BURMA

Refugees pour into Thailand as junta claims election win

4 min

Burmese villagers fleeing the latest clashes between rebel fighters and Burmese troops were sheltered in camps on the Thai side of the border Tuesday as a military-backed party claimed victory in Sunday's widely criticised poll.

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Tens of thousands of Burmese nationals were sheltered in makeshift camps in Thai border towns Tuesday, a day after fighting between ethnic rebels and Burmese troops drove them across the Thai border. The displacements came as a military-backed political party claimed victory in Sunday’s general elections.

Violent clashes between Burmese troops and a breakaway faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) since Sunday have led to an exodus at key border points as panicked villagers fled across the monsoon-flooded River Moei that separates the two south-eastern Asian nations.

Reporting from the Thai border town of Mae Sot Tuesday, FRANCE 24’s Nelson Rand said there was sporadic gunfire and shelling across the river around sunrise Tuesday. But the situation in the Burmese border town of Myawadi appeared to have calmed down as Burmese government forces had apparently regained control of the town from rebel forces.

“I’m at the border point right now, and I can see the town of Myawadi just on the other side of the river”, said Rand. “This was the scene of heavy fighting yesterday when the renegade faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army were in clashes and briefly controlled the town. Those troops, though, today have retreated”.

But according to Rand, fighting had occurred Tuesday at various other locations along the border.

Newly displaced not expected to stay long

Days after the latest round of fighting broke out, Rand said there were rumors that another ethnic Karen rebel group might join the renegade brigade of DKBA. Although there were no signs that the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) had joined the renegade brigade, Rand noted that if that were to happen, it would increase the fighting in the region.

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The Burmese junta has been locked in a longstanding military conflict with various factions of Karen rebels since this south-eastern Asian country gained independence from Britain in 1948.

During World War II, the minority Karen ethnic group sided with Britain against the Japanese and have historically felt marginalised by the majority Burman ethnic group. Periodic unrest in the Karen region near the Thai border has led to brutal crackdowns by the Burmese military.

The latest disturbances broke out Sunday when a splinter group of the DKBA, known as Brigade 5, briefly captured a polling booth in a show of opposition to the government's plan to incorporate ethnic armies into a centrally-controlled border force.

The clashes have caused at least 20,000 refugees to flee across the Thai border in the past few days, according to Thai officials.

Thailand is home to over 500,000 Burmese refugees. Bangkok has periodically faced criticism from human rights groups over its treatment of segments of this population, notably the Rohinga boat people.

Reporting from Mae Sot, Rand said aid groups were providing the latest influx of Burmese civilians with food and water. But Thai authorities did not expect that the latest influx of displaced people would stay in the country for long, said Rand.

“Thai authorities have been in talks today with Burmese authorities, and there could be an agreement”, said Rand. “It’s possible the refugees will be sent back as early as later today or perhaps tomorrow”.

A widely criticised poll

The recent unrest has underlined Burma’s vulnerability after decades of international isolation and domestic crackdowns on any political opposition in this once self-sufficient, but now impoverished nation.

On Tuesday, the Burmese military's political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), claimed victory in Sunday’s widely criticised first election in 20 years, saying it had won about 80 percent of the seats.

The country’s main opposition party, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was barred from participating in the poll and boycotted the vote.

US President Barack Obama said Monday that it was unacceptable for the Burmese junta to "steal an election'', and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the election lacked transparency.

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