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(Washington, DC) - Burma’s military government should end joint military attacks, carried out with ethnic Karen militias, on civilians in Karen State, Human Rights Watch said today. These attacks have caused hundreds of refugees to flee to Thailand since April 8.

In addition, the Burmese government should immediately prevent its proxy militias from launching cross-border attacks on long-established refugee camps in Thailand.

Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government to provide asylum to fleeing refugees, and to protect all the refugees from cross-border raids on civilians fleeing fighting and oppression in Burma. Some 400 civilians have sought sanctuary in Thailand since the Burmese army and its proxy ethnic Karen militias began attacks on anti-government Karen forces on April 8.

These civilians face grave threats as the Burmese-government-backed ethnic Karen militias appear to be positioning artillery and heavy machine guns overlooking the Mae La refugee camp. Direct attacks on civilians are a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and cross-border attacks on refugee camps by armed groups are a flagrant violation of international law.

“The Burmese government’s brutal campaign against ethnic minorities inside the country has already resulted in gross violations of human rights,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Any extension of that campaign across the border to attack refugees would show just how blatant these forces’ abuses are.”

In military actions since April 8, the Burmese army and its proxy forces – the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and a new breakaway Karen faction, called the Karen State Peace Council – have captured three military bases of the anti-government Karen National Union (KNU) in Burma. This has prompted more than 400 civilians living nearby to seek sanctuary across the border in Thailand.

Since April 9, DKBA and Burmese military units have positioned artillery and heavy machine guns overlooking Mae La refugee camp, which shelters more than 45,000 Burmese civilians, most of whom are ethnic Karen. The same day, the Thai government moved hundreds of Border Patrol Police to the area, suggesting that an attack into Thailand by the Burmese forces may be imminent. Many refugees in Mae La camp have prepared to flee further into Thailand if attacks occur in the coming days.

“Since Thailand is now celebrating one of its most important annual festivals, the Burmese government knows that far fewer international observers than usual will be watching activity along the border,” said Richardson. “The international community needs to keep a close watch on the situation, encourage Thailand to protect the refugees, and find ways of providing assistance themselves.”

The Karen National Union (KNU), which fought the Burmese government for 60 years, signed a ceasefire arrangement with the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in December 2003. Following Burmese government violations of that agreement, the ceasefire effectively broke down last year. Early last year, SPDC forces launched a major military offensive against the KNU and Karen civilians in northern Karen State that displaced nearly 30,000 civilians and drove thousands more to the border with Thailand. And early this year, a former commander of the KNU, Brigadier Htain Maung of Brigade 7, signed an agreement with Burmese military commanders to form a pro-government militia force in central Karen State, called the Karen State Peace Council, which has received government funding for local development projects.

The DKBA and Karen State Peace Council military factions work closely with the SPDC army on local security operations and business projects. Following its break from the KNU in late 1994, the DKBA has been implicated in a series of cross-border attacks on refugee camps in Thailand. Between 1995 and 1999, scores of attacks on camps resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. In 1998, the Huay Kaloke camp was destroyed twice by DKBA and Burmese army units. Many of the refugees who lived there were subsequently moved further from the border to Mae La and Umpiem Mai camps to deter these brutal punitive raids.

In the 1990s, dozens of Thai security personnel and civilians were also killed in these raids. Thai security forces during this period frequently abandoned the camps and refused to protect refugees from Burmese military attacks on civilians, resulting in even more violent abuses and extrajudicial killings of refugees.

The United States, Australia, Norway, Canada and Sweden have agreed to provide refuge for Karen civilians, many of whom have lived in refugee camps for more than two decades. Late last year, following US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s waiving of stringent “material support” provisions that had classified all Karen as insurgents and therefore ineligible for admission to the United States, the US government committed to resettling more than 10,000 Karen in 2007 alone. The other four countries have also pledged to provide refuge to thousands of people living in more than 10 camps inside Thailand.

Human Rights Watch called on these governments to condemn military attacks on civilians that have perpetuated the long-standing cycle of violence in Burma, and support Thailand’s efforts at providing shelter for people fleeing fighting.

“After years in refugee camps and combat zones, these civilians now live in the fear of cross-border attacks,” Richardson said. “Burma’s plans to attack civilians and jeopardize their access to food are deplorable, and the international community should condemn this in the strongest possible terms.”

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