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Civilians in Danger as Election-Related Armed Conflict Continues in Eastern Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  December 6, 2010

Since Burma’s fraudulent elections on 7 November, Thailand has seen the largest influx of civilians from Burma fleeing into the country in more than a decade. On 8 November alone, 25,000 civilians fled from fighting in the town of Myawaddy and another 10,000 crossed from Three Pagoda Pass. In the weeks following the initial outbreak of violence, the armed conflict, along with flows of fleeing civilians, has continued. The volatile situation illustrates the damage done by the SPDC’s authoritarian process to entrench military rule through their “Roadmap to Democracy” and their failure to facilitate genuine national reconciliation. Just as democratization in Burma requires global support, a collective, international effort is needed to ensure the protection of civilians under threat in Eastern Burma.

Burma’s ethnic nationalities have voiced overwhelming opposition to the State Peace and Development Council’s (SPDC) roadmap, including the unilaterally drafted 2008 Constitution, which facilitates centralized control over ethnic states and fails to provide the equality ethnic nationality communities have sought for decades. To create the single national army called for in the Constitution, the SPDC has attempted to bring together all armed ethnic ceasefire groups into a single Border Guard Force under SPDC Army command. While the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) agreed to the proposal as a whole, the 5th Brigade has refused, leading to the armed conflict that has flared up in recent weeks.

On 8 November, heavy fighting took place between the DKBA 5th Brigade and SPDC soldiers in Myawaddy, Karen State. More than 25,000 civilians fled into Mae Sot, Thailand, and the surrounding area. Three civilians from Burma were reported to have been killed and more than twenty injured. At least 10,000 civilians reportedly fled when fighting flared up in and around Three Pagodas Pass, with many taking refuge in Thailand. Fighting that reportedly killed a girl and injured others also occurred in Waw Lay village between Myawaddy and Three Pagodas Pass, causing some 2,500 villagers to flee to Thailand. On 27 and 28 November, at least 1,000 civilians from Palu village fled to Thailand; between 3 and 5 December, another 1,129 people crossed the border into Mae Sot District. Fighting continued today near both Myawaddy and Waw Lay. As of today, the Forum of Burma’s Community Based Organizations (FCOB) estimates that 3,600 civilians are seeking refuge in Thailand, with more than 2,000 others displaced along the border inside Burma.

Since the conflict erupted, civilians in areas of Karen State opposite Thailand’s Kanchanaburi and Tak Provinces have moved daily back and forth across the border in response to fighting, troop movements, the threat of attacks, and pressure to return from authorities in Thailand. According to a report by Human Rights Watch on 4 December,

“Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, but under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation of nonrefoulement (non-return) of persons to places where their life or freedom is at risk. International law also obliges Thailand to allow asylum seekers access to Thai territory to seek asylum.”

There have also been reports that in addition to encouraging civilians to return to Burma before it is determined safe for them to do so, the Thai Army has also blocked people from entering Thailand to escape fighting.

Civilians in Eastern Burma are facing constant threats to their security and livelihoods, with continued armed conflict likely and escalation a real possibility. Community-based organizations in Thailand and international NGOs have been providing assistance to people fleeing fighting. However, without durable solutions to the crises that expose them to danger, these men, women, elderly, and children will continue to live in peril.

The SPDC’s creation of a military-dominated civilian government and lack of regard for the grievances of Burma’s ethnic nationalities has already brought bloodshed. The recent escalation of hostilities in Eastern Burma points to the need for genuine national reconciliation that has the participation and support of the people, especially Burma’s ethnic groups.

Until then, civilians caught in the crossfire along the Thai-Burma border deserve the full attention and abilities of Thai government and the international community in guaranteeing their safety and survival.

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