Karen refugee camps in Thailand were first formed in 1984, when the Burmese Army changed its approach in Karen areas from attack-and-withdraw to attack-and-hold. Thousands of villagers found that they could no longer return to their villages without facing systematic human rights abuses by Burmese troops, and if there was no place for them in Karen-held territory then they had to flee to Thailand. Refugee camps were formed but Thai authorities insisted they remain unofficial, not recognising the Karen as refugees and not allowing United Nations agencies to be involved in the camps. A consortium of foreign Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) was formed to provide aid to the camps, but this aid was tightly restricted by the Thai Government to the bare minimum required for survival: rice, salt, fishpaste and basic clothing. This ‘unofficial’ approach in the camps allowed the refugees some freedom of movement in and out of the camps, so they could forage for food or find underpaid day labour to augment their diet. It provided them with no international protection, but the refugee camps were very peaceful places, run by the refugees themselves, and no protection appeared to be necessary. However, everything changed in 1995 after the formation of the DKBA.
The DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) was formed in December 1994 by Buddhist monk U Thuzana, who had travelled Karen areas and refugee camps telling Karen people they should no longer support the Karen National Union (KNU). He attracted rank-and-file Karen soldiers, most of whom are Buddhist, who were sick of being undersupplied at the front line while defending Manerplaw, where KNU leaders lived reasonably well, and who were disgruntled at the lack of opportunity for the Buddhist majority under the strongly Christian KNU leadership. He also attracted villagers who were tired of the deadlocked political situation and the constant Four Cuts retaliatory abuses they had to face from SLORC. Though on the surface the formation of the DKBA was presented (particularly by SLORC) as a Buddhist-Christian split, it was not; most Buddhists remained with the KNU, while some Christians went to the DKBA (and there are still Christians in the DKBA today).
SLORC supported and supplied the DKBA from its formation, and immediately used the new Army to help them capture Manerplaw and Kawmoora, promising that in return for their help SLORC would withdraw its troops from Karen State and give power to the DKBA. Of course, the promises were never kept. Since then, almost all of the former KNLA soldiers have left, and now most DKBA soldiers are villagers who joined at one point or another because of the inducements offered, such as cash salaries provided by SLORC and freedom from SLORC forced labour for their families. The DKBA probably still numbers around 1,000-2,000 troops, but it no longer has any sense of political direction, the command structure is weak or nonexistent in most areas, and it has almost no support anymore from the civilian population, who are more disgruntled than ever with the KNU but now view the DKBA simply as an SPDC militia. The DKBA operates primarily as small local units attached to the local SPDC battalion. They collect money from villages and passenger cars on the roads, and they act as guides for SPDC patrols, helping to round up food, money and forced labourers for the SPDC soldiers and pointing out suspected KNU collaborators. In Pa’an District, the SLORC/SPDC has even put them in charge of supervising forced labour on construction of some roads.
Since its formation, the DKBA has viewed the refugee camps in Thailand as bastions of KNU support and has vowed to wipe them out and to force the refugees back into Burma, where they could then be used to support the DKBA. The SLORC encouraged this, because they had always wanted to wipe out the refugee camps in Thailand but couldn’t risk ruining their relations with Thailand by flagrantly violating the border. The DKBA provided a good front for whatever cross-border operations the SLORC wished to carry out. Despite the fact that the DKBA has always received all of its material support from SLORC/SPDC, the regime still claims it has no control over DKBA operations.
The first cross-border attacks came in February 1995, just after Manerplaw had fallen and thousands of new refugees had fled across the border into Thailand. The DKBA immediately started attacking Thailand, kidnapping or killing refugees and burning their houses in attempts to frighten them into returning to Burma. Refugees were ambushed and gunned down at Huay Heng, refugee leaders were kidnapped at Mae Kong Kha and Ber Lu Ko, and part of the new Mae Ra Mo Kloh refugee camp was burned. As 1995 continued the DKBA began targetting long-established refugee camps. In late April, Baw Noh and Kamaw Lay Ko camps were completely destroyed and had to be consolidated into other existing camps. As tension increased and other camps were threatened, refugees were moved and camps such as Gray Hta (Mae Salit) and Kler Ko were closed before they could be attacked. However, only a small minority of refugees returned to Burma; for most refugees, the attacks only strengthened their resolve not to return to live under soldiers who conduct such atrocities.
From 1995 to the present, there have been hundreds of incursions into Thailand by DKBA and SLORC/SPDC troops to conduct attacks. Most have been small-scale attacks by local DKBA units to loot Thai shops and villages, or to kidnap or kill KNU officials. In the process, even Thai villages have been attacked and many Thai civilians have been killed in armed robberies by cross-border attackers. The major attacks on refugee camps also continue to occur every year, usually between January and April. Some of these attacks have included over a hundred DKBA and SLORC troops, in some cases with clear evidence of SLORC support such as mortar barrages from SLORC Army positions across the border. In January 1997, Huay Kaloke and Huay Bone camps were attacked and almost completely destroyed, and attackers also assaulted but failed to destroy Beh Klaw camp. Huay Bone camp was subsequently closed and the refugees moved to Huay Kaloke and Beh Klaw, while Huay Kaloke was rebuilt on the same site. After each wave of major attacks, especially those in 1997, Thai Army leaders have said it will never be allowed to happen again. But every year it does. [For details on past cross-border attacks see the following reports: "SLORC’s Northern Karen Offensive" (KHRG #95-10, 29/3/95), "New Attacks on Karen Refugee Camps" (KHRG #95-16, 5/5/95), "DKBA / SLORC Cross-Border Attacks" (KHRG #96-31, 1/8/96), "Attacks on Karen Refugee Camps" (KHRG #97-05, 18/3/97), and "A Question of Security" (Images Asia & Borderline Video, May 1998).]
Thus far in 1998, three major refugee camp attacks have occurred: on the night of March 10-11 Huay Kaloke refugee camp was attacked and almost completely burned down, Beh Klaw camp was attacked for several days over the following week but not destroyed, and on the night of 22-23 March Maw Ker camp was attacked and 50 houses were burned down. All three attacks had civilian casualties. Subsequent to these attacks tensions in other camps also increased and there were fears of imminent attack, particularly in Noh Po camp.
Huay Kaloke refugee camp is 3 kilometres from the Moei River, which forms the border with Burma. It is home to almost 9,000 Karen refugees. There is a paved road from the Thai village of Ban Wan Kaew, right on the border, to the main gate of the camp. This road then goes through the Thai village of Huay Kaloke, going around the camp to the south, and continues eastward to join with the main north-south highway 5 kilometres further east. On 10 March 1998 just before midnight, a jeep and several motorbikes drove into the refugee camp through the main gate on the west side of the camp. Thai soldiers supposed to guard the gate had left. The vehicles drove through the camp with their headlights off, dropped off some people and then left. Witnesses state that the jeep was full of soldiers on the way in and almost empty on the way out, while each motorbike had 3 people on the way in but only one or two people on the way out. Then at 12:30 a.m. another group of attackers were dropped off from trucks in a field on the opposite side of the camp. This side of the camp faces east, so if the trucks had come from Burma they had driven along the paved road all the way around the outside of the camp, then across the fields to arrive on the camp’s east side.
"The soldiers arrived on the other bank of the stream but they did not start to shoot yet; they were lining up and they were setting up their mortar. When I saw them, we started to run and then they saw us and they fired their guns. They fired guns first and then shells of big weapons started to land. Then the soldiers separated themselves in two groups in front of my house. There were more than ten soldiers in each group. They started to burn the houses as soon as they entered the camp. I told my family, ‘Don’t take anything, we will run’. I ran with my wife and my child. My wife could not put her slippers on, nor could my mother-in-law. I couldn’t carry anything, not even my blankets. … My mother was also wounded. She was wounded in the back by a shell. I think it was a shell from a mortar, a 2½ inch shell. They fired the mortar from near the mango tree. Now she is in the hospital but she can talk..." - "
Saw Lah Po" (M, 25) from Section 1 of Huay Kaloke camp, who saw the main attack force enter the camp (Interview #H2)
This main group of attackers entered Section 1 of the camp from the east, firing M79 grenades and rocket-propelled grenades ahead of them, firing assault rifles, and then setting fire to each house as they passed. Most refugees estimate that there were about 50 attackers, but they divided into at least two groups and it is hard to be exact. They marauded through the entire camp, burning 84% (about 1,300) of the houses and shooting up the entire camp before leaving. The houses are all built of bamboo with leaf or thatch roofing, and burn very quickly giving off extreme heat. Upon hearing the shots and explosions, most refugees attempted to flee. There are no bunkers in the camp, so most people tried to flee to the surrounding farmfields. In 1997 the attackers had come from the west side, so many refugees tried to flee eastward (away from the border), only to find that the main attack was coming from that direction, so people panicked and fled in all directions, trying to carry their children. Most had no time to save any of their belongings.
"We heard explosions from section one and section four, we were afraid and we ran. They fired big weapons and guns. … When we ran into the field a shell landed in front of us and we ran quickly. We shouted, ‘Run, run!’ Some were shouting, some were running, some were crying, some were running but they had no sarong."
"Naw Eh" (F, 38), Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H3)
"I heard the explosions and I ran to the toilets [the school toilets, which are made of concrete]. They saw me and they fired their guns near the toilets. … I stayed in the toilets until the fire went out. I didn’t see them because I dared not get out. I dared not lift my head up to look outside. They shot nonstop. The shell of a big weapon landed near me so I dared not lift up my head. But I heard them going and swearing in Burmese when they came and shot up the school’s library."
"Pu K’Mwee Htoo" (M, 58), Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H11)
"…my brother was in our house trying to gather our clothing, food and blankets. He was hurrying to follow us, but luckily while he was grabbing the bottle of my children’s milk powder in his frightened hands, he dropped the bottle. Just as he bent to pick up the bottle a 2½-inch shell exploded behind my house. That shell wounded 6 people behind my house."
"Naw Eh Moo" (F, 24), Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H1)
While fleeing, some people were fired on by the attackers and some came face to face with them. The attackers spoke Karen and the general consensus appears to be that most or all of the attackers in the camp were Karen from the DKBA, though there is some confusion about what they were wearing. Most witnesses say that most of them were wearing camouflage uniforms while others were in plain olive uniforms, and they were wearing a mixture of Burmese Army hats and military-style baseball caps. Witnesses consistently state that the attackers were clearly drugged or drunk; they were hyperaggressive, their eyes were glazed and they were unaware of exactly what they were doing. When they encountered refugees they stole personal bags, watches and jewellery, and usually asked "Are you Buddhist or Christian?" Most refugees answered "Buddhist" regardless of their religion; the attackers often then said they would kill all the Christians, or asked the Buddhists why they haven’t yet returned to Burma. Some attackers told refugees they would return 3 days later to kill all refugees who still remained in the camp.
"They told us, ‘Don’t run, we will shoot you and kill you all’. They asked, ‘Have you seen any Kaw Thoo Lei [KNLA soldiers]?’ One man said, ‘There is no Kaw Thoo Lei’. They touched me with their guns. They were M1 [carbine] and M16. I dared not move. … They grabbed two bags and some watches from the people. … Then they asked, ‘Are you Buddhist or Christian?’ We said, ‘We are Buddhists’, and they said, ‘If you are Christian, we will kill all of you. Tomorrow you must go back to Myaing Gyi Ngu [DKBA headquarters in Pa’an District]. If you don’t go back, in three days we will come back again.’ Then they went away and they started to fire their guns in the direction of the camp."
"Saw Po Gyi" (M, 38), Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H7)
"They looked like drunkards. They had taken the medicine. They looked like fools. When they take the medicine they don’t know anything and we are afraid that they will kill us. We dare not go near them. We are afraid of the DKBA and of the Burmese. The Burmese are friendly to the DKBA, but what they will do one day to the DKBA we don’t know."
"Naw Eh" (F, 38), Huay Kaloke camp; DKBA attackers are usually on ‘myin say’, an amphetamine-type drug common in Burma and Thailand which makes people aggressive and stupid (Interview #H3)
At the beginning of the attack one group of attackers surrounded camp leader Naw Mary On’s house and stormed the house, grabbing a teenage girl and asking for the camp leader. However, just a few minutes earlier a young boy had shouted to Naw Mary that the camp was under attack and she had managed to flee out the back of her house. It is possible that the small attack group which had entered the camp first through the front gate had been assigned to capture or kill her.
36 refugees were wounded by bullets, shell fragments and burns (see list given by "Naw Eh Moo" in Interview #H1). A 36-year-old woman named Ma Pein (a.k.a. Daw Pein) was shot and then burned to death beside her house; she had 2 children and was pregnant with her third. A 7-year-old boy named Pa Lah Ghay was hit in the head by shrapnel and died on the way to hospital. His elder brother was also wounded and is still in hospital. One entire family tried to hide from the shooting in a concrete well behind their house, but the intense heat from the burning houses turned the well into an oven and they were all very severely burned by the time they got out. Their 15-year-old daughter Naw Thweh Ghay Say Paw died of her burns 3 days later. Several weeks later, her 17-year-old sister Naw Sheh Wah Paw also died in hospital of her burns.
"The first shell hurt a teacher and a boy. Then they shelled nonstop with M79 and 2½ inch. So many children were hurt by the shells. Girls and boys were wounded. They had bad injuries. A pregnant woman was shot and then burned to death in Section 2 behind camp leader Mary On’s house. Her daughter was hurt as well, by a shell fragment in her hip. Her daughter is only 9 years old. There were 4 members of a family who were terribly burned, and the youngest daughter died 3 days later. … Another sleeping family was also injured [by shell fragments] - the mother was hit in her left breast. Her 9 year old daughter was hit in the left side of her head. Her 7 year old son was hit in his right shoulder and his left hand."
"Naw Eh Moo" (F, 24), Karen human rights monitor living in Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H1)
There was no resistance by Thai forces, who abandoned their checkpoints and withdrew from the camp well before the attack, just as they have done before almost every refugee camp attack since 1995. In fact, in this attack many refugees believe they recognised the vehicles which brought the attackers as Thai Army vehicles. The refugees fled to the camp monastery, which wasn’t burned, and the fields surrounding the camp. Between 2 and 3 a.m. the Thai soldiers reappeared and wandered through the field, telling the refugees to sit still and beating six people who could not understand Thai, including one 70-year-old woman whom a Thai soldier kicked in the back with his Army boots. Later the Thai soldiers ordered all the refugees to go back and stay in the ashes of the camp.
"I wanted to save my things, but the Thai soldiers wanted us to sit down in the fields. … I decided to go back and went to ask whether we could go or not, but I didn’t get to ask anything because one Thai soldier kicked me, while one of his friends sat and looked at me. … When the Thai soldier kicked me the first time I passed urine, and then when I turned around he beat me with his gun. That happened at 3 a.m. He told me to go back and sit with my friends. Some of my friends were kicked as well. … The left side of my back swelled up. It was very painful on both sides when I coughed. … There are no visible wounds but I’m still on medicine and it is still painful inside my body. … First they only beat me, and then they beat some other people. They beat Maung N--- and A—’s mother. They also beat some women."
"Saw Klaw Wah" (M, 47), Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H14)
Three days after the attack Thai soldiers went around the fields and the Thai village, again ordering all the refugees to go back and stay in the ashes of the camp, telling them that if they didn’t obey then the Thai Army would burn the makeshift shelters they’d put up and push them back to Burma at gunpoint. The refugees were afraid to do so, because during the attack DKBA soldiers had told refugees that they would come back after 3 days and kill anyone who remained in the camp. That night a jeep once again entered and toured the camp, leading some refugees to believe that the Thai Army was bringing the SPDC or DKBA to inspect the results of their work.
Now most refugees have been living in tiny straw shelters on the ashes of the camp, sleeping on the ground for over 2 months already. The site is baking hot in the daytime, and the monsoon rains are already beginning. A large proportion of them still carry their most important belongings out of the camp every night to sleep in the fields or the adjacent Thai village.
"At night time we sleep here but we are afraid. The Thai soldiers don’t stay anywhere near where we are staying. We have to look out for ourselves, and if we see anything strange we have to get ready to run. We dare not stay here."
"Saw Lah Po" (M, 25), Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H2)
Beh Klaw (Mae La) refugee camp is fifty kilometres north of Huay Kaloke. Up to 1995 it housed about 5,000 Karen refugees, but when other camps were destroyed or closed many of them were ordered to move to Beh Klaw by Thai authorities. The latest population moved to Beh Klaw consisted of most of the 10,000 refugees at Sho Kloh, which was closed in February 1998 as part of the Thai plan to consolidate camps. By March 1998 Beh Klaw had a population of over 30,000 refugees, making it the largest refugee camp on the Burma/Thai border. In January 1997 the DKBA tried to attack Beh Klaw but were driven back by Karen camp security and Thai forces. This year, fears of an attack began when a small group of DKBA troops crossed the border on 15 February and tried to fire M79 grenades into the camp. The grenades fell short and the soldiers went back, but from then on refugees in the camp were extremely tense. In early March there were reports that they may be about to be attacked, and many people started leaving the camp every night to sleep in the forested hills to the east, on the other side of the main north-south highway. On 10 March there were reports that an SPDC or DKBA force had crossed into Thailand, were looking for ways to attack Beh Klaw and were laying landmines on Thai soil. This force entrenched itself in Thailand until 16 March. Most refugees in the camp began digging bunkers.
On the nights of March 11, 12, and 13, Thai soldiers based outside the camp and further south at the Maw Pa Thu turnoff fired some flares and mortar shells toward Burma, though witnesses claim the mortar shells were either blank or not aimed at Burmese or DKBA positions. On 14 March, the DKBA based at Maw Pa Thu fired 3 mortar shells at the Thai post at the Maw Pa Thu turnoff. Only 2 of the shells exploded. They also fired shells at the Thai village of Nya Mu Kloh, setting fire to some houses. The DKBA captured a cliff in Burma from the KNLA, putting the camp and the Thai positions in easy shelling range. On the morning of 15 March, these troops fired 8 mortar shells into an area southwest of Beh Klaw, hoping to drive out the Karen camp security force which was blocking the SPDC/DKBA force in Thailand from reaching the camp. At about noon, they fired seven 105 mm artillery shells at the camp itself. Three shells landed inside the camp, wounding Pa Kyot Klot, a middle-aged man.
By this time many more Thai troops had been moved into the area, and they began firing shells at the SPDC/DKBA position across the border. The Thai Army claimed to have killed many DKBA, but this is unlikely. Another Burmese force crossed into Thailand, kidnapped 5 Thai citizens from Nya Mu Kloh village and mined the area around the village. The villagers were later released, but 3 Thai soldiers were wounded when their vehicle hit a mine along the road near the village. More Thai troops were sent in, and armoured personnel carriers were patrolling the roads. At the same time, fighting was continuing on the Burma side of the border between KNLA and SPDC/DKBA forces. By 16 March, small groups of SPDC and DKBA troops were still in Thailand trying to find ways to attack the camp, but they failed and eventually went back across the border. [Information for this section of the report provided by Borderline Video/Karen Community Information Service.]
The night of the 22nd of March, a combined DKBA/SPDC force crossed the border and attacked Maw Ker refugee camp, 49 km. south of Mae Sot and home to about 8,400 Karen refugees. The attack force first positioned itself at the main Karen Buddhist monastery in the camp, Wah Lay monastery. One group remained at the monastery and fired 2½-inch mortars and M79 grenades into the camp while at least 2 other small groups of four to eight attackers headed into sections 6 and 7, firing small arms and setting houses alight. It is not known how many attackers stayed beside the monastery, but most of the refugees believe they were SPDC troops while the groups burning the houses were Karen DKBA troops. Several witnesses saw the Karen troops cursing the Burmese, shouting "Motherfuckers! We are in front of you, why are you shelling us?" The attackers burning the houses appeared quite disorganised, arguing with each other over whether or not to shoot and whether or not to burn the houses, and asking each other for lighters to start the fires. On encountering refugees, the attackers didn’t hurt them but usually asked "Where are the Muslims?" There is a sizable Muslim population in Maw Ker, but the attackers never reached that part of the camp. Some witnesses say that some of the attackers were young boys in uniform, and most of the refugees who encountered them say the attackers were confused and afraid. It appears they were too afraid to stay long in the camp, as they left within an hour having burned only 50 houses (45 in Section 6 and 5 in Section 7), the small Burman Buddhist monastery, and a community hall (the camp’s main Karen Buddhist monastery was not burned). No houses were burned in other sections of the camp, though some refugees were wounded in Sections 1 and 3.
"They came into the camp at half past one. They came on foot, by the path beside the monastery. First four soldiers came and they spoke Karen, they said, ‘Taw, taw, taw!’ [‘Go on, go on, go on!’ in Karen]. After that Burmese soldiers came also; they said, ‘Dteh! Dteh! Dteh!!’ [‘Go on! Go on! Go on!!’ in Burmese]. They shot at us with 79’s [M79 grenades] and 2½-inch [mortars]. They shot with heavy weapons and they fired small guns. … An M79 shell landed near us. It didn’t hit me but my friend Kyaw Wah got injured. … I ran back home and I called out to everyone, but I couldn’t call all the people and I ran into a bunker. When I reached the bunker, the soldiers were also arriving and they were burning the houses. They shot their guns and burned the houses at the same time. They shot for nearly one hour."
"Saw Kaser Doh" (M, 40+) from Maw Ker camp (Interview #M1)
"I was not sleeping when I heard the heavy weapon, I was breastfeeding my child. I went down to the ground and my husband told me, ‘Don’t run, they are firing big weapons and a lot of shells are landing’. I dared not stay so I took my child and I ran outside the house. My sarong was falling down so I told my husband, ‘Carry the baby’. … A lot of bullets landed in front of me. I covered myself like this [with her hands] and when they started firing I was wounded in my hand."
"Daw Sein" (F, 25) from Maw Ker camp; doctors later had to amputate one of her fingers (Interview #M3)
"Women and children were hiding in the bunkers. I saw the fire and the soldiers calling, ‘Go on, go on, go on!’ I heard one soldier who was holding a walkie-talkie. He said in Karen language, ‘Don’t fire the gun, don’t fire the gun’, but his friends fired. One soldier was shouting in Burmese, ‘Nga lo ma tha!! We are in front of you, why are you firing the gun at us?’ [‘Nga lo ma tha’ is Burmese for ‘Motherfucker’.] … When they burned the houses they were shivering. They were shaking, their legs were also shaking. Maybe they were afraid. When they heard the bombs they sat down on the ground. What were they afraid of? The KNU is not in the camp!"
"U Than Myint" (M, 47) from Maw Ker camp (Interview #M9)
An estimated 291 refugees were left homeless. 14 refugees were injured, including 4 who were seriously wounded. One 7-day-old baby named Tha Tha had both of his legs broken, and his mother (Nha Ma Chan, age 25, Muslim) and father were also hit by shrapnel. Moo Rah Paw, a 2-year-old girl, was hit in the lower jaw by mortar shrapnel. "Daw Sein" (not her real name), 25, was shot in her hand while trying to carry her baby away from her house, and had to have a finger amputated. No one was killed. Fortunately, most of the refugees had already dug small bunkers behind their houses in fear of such attacks, so most people ran into their bunkers and sheltered there rather than trying to flee the camp. On seeing people in their bunkers, the attackers usually just asked them where the Muslims were or what village they were from, and then left them alone. Some people were even told to get back in their bunkers.
"My daughter was wounded last night … Her name is Moo Rah Paw. She is two years and two months old. She got injured in her lower jaw by a big shell. … There were casualties in section one and also in section three. In section one there were my daughter and two others who got just a few fragments. The other two are in the beds over there. One is injured on her hip and the other in her leg. The one who got injured in the leg is Than Than Yi, she is 28 years old - the pieces entered her thigh. … The baby there is only seven days old, he got injured and his father, his mother and his whole family got injured. Now there is no one to take care of him so I help him. His mother is in very bad condition, the shell fragments penetrated her lungs, all over her back and in her buttocks."
"Saw Say Po" (M, 30+) from Maw Ker camp; when interviewed he was in hospital by his daughter’s bedside (Interview #M4)
Thai soldiers supposed to protect the camp were nowhere to be seen, and had apparently withdrawn several hours prior to the attack. Karen refugees acting as camp sentries raised the alarm, but they are unarmed so they could do little more. Up until this attack, Maw Ker camp leaders had always had an arrangement with the DKBA unit across the border to prevent the camp being attacked. Refugees heard from contacts across the border that when the SPDC ordered this attack, the DKBA unit refused to carry it out so the SPDC had to bring in a special unit of DKBA based 100 kilometres to the north in Pa’an District, led by commander Maung Chit Thu. He is a well-known DKBA commander in Pa’an District, and was the main DKBA commander in the previous week’s attempted attack on Beh Klaw camp. Despite the fact that Thai soldiers provided no resistance to the attack, on their way to or from the camp the attackers captured 4 Thai soldiers and took them back to Burma. Thai Army sources later confirmed that these Thai soldiers were executed in Burma. This may have occurred in retaliation for the Thai Army’s part in preventing Beh Klaw camp from being destroyed the week before.
Fears at Noh Po
Noh Po refugee camp lies west of the Thai town of Umphang, about 200 km. south of Mae Sot. It was created in early 1997 to shelter new refugees fleeing the SLORC offensive and subsequent occupation of Dooplaya District. It currently has a population of approximately 10,000. The camp has not yet been attacked, but after attacks on the other camps tensions were very high. Villagers from just across the border had been told by SPDC troops that if the KNLA attacked the SPDC anywhere in the region, the SPDC would retaliate by destroying Noh Po camp. In the area around the camp in the week leading up to 27 March, Thai soldiers reported that SPDC troops were entering Thailand every day to look for weaknesses in the border defences; each time, the SPDC patrols would continue into Thailand until they were seen by Thai soldiers, then withdraw. The SPDC has ordered the DKBA out of the area across the border from Noh Po, replacing them with a new ‘proxy army’, the Karen Peace Army (KPA), which the SPDC created in 1997 under the command of defected KNLA officer Thu Mu Heh. Therefore, if an attack comes it will have to be conducted by SPDC troops, KPA, or possibly a DKBA group brought in from elsewhere, as was the case in the attack on Maw Ker camp.
Thai soldiers in the area have admitted that they cannot effectively defend Noh Po camp, yet the refugees continue to be held in this fenced camp like prisoners, with no permission to leave or reenter. Thai authorities told the refugees in the camp to dig bunkers, and they have done so. Since the end of March, tensions have lessened somewhat as no attack has been forthcoming. However, the camp could still be attacked at any time, and it is important to note that many of the past camp attacks have come just when tensions are at their lowest and people are not expecting them.
In all of the attacks documented in this report, refugees claim that there were SPDC troops among the attack force. In Huay Kaloke people claim to have encountered Burmese troops among those who were shooting up the camp; in Maw Ker they claim that the troops hiding behind the monastery were Burmese; at Beh Klaw, Karen camp security people claim to have encountered SPDC troops inside Thailand; and at Noh Po, Thai soldiers have reported encounters with SPDC units entering Thailand on a daily basis to seek a way to attack Noh Po camp. In spite of this, the fact remains that when the camp attacks have occurred, the majority of the attackers have been Karen DKBA troops. Given the availability of DKBA troops and the SPDC’s control over them, it would be foolish for the SPDC to arrange the attacks in any other way.
"I saw all of them. About twenty or thirty came. I saw Burmese soldiers and DKBA, I saw all of them. I don’t know what they were wearing, it looked like Burmese soldiers’ uniforms. I dared not look anymore, I ran."
"Saw Tha Muh" (M, 20+), Maw Ker camp (Interview #M5)
"There were also some plain green uniforms. I saw badges on their uniforms, we call it the Bandoola badge [the standard red-and-white Burmese Army badge]. But I couldn’t see their [Battalion] numbers, because when they saw me they said to me, ‘I will kill you’. They wore baseball-style caps and some wore Burmese military hats. … Some had a yellow scarf around their necks. The others didn’t have yellow scarves because they were not DKBA. I could recognise that. I’m sure that they were Burmese soldiers. The Burmese were wearing Burmese military hats."
"Saw Hsah Hay Mu" (M, 33), Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H9)
Regardless of whether or not its troops entered the camps, the SPDC has definitely been involved in organising and supporting these attacks. The DKBA is totally reliant on the SPDC for all of its supplies, weapons and ammunition, and freedom to move within Burma. There is no way they could carry out such attacks without at least tacit SPDC support. Furthermore, DKBA units along the border exist as small local groups attached to SPDC Battalions and under the direct control of those Battalions. They are even used to loot chickens from Karen villages, as messengers, and to round up and supervise forced labour on SPDC road projects. They have no opportunity to assemble for large-scale cross-border attacks unless this can be arranged by the SPDC. The SPDC has never trusted the DKBA; this is why it has replaced them with the KPA in most of Dooplaya District, and why DKBA soldiers regularly complain that the SPDC keeps them on tight ammunition rations of a few bullets each. There is no way the SPDC would allow 100 or more DKBA troops to assemble for operations which are not under its control. Nor does the DKBA have a strong enough command structure to prepare such an operation. When DKBA units do act on their own, it is in groups of 4 or 5, demanding petty extortion from local villages or crossing into Thailand to loot a Thai shop. In contrast, the attacks on refugee camps of this year and previous years have involved DKBA troops being transported several hundred kilometres through SPDC territory by truck, mortar barrages on Thailand from SPDC-held positions, and other similar support measures which require time and skill to organise effectively, as any experienced Army officer can testify. When SPDC leaders claim they have no involvement in the attacks and no control over the DKBA, this is beyond belief. When leaders of the Thai Government and the Thai Army pretend to believe it, they are most likely doing so to protect their close relationship with the SPDC and their economic interests in Burma.
Thai Policy and Response
On Sunday March 15th, Thai troops at Maw Ker camp issued an order that all refugees must be inside the camp by 4 p.m. instead of the previous curfew of 6 p.m. Maung Nyat Thein, a Karen refugee aged 31 with a wife and one child, didn’t know and returned about 6 p.m. For this violation he was grabbed by Thai troops at the camp, tied up at the checkpoint, interrogated and tortured. He died of beatings during the night. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Over the past 2 years there have been many cases of beatings and torture of refugees by the Thai troops who are supposed to ‘protect’ them; these troops have also looted refugees’ houses, regularly extorted money out of them, used them as forced labour servants, and attempted to rape them. All of these acts are carried out with impunity because they fit into the current Thai policy of ‘encouraging’ refugees to return to Burma by making their lives miserable. It has been called ‘humane deterrence’ but there is nothing humane about it. The refugees are forced to fence themselves in, then prohibited from doing anything to augment their basic food supply, which the Thai Army sometimes blocks from arriving at the camp. Refugees in some new camps have been forbidden from building houses and have been living under plastic sheets for over a year, also forbidden to build schools. Camps are consolidated into larger and larger camps because Thai authorities know that with every move, some refugees disappear back into Burma or into the illegal labour market, where they can then be arrested and deported. The refugees at Huay Kaloke have now been living on the ground among the ashes of their camp for over 2 months, in the blazing heat and now in the rain, not because there is nowhere to move them but because the Thai authorities hope that this will ‘encourage’ them to return to Burma.
"We are afraid and we go and sleep outside [the camp] every night. We are afraid of Thais, Burmese, and DKBA; everybody. … The Thai soldiers said, ‘Don’t stay here. Gawlawa [white foreigners] won't look after you. Go back to Burma.’ We are afraid. The Thai soldier who talked to us was the one who stays at the checkpoint. He told us, ‘I told you to go back to Burma and you haven’t gone. Why do you trust the Gawlawa? We are bigger than the Gawlawa. If we block the road then the Gawlawa’s rice won't be able to come. If we send you, you must go back. You have a country. Why don't you go back?"
"Naw Eh" (F, 38), Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H3)
To further encourage the refugees to return, the Thai Army has also been complicit in almost every major refugee camp attack. Usually this complicity took the form of withdrawing from the camps several hours before they were to be attacked, and in some cases (such as Baw Noh camp in 1995) deliberately disarming the Karen camp security force before the attack occurred. Only the refugees themselves make any effort to protect their camps, and their security forces are often armed with nothing more than slingshots. In this year’s attack on Huay Kaloke, some refugees claim that the Thai Army even helped to transport the attackers to the camp, and that they brought some of them back to the camp 3 days later to inspect the result. Whether this is true or not, they certainly did nothing to prevent the attack, and their brutality to the refugees sheltering in the fields afterwards, beating several of them and kicking a 70-year-old woman, is inexcusable.
"…they didn’t do anything. Sometimes they provide security but not regularly. That night we had only villagers as sentries and they were holding nothing but slingshots, so they dared not shoot. From looking at their behaviour, I think the Thai, the Burmese and the DKBA have joined hands and are working together."
"Saw Eh Kler" (M, 23), Maw Ker camp, talking about Thai security at Maw Ker (Interview #M12)
"I wanted to walk quickly but I couldn’t. I fell down and after I stood up a Thai soldier talked to me in Thai. I didn’t understand and the Thai soldier kicked my back once and I fell down to the ground. It was very painful and I was crying, and my stomach was in pain. I cried in the dark."
"Pi Ber Tha" (F, 70), Huay Kaloke camp, describing what happened after she fled the burning camp into the surrounding fields (Interview #H13)
In Maw Ker there was also no attempt to defend the camp, yet at Beh Klaw and Noh Po the Thai Army actually seemed sincere about preventing the attacks. There are several possible reasons for this. Even before the attacks Thai authorities had made clear that both Huay Kaloke and Maw Ker camps were to be closed and moved at some point in the near future, but they may have feared difficulties from the refugees; in February, Karen refugees further north in Mae Sariang had refused to be moved during a camp consolidation and had given the Thai Army a great deal of trouble and embarrassment. Thai authorities may have feared similar problems from the Huay Kaloke refugees, who had already held demonstration marches in 1997 against mistreatment by the Thai Army. In contrast, Beh Klaw and Noh Po are supposed to be maintained, and the Thai authorities had hoped to move Huay Kaloke and Maw Ker to these locations. It was clearly not in the interest of the Thai authorities to have these two camps destroyed. In addition, after Huay Kaloke was destroyed there was a great deal of international pressure on the Thai Government and Army to protect Beh Klaw. It is no secret that the Thai Army and the new Chuan Leekpai government do not get along, and the Army leadership may have felt that if it failed to protect Beh Klaw the Government could use this as an excuse for a shakeup within the Army; Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai had already made clear his intention of reigning in the Army by making himself Thailand’s first ever civilian defense minister.
"We can’t trust in Thai soldiers. They do not dare to shoot. They will never shoot, even when their duty is to shoot."
Thai Karen villager near Noh Po refugee camp, discussing whether he believes the Thai Army will defend the border (full interview not in this report)
In the rainy season of 1997, a Thai military helicopter patrolling the border near Maw Ker crashed in Burma, apparently after being shot down by SLORC troops. SLORC refused the Thai request to send a team to search for the wreckage until weeks later, and then restricted them to only searching a certain area. No wreckage was found, but no international incident was made of it. Similarly, Thai relations with the SPDC do not seem to have suffered at all over the refugee camp attacks. Publicly, the Thai Government and Army say they accept the SPDC’s claim to having no control over the DKBA, though at the same time the Government has asked the SPDC to step in and restrain the DKBA. There seems to be much more interest among the leadership of the Thai Government and Army in keeping good economic relations with the SPDC than there is in protecting Thai sovereignty and the lives of Thai citizens. On March 23rd, the day after Maw Ker was attacked and 4 Thai soldiers were taken back to Burma to be executed, the Commander in Chief of the Thai Army, Gen. Chettha Thanajaro, was in Rangoon. He was opening the Nikko Royal Lake Hotel, a luxury hotel built entirely with US$38 million of Thai money.
"Now we have to be afraid of the SPDC Army and the Thai Army as well. The Thai soldiers are not kind to us, because the Thai Government wants to drive us back to forced labour, portering and hunger in Burma. I believe we need a safer place for refugees. … Then we need a UN Army to provide security for us because we cannot trust the Thais. I have many Thai soldier friends, and they’ve told me that they really won’t protect us. They don’t want to kill the SPDC Army. They are not brave in battle, they are only cruel to refugee people. I have been in Thailand for 14 years, and I know very well about the Thai spirit. They love only money. If we can pay money to them then they pretend to care for us, but when they finish spending the money they no longer pretend to care. Their faces and mouths show their hearts."
"Naw Eh Moo" (F, 24), Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H1)
Current Status of the Camps
For some time after the attacks, the atmosphere in all of the camps remained extremely tense. Now with the initial onset of the rains tensions have relaxed somewhat, although Thai soldiers based at Huay Kaloke have told refugees there to dig bunkers in case of further attack and most refugees have done so. Most refugees in Beh Klaw, Maw Ker and Noh Po have also made bunkers near their houses, and many refugees in Huay Kaloke still leave the camp every night at sundown to sleep in the nearby Thai village. The main concern in the minds of the refugees now, particularly in Huay Kaloke, is wondering what is to happen next to their camps.
In Maw Ker, refugees whose houses were destroyed have been trying to rebuild them. After the attack there was further discussion about moving the camp, but this appears to have been postponed for the time being. At Huay Kaloke it was made clear shortly after the attack that the camp would be moved but the Thai authorities have been acting extremely slowly, possibly in the hope that some refugees would get tired of living in tiny shelters among the ashes and return to Burma. As a result, they have now been living in those shelters for over 2 months. Entire families are crammed into lean-to’s with roofs of straw or plastic sheeting and nothing but sleeping mats for a floor. This was unbearable enough under the sun of the hot season, but now that the rains have arrived it is completely unlivable. Under international pressure, the Thai authorities have finally located a new site for the Huay Kaloke refugees, but their move there is currently being delayed by policy disagreements between different departments of the Thai Government. As a result, at the time of printing it appears that the Huay Kaloke refugees may be ‘temporarily’ moved to Beh Klaw in the first half of June until the Thai authorities can make a final decision on the new site. Moving and building houses in rainy season, which will continue until October, would be very difficult for the refugees and could lead to problems of illness. There is also disagreement among the NGOs who care for the refugees over the wisdom of moving the refugees to the new site, which is over 60 kilometres from the Burma border. Some argue that this is the best way to prevent further attacks, while others argue that it would be impossible for new refugees to make it there without being arrested and deported on the way, and that the Thai authorities would seal off the camp and make it like an internment camp in order to prevent the refugees from ‘escaping’ into central Thailand. However, it is generally agreed that some sort of new site is urgently required for the Huay Kaloke refugees.
"I dare not go back to Burma. I will say no, and I won’t go to Beh Klaw. We need and want to stay in a new place where our lives will be safe and where we will also have good security."
"Saw Eh Doh Htoo" (M, 30), Huay Kaloke camp (Interview #H10)
Since the latest attacks, it appears that the Thai Government is finally prepared to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) a role in the camps, though it is unclear what that role will be and the UNHCR has thus far been very secretive about its negotiations with the Thai authorities. It appears that the NGOs will continue to provide the relief aid for the refugees, while UNHCR may focus on protection and screening of refugees. Many observers are worried about the result of this, because UNHCR’s past involvement in the region indicates that they favour early repatriation, voluntary or otherwise, followed by negotiating a UNHCR presence in the country of origin, where UNHCR officials believe they can prevent or at least minimise the human rights abuses against returning refugees. This has been their behaviour in dealing with refugees from Burma in Bangladesh, as well as with the recent influx of Cambodian refugees to Thailand. In the latter case, they have also shown that where they ‘screen’ refugees they tend to screen the vast majority ‘out’ so that they can be repatriated; in other words, they declare that the vast majority of refugee claimants have no valid reason to fear persecution at home. If the UNHCR is indeed allowed the role of providing protection and screening in the camps, it will be very important for the international community to watch their activities closely and critically in order to ensure the safety of the refugees; because as many of them state clearly in this report, it is not safe for them to return to Burma yet.
"[I have been here] not even one year. … We couldn’t stay in our village, because we were afraid of Burmese soldiers and sometimes of DKBA too. I had to go portering and sometimes I had to go as forced labour. … I had to build the road all the time. We had to build the road very far from my village in Pa’an district, in Zar Tha Bhin. … The DKBA forced us to work for the Burmese. The Burmese commanded the DKBA to do it, and then the DKBA forced us to work. When we stay in our village the Burmese and the DKBA force us to work. Now when we stay in the camp, they burn my house. Will our lives always be like this? I don’t know."
"U Than Myint" (M, 47), Maw Ker camp (Interview #M9)