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Burma Border Clash Sends Thousands to Thailand After Election

Originally appeared in Bloomberg News

November 8, 2010

Clashes between Myanmar’s army and a rebel ethnic group sent thousands fleeing across the border into Thailand a day after the country’s first elections in 20 years that excluded political prisoners and certain minorities.

Members of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, one of more than 30 ethnic armies based inside Myanmar, stormed the border crossing of Myawaddy yesterday during the election. As many as 5,000 people are staying in temporary camps set up by the Thai army after rebels threatened to set fire to the town, said Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Burma Partnership, an umbrella organization of civil-society groups.

The rebels “are sending a clear message to the regime and to the world that they don’t accept the election,” said Khin Ohmar, who lives on the Thai side of the border in Mae Sot and visited the camps today. “This is really prime time for them because they know the regime’s plan is to wipe them out.”

Ethnic unrest may complicate Myanmar’s attempts to set up its first multiparty parliament since 1962 after a vote criticized by Western and other nations for leaving out Aung San Suu Kyi and some 2,100 other political prisoners. Rival military factions are vying to control the legislature and nominees for a new president to ensure the current ruling generals maintain their grip on power as 22 years of direct military rule comes to an end.

Thailand tightened security along the border and anticipates more attacks until the new government is set up, a process that could take three months, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters today. All those who flee will be treated humanely, he said.

Border Guards

The rebel DKBA brigade doesn’t want its members to become border guards, partially under the junta’s control, as mandated by the new constitution, said Khin Ohmar. There aren’t any signs that other ethnic armies, including the bigger Karen National Union will join them, she said.

Myanmar’s constitution, passed by a referendum in 2008, calls for a unitary state and says “all the armed forces in the Union shall be under the command of the Defense Services.” About a third of the country’s 55 million people are ethnic minorities occupying roughly half of total land area, according to the International Crisis Group.

Myanmar army battles last year with ethnic Kokang rebels on its border with China near planned oil and gas projects sent about 30,000 people fleeing into China’s Yunnan province. Thailand houses 102,000 Karen and Karenni asylum seekers from Myanmar in nine camps on its border, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

‘Neither Free nor Fair’

Several dozen ethnic-based political parties joined yesterday’s election, which was condemned by the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., Japan and the Philippines. The elections “were neither free nor fair,” said President Barack Obama in a statement yesterday during a trip to India.

China, India and Thailand are investing in ports, railways and oil and gas pipelines that give them access to Myanmar’s natural resources and trade routes to the Indian Ocean.

Italian-Thai Development Pcl, Thailand’s biggest construction company, signed an $8.6 billion contract on Nov. 4 with Myanmar to build a deep-water port and industrial park. Earlier this year, China National Petroleum Corp. started building oil and gas pipelines across the country.

Early returns showed that the National Democratic Force, the main pro-democracy party created by former Suu Kyi colleagues, may win almost half the 37 seats in the city of Yangon, the country’s former capital, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported, citing initial vote tallies. Pro-military parties were set to win the most votes overall, it said.

Suu Kyi

Suu Kyi, 65, may be released on Nov. 13 and will visit supporters around the country “as soon as possible” if she’s freed, Win Tin, a senior member of her party, told reporters yesterday by phone from Yangon. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been detained for 15 of the past 21 years, with her latest house arrest starting in 2003.

Suu Kyi “is ready to consider the economic sanctions” imposed by Western nations, said Win Tin, who spent 19 years in prison before his 2008 release. “First she would like to see what kind of sanctions are there and how they affect people’s lives.”

The military will retain a quarter of seats in the two houses of parliament, according to the constitution. Elected lawmakers in both houses will be able to nominate a presidential candidate to compete against the candidate picked by military- appointed legislators.

Junta Leader

Junta leader Than Shwe backs the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which claims a third of the population as members. Its main challenger is the National Unity Party, a group loyal to former dictator Ne Win, who led a 1962 coup and established one-party rule until Than Shwe’s group took power following a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

“We can’t get away from the fact that Burma is still run by a dictator, which is Senior General Than Shwe,” Jacob Ramsay, a senior analyst at Control Risks Group, told Bloomberg Television today, referring to Myanmar by its former name. “Most people believe he will remain a dictator by proxy.”

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