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Asia

Thousands of Myanmar refugees start heading home

After some 20,000 refugees from Myanmar fled across the border after fire fights between ethnic militias and Myanmar’s Army, analysts fear it may be a sign of prolonged conflict in the border regions.

Myanmar refugees board a boat as they return home from Thailand Tuesday

Myanmar refugees board a boat as they return home from Thailand Tuesday

Tensions along the border in Myanmar eased Tuesday as many of the 20,000 ethnic Karen and Burmese refugees returned home after fleeing a day earlier following a fire fight between ethnic Karen troops and Myamnar’s troops.

But fighting was still reported in some areas Tuesday leading to fresh uncertainties over the outlook after the fighting in the border town of Myawaddy had left several dead and injured.

The ethnic Karen militia fighters had been told to join a border patrol force. While some have agreed, a faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army or DKBA is resisting. Late Tuesday Mywaddy town was reported back under control of the Army.

Aid group says situation at the border remains unstable

Several ethnic armies have ceasefire pacts with Myanmar’s military. But several others, such as the Karen, Wa, and Shan among others have refused to lay down their weapons.

Myanmar refugees are on their way to a pier in Thailand to go home

Myanmar refugees are on their way to a pier in Thailand to go home

Leonard Buckles, a spokesman with the refugee aid group Thailand Burma Border Consortium, says while people have returned over the border the outlook remained uncertain: "People that came in last night in Three Pagodas Pass went back to Burma today. But now they are coming back out so it’s a very flux situation in terms of people not staying permanently inside Thailand. So it’s hard to say really when it might resolve itself. I think it’s going to be people coming and going for the next couple of weeks."

Army-backed party claims victory

The return of the refugees came as Myanmar’s main pro-military party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, said Tuesday it had won up to 80 percent of the parliamentary seats in the weekend elections.

Sunai Pasuk, a spokesman for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the fighting between militias and Myanmar’s armed forces reflects growing pressures on border ceasefire groups to lay down weapons and join the border guards under the Army’s control: "This alliance is breaking down, falling apart. On the other hand we have groups who will continue to fight so again this reaffirms the current speculation that this situation pre- and post election are pretty much the same. The election will not be able to bring any stability to the country because there is no sincerity to give power back to the people including the ethnic population."

The Karen minority in Myanmar

The Karen minority in Myanmar

Sunai says an absence of real reconciliation and participation for Myanmar’s ethnic populations in the political process is set to leave the border regions unstable.

Experts say more violence is yet to come

Political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, agrees the outlook for Myanmar’s border regions is one of violence and conflict: "It is highly likely we will see prolonged conflict now – renewed civil war between ethnic armies along the minority groups and the Burmese military. The military will also feel emboldened by having this election but at the same time paranoid and vulnerable because they’ve had elections and they will have to transfer power – so they’re likely to clamp down on the ethnic armies."

Thitinan says increased conflict has wide ranging regional implications with a humanitarian crisis set to lead to increased illegal drug trafficking and more refugees fleeing into Thailand for safety.

Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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