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(New York) - In a new offensive in Shan state, the Burmese army and its proxies have targeted and forcibly relocated thousands of civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. Thailand must allow civilians to cross the border to gain sanctuary from these attacks.

Thai government sources told Human Rights Watch that Burmese troops were burning down entire villages in Shan state. Approximately 100,000 Burmese government troops backed by forces of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), are implementing a counterinsurgency strategy against the Shan State Army (SSA). Government forces and the UWSA have regularly targeted civilians by forcing whole villages to relocate. There are reports that they have also singled out young Shan men for execution, and have raped Shan women and girls.

“In the name of counterinsurgency, the Burmese army and its proxies are executing, torturing, raping and forcibly displacing Shan civilians,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. “Shan civilians live under constant threat of having shells rain down on their heads or being burned out of their villages.”

Human Rights Watch expressed urgent concern over the safety of more than 2,000 civilians living near SSA positions in Loi Taileng, across from Thailand’s northern Mae Hongson province. Civilians in Loi Taileng have been under heavy attacks by the UWSA, including shelling, since March.

On a daily basis, 200-500 Shan villagers have been fleeing to Thailand via the Fang and Chiang Dao districts in Chiang Mai province, either sneaking across the border or allowed in by local Thai army commanders for humanitarian reasons.

Many civilians, including victims of sexual violence, have fled from their homes in Shan state due to fear of harassment and abuse by Burmese forces during counterinsurgency operations. Often, the only option is to attempt to flee to Thailand. But the Thai army has publicly stated that Shan asylum seekers will not be allowed to cross the border, while those currently living in Thailand may be pushed back into Burma.

Human Rights Watch called on Thailand to offer refuge to Shan people fleeing fighting and abuses in Shan State. Thailand still officially denies sanctuary to Shans fleeing fighting, does not recognize their possible refugee status, and does not provide shelter or other humanitarian assistance.

The lack of refugee protections and humanitarian assistance forces Shan people to either remain as internally displaced persons in Burma at great risk, or live in hiding in Thailand without legal protections. Many end up as undocumented migrant workers in low-paid, low-skilled jobs in construction work, factories or domestic work. Women and girls, many of them victims of sexual violence, have become vulnerable to human trafficking and prostitution in Thailand.

“The Thai government still refuses to officially recognize Shans fleeing fighting and abuses as refugees, even though the risk they face in Burma is patently obvious,” said Adams. “By denying Shan people refugee status and humanitarian assistance, the Thai government is violating international law and turning away from a problem at its doorstep.”

Major dry season military operations by the Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, began in March in Shan State, despite promises the Burmese government made when it announced its August 2003 “roadmap.” Offensives by the UWSA are coordinated with the Tatmadaw in arrangements that allow the UWSA to live in and develop areas taken through forced relocation of civilians. In this way, Wa special administration areas in Shan State have been created and give both the Burmese army and the UWSA incentives to forcibly relocate the population of entire villages.

Indiscriminate attacks and the forced displacement of the civilian population during an internal armed conflict violate international humanitarian law, or the laws of war.

Human Rights Watch noted that fighting may intensify and abuses against Shan civilians could increase after the announcement earlier this week of a merger of the Shan State National Army and the Shan State Army, which had broken in 1995 when the Shan State National Army entered into a ceasefire with the Burmese government. This is the first time in ten years that any of the 17 ceasefire groups has broken with Rangoon.

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