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Burmese fear forced return

At first sight the bamboo huts nestled at the foot of soaring limestone cliffs in the jungle could be mistaken for an eco-tourism haven – except for the barbed wire and armed guards.

Saturday 28 May 2011, 02:11AM

Beyond the perimeter fence and security checkpoints, designed to keep the residents in and unwanted visitors out, tens of thousands of refugees from war-torn eastern Myanmar are living in fear of being sent home.

Thailand’s announcement in April that it wants to close nine border camps, holding more than 140,000 displaced people, has sent ripples of anxiety through the traumatised communities after a more than two-decade presence.

“We’re scared to go back,” said Suai Pu, 27, who fled Myanmar six years ago with his wife and son and lives in the biggest camp, Mae La, home to about 46,000 people packed into around four square kilometres.

“People are so worried. They are praying. They cannot sleep,” he said. “We don’t have a home. We don’t have land. If we go back, what can we do?"

According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, a group of international non-governmental organisations operating along the border, as of March the camps held about 143,000 refugees from Myanmar.

Most are Karen, whose eastern state is the scene of one of the world’s longest-running civil wars, stretching back six decades. Others include minority Chin, Mon and long-suffering Rohingya, as well as majority Burmans.

Dan About Thailand

About 93,000 residents have been registered with the UN as refugees, but while an ongoing resettlement programme has allowed tens of thousands to move to third countries, they are soon replaced by new arrivals who trickle across the Moei river every day on doughnut-shaped inflated rubber tubes.

Many others live illegally outside the camps.

“Their safety would be seriously at risk if they went back,” said David Mathieson, a Myanmar expert for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

National Security Council chief Tawin Pleansri said it had become the country’s “burden” to take care of the refugees.

The government has stressed that it will only send them back when it is safe and no timetable has been set for their return, but inside the camps there are some signs of change in the air.

“The Thai officials called a meeting in the camp to start a preliminary screening process. Once that’s finished, they will send them back – although they’re not talking about that yet,” said Ehkler, a community leader in Mae La. - AFP

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