, and the other two were Karen soldiers who apparently slipped across the border.

To prevent similar incidents, Thai authorities are trying to contain the situation. One move has been to consolidate more than two dozen refugee camps.

"We try to make it ... a few number of camps," said Thai Gov. Pongpayome Vasaputi of the Tak Province. "If we can do it, I think it will make it more safe for the refugees."

Reducing the number of camps may provide fewer targets for Burmese gunners, but will do little to end the clashes.

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KNU nearing 50th anniversary

The KNU, formed in 1948 to seek greater autonomy for the eastern Karen state, has rejected several peace overtures from Rangoon and refuses to disarm.

Next year will mark the golden anniversary of the ethnic minority's battle against the Burmese government -- 50 years of killing and 20 years of refugee problems.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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