Thousands flee Myanmar fighting
MAE SOT, 9 November 2010 (IRIN) - An influx of about 20,000 refugees from Myanmar to Thailand over the past two days has left Thai authorities and aid workers scrambling to address their humanitarian needs.
“We never expected this,” said Tudee Judu, an aid worker with Solidarités International, which is providing hygiene kits, drinking water and latrines at a temporary camp set up at Base 369 of the Thai Border Patrol Police. The camp, in Mae Sot district of Tak province, is sheltering most of the refugees – about 15,000, according to security officials guarding the site.
“We are in the process of setting up 50 latrines,” Judu said, adding that this was one of the most important needs of the camp as there were only three on 8 November when the refugees first arrived, a day after Myanmar’s first general election in 20 years.
About half a dozen groups were providing assistance at the site, while citizens of the Mae Sot area were also helping in the relief effort by providing food and water. Banchong Pongyilah, a Thai Muslim living in Mae Sot, said the Muslim community had prepared 1,500 Halal food boxes for the estimated 3,000 Muslims in the camp. “We cooked all night, but it wasn’t enough,” he said.
Temporary shelters were also needed, as there were only about 60 family-sized tents set up by midday on 9 November. Bamboo and blankets were being distributed and people were building their own makeshift shelters. Most refugees interviewed believed the authorities were providing sufficient assistance and were thankful for their efforts. Because Mae Sot has a well-established aid community that has been providing refugee assistance for more than two decades, relief agencies were able to quickly mobilize.
This latest refugee crisis was triggered on 7 November when tensions flared between a splinter faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and government forces in the town of Myawaddy on the Thai/Myanmar border.
To show their disproval of the election, DKBA troops of Brigade 5, under the command of Colonel Saw Lah Pwe, laid siege to several key positions in the town, including the police station and post office.
Saw Lah Pwe's force, numbering about 1,400, broke away from the rest of the DKBA after disagreeing with the group’s decision to join a Border Guard Force (BGF) in accordance with the 2008 Constitution – which stipulates that all armed ceasefire groups must disband and join the BGF under the command of Myanmar’s military.
Myanmar’s military sent reinforcements to retake Myawaddy on 8 November, which sparked fierce fighting and forced thousands of the town’s residents to flee into Thailand. Fighting also broke out at the Three Pagoda Pass and just opposite Thailand’s Pho Phra district, about 50km south of Myawaddy. On 9 November, Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanagorn said a total of about 20,000 refugees had fled into Thailand.
Several other ethnic ceasefire groups, including the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army, have also rejected the regime’s plan to be incorporated into the BGF. Observers report many of these groups are preparing for confrontation with Myanmar government forces.