More than 4,000 ethnic Karen have abandoned a camp and villages in eastern Myanmar to seek refuge in Thailand following government attacks on ethnic insurgents, a Karen spokesman and aid groups said Tuesday.
Myanmar troops were shelling and attempting to advance on five encampments of Karen insurgents while small groups of villagers continued to flee in one of the largest movements of refugees across the border in a decade, Karen spokesman David Thaw said.
Thai troops have been deployed along the frontier in recent days to prevent a spillover of the fighting.
Fighting for autonomy
The ethnic group's Karen National Union has been fighting for more than 60 years for greater autonomy from Myanmar's military government, but its strength has dwindled over the past decade due to army offensives and divisions within its ranks.
Some 100,000 mostly ethnic Karen refugees already shelter in camps in Thailand after fleeing counterinsurgency operations, while aid agencies say nearly half a million others are internally displaced inside eastern Myanmar.
David Thaw said Ler Per Her camp in Myanmar, which sheltered internal refugees, had been abandoned and that government troops along with those of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army were trying to overrun five Karen positions in the area of the camp.
The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army split from the predominantly Christian Karen National Union in 1995, joining the government side.
"When there is (battlefield) contact they withdraw and start shelling again," Thaw said. About 25 opposing troops have been killed or wounded since the fighting began over the weekend, the spokesman said. He said he had no information about Karen casualties.
A Myanmar government spokesman has not responded to requests for comment on the reports of fighting.
The refugees were taking shelter about 62 miles north of Mae Sot, a border town that lies 240 miles northwest of the Thai capital, Bangkok.
The Thai government does not allow them to enter established refugee camps in the country and so were seeking shelter at Buddhist monasteries, David Thaw said.
Tension along the border has heightened in recent days, and the aid group Free Burma Rangers said Democratic Karen Buddhist Army troops have threatened to shell Thai villagers across the border if they do not supply them with food for their campaign. Myanmar is also known as Burma.
The Rangers conduct humanitarian missions inside Myanmar and have been providing assistance to the Ler Per Her refugees.
Aid from the United Nations and other agencies was also being delivered by trucks to the Karen, most of whom were crossing the frontier-marking Moei River carrying their children and a few personal belongings. Temporary shelters with plastic roofing were being set up.
The Thailand Burma Border Consortium, the key aid provider to border refugees, said an estimated 4,060 Karen, mainly women and children, were inside Thailand, with some of the men remaining in hiding in Myanmar to keep an eye on their family possessions.
Sally Thompson, the consortium's deputy director, said the Thai government was considering relocating the refugees, currently spread out in four areas, to a central location given the difficulties of providing shelter in torrential rains. The consortium was also providing basic food, blankets, mosquito nets and plastic sheeting for shelter, she said.
Human rights groups as well as the United Nations have long accused the Myanmar government of torture, killings and rape of Karen civilians in their attempts to stamp out the insurgency. But this appears to have had no effect and the military regime has denied the charges.
"Once again the international community is looking the other way while my people are attacked and forced to run for their lives," said Zoya Phan, a Karen with the Burma Campaign UK.
"Why hasn't a single government called for an end to these attacks?" she said in a statement from the activist group.