(New York) - The Burmese armed forces and ethnic insurgents should act to protect civilians as fighting in eastern Burma intensifies, Human Rights Watch said today. The Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, has conducted a major build up in the East following an attack and brief seizure of the border town of Myawaddy by ethnic Karen rebels on the date of the elections, November 7, 2010.
"The recent elections in Burma have done nothing to change Burmese army tactics of terrorizing civilians with indiscriminate shelling, abusive sweeps, and forced labor in the country's long-running civil war," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Sadly, so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire."
Human Rights Watch said that the Thai government and military should expand efforts to provide protection in Thailand to Burmese refugees affected by the fighting, and called on Thai authorities to stop pressuring refugees to prematurely return to Burma, where they may be caught in the fighting or subjected to human rights abuses.
Fighting in the East since November has caused more than 20,000 Burmese to flee across several points along the border with Thailand. While many of those refugees returned within days, refugees continue to flee renewed fighting near the border.
On November 7, forces of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) attacked and occupied the town of Myawaddy, before withdrawing on November 8 after a Burmese army counter-attack caused more than 12,000 people to flee across the border into Mae Sot town in Thailand's Tak province. On November 27, the Burmese army Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 230 launched attacks against DKBA units holding the town of Palu, less than 20 kilometers from Mae Sot.
Fighting at several other points along the border since November 7 has caused a number of refugee flows. Several thousand people fled into Thailand to escape fighting at Burma's Three Pagoda's Pass, on the border with Thailand's Kanchanaburi province. Sporadic fighting since then has displaced these communities several times, particularly around the town of Waw Lay, 70 kilometers south of Mae Sot, where thousands of people have crossed.
Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Thailand expressed fears of being caught in the crossfire, as much of the fighting is taking place in populated towns. In some areas - including Palu, Waw Lay, and Phayathonzu - it appeared that troops on both sides were indiscriminately firing mortars at civilian houses, or were not taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties, as required under the laws of war.
Refugees also said they feared being taken as forced labor porters by the Burmese army, and in some cases by the DKBA and another rebel force, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). Civilians also said they feared being used to guide troops through terrain, often acting as human minesweepers, a practice the Burmese army has used in past military operations.
Thai Authorities Pressuring Refugees to Return
The Thai authorities have repeatedly sent back to Burma several hundred ethnic Burman and Karen civilians who fled from Palu and surrounding villages, raising concerns for their safety. For instance, refugees who fled to Thailand on November 27 and received assistance from Thai authorities were only permitted to stay in Thailand for one night before being compelled to return to Burma the next day. Amidst intensified fighting on November 29, some fled back to Thailand - and were again permitted to stay for one day before Thai authorities sent them back to Burma a second time. When fighting flared again on November 30, the cycle occurred a third time - temporary stay, and then forced return to Burma. Human Rights Watch interviewed several refugees taking shelter in Thailand who all said they were too afraid to return to Burma under current conditions.
"Rather than being provided consistent protection, people fleeing conflict in Burma are being treated like human pingpong balls - reluctantly allowed into Thailand when fighting flares, but then returned to Burma at the first sign of quiet," Pearson said. "Thailand should not return refugees until the risk to them in Burma truly ends, but should allow them to stay in safe areas away from the border with access to protection services and assistance from humanitarian agencies."
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.
Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government to permit refugees to seek asylum in Thailand and to remain there until they are convinced it is safe to return to Burma. Thai authorities should work closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to engage in proper screening of refugees and follow UNHCR's guidelines on voluntary returns. At several points, Thai authorities have prematurely forced civilians to return to Burma, only for them to return as soon as fighting resumed.
The recent fighting is also a stark reminder of the urgency to support a United Nations commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by all parties to Burma's long-running civil war, Human Rights Watch said. UN Special Rapporteur for the Situation of Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, repeated his call for a commission of inquiry in his October report to the UN General Assembly. To date, 13 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, have publicly announced support for an international inquiry.
"A UN commission of inquiry would be an important deterrent to abuses by all parties to Burma's conflict," Pearson said. "Otherwise the atrocities of the past may continue in the future."
Eyewitness Accounts From Burmese Refugees in Thailand
"The mortar shells landed everywhere [during fighting on November 30], very close to my house. I was hiding under a tree. Both sides [the Tatmadaw and DKBA] were shooting; the fighting was right in the town [Palu]. Most of the Burmese mortar shells landed in the village, even though there DKBA were hiding at the edge of the village at the temple. The fighting has happened so many times lately. Last week I was taken as a porter by the DKBA for one day, but they let me go and told me to flee with my family because the Burmese were coming. I have never been taken as a porter by the Burmese army; I always run away. Yesterday the Burmese came to the area to take porters, and as we were running away from them they shot at us. One man was killed, and another was shot in the leg. All the people ran away. The Burmese want to control everyone and everything."
- Farmer, age 25, from Palu, Karen State, Burma
"The Burmese soldiers came to my village; everyone else had run away. They ordered me to show them the way to one of their bases; they didn't know where it was. I had to walk ahead of them. I was very afraid of stepping on a landmine, but I was afraid of them [Burmese soldiers]; they will beat me if I don't do it. I got lost at one point, I wasn't sure of the way, and one of the sergeants pointed his gun and yelled, ‘I will kill you!' They let me go after I showed them to the camp near Palu."
-Village leader, 53, near Palu
"I was called with others to carry the Burmese wounded [after an ambush]. There were five wounded and four dead. They buried the dead ones there. They told us to bring hoes and shovels for that. I carried one of the wounded soldiers to Palu town for one hour. I was afraid to carry them - I was scared there would be another attack on the way, either the DKBA or KNLA would ambush all of us. It is not safe to go back, I am afraid to be taken as a porter for the Burmese."
- Karen laborer, 30, from Palu town
"The day before we were sent back the first time, we told the Thai [army] we were too afraid to go back, but they sent us back. As soon as we arrived [back in Palu in Burma], the fighting started again and we fled back to Thailand. I don't know why they are doing this, sending us back and forth again and again."
-Woman, 65, from Palu town
The escalation of fighting in ethnic areas of Burma, where civil war has persisted for decades in Karen, Karenni, and Shan States, has various causes. More than 17 ethnic armed groups throughout Burma agreed to ceasefires with the central government between 1989 and 1995. Many of these ceasefires are now looking increasingly tenuous after relations between the groups and the government deteriorated since 2007 over political reforms and the lack of concessions to ethnic nationality aspirations.
In 2008, Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) announced that all armed groups under ceasefires would have to transform into Border Guard Forces (BGF) under the direct operational control of the Tatmadaw, as stipulated in the 2008 Constitution. To date, only five small militias have agreed to the terms and transformed into BGFs. Large ethnic armed groups such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), and the New Mon State Party (NMSP), have refused to join the BGF scheme.
The DKBA, a splinter group from the larger Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army, agreed to transform into a Karen State BGF in September 2010. One brigade of the DKBA, under the leadership of Brigadier Nah Kham Wey, refused to sign onto the BGF scheme. It was this unit that occupied the town of Myawaddy on November 7, leading to fighting breaking out the following day in that town and further south at Three Pagoda's Pass. The Tatmadaw have since been hunting down the DKBA faction, sparking sporadic fighting along the border. There are reports that elements of the KNLA are also attacking Burmese military forces as they attempt to move large numbers of troops and supplies into the area.
In 2009, Burmese security forces stormed the ceasefire enclave of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, which caused over 30,000 refugees to flee into China. The tensions with the ceasefire groups is set to continue in 2011, as fighting has also flared in parts of Shan State against the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), parts of which have agreed to the BGF scheme.