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Attacks on Karen camps, press relea

JANUARY 30, 1997

For Further Information
Sidney Jones, New York        212 972 8400 ex. 290
Zunetta Liddell, London       (44) 171 713 1995
Mike Jendrzeczyk, Washington  202 371 6592 ex. 113

Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned by attacks over the
past two days on three refugee camps in Thailand by a Burmese
government-backed militia. The attacks on the camps, housing
refugees from Burma s Karen State, were apparently intended to
frighten refugees into returning to Burma. They were carried
out by groups of armed soldiers of the Democratic Karen
Buddhist Army (DKBA), a Karen militia group formed in December
1994 and backed by the Burmese military government of the
State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Human Rights
Watch calls on the Thai government to work with involved
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide improved
protection in all refugee camps along the Thai - Burma border.
As fighting continued near the largest camp on the morning of
January 30, the need for immediate action is urgent. 

     These attacks on unarmed civilians clearly violated a
cardinal principle of humanitarian law, that civilians and
other non-combatants should be protected in times of conflict.
The refugee camps that were the target of the attack are seen
by the SLORC as support bases for the Karen National Union, a
political organization, and its armed wing, the Karen National
Liberation Army (KNLA), but sources say there were no KNLA
soldiers in at least two of the three camps. In any case,
under customary law it is incumbent on armed forces involved
in a conflict to distinguish between military and civilian
targets and to minimize harm or injury to the civilians.
Customary law also prohibits the forcible displacement of a
civilian population, including through the use of terror, as a
means of denying a social base to the opposing force. The DKBA
clearly violated all of these principles. 

    "This is not the first time the DKBA has attacked refugees
in Thailand. How many more people will have to be made
homeless or killed before the threat of further violence is
taken seriously by the Thai authorities?" said Sidney Jones,
executive director of Human Rights Watch/Asia.  "Can the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations continue to support
Burma s bid for membership when a SLORC proxy army continues
to be responsible for raids and killings inside the borders of
a member state?  

     The three camps where the attacks took place -- Mae La,
Don Pa Kiang and Hway Kaloke (also known as Wangkha) -- housed
a total of 36,500 refugees, and at least 7,000 refugees have
been made homeless.  A Thai trader was shot and killed at Don
Pa Kiang, and a Karen man who was suffering from malaria was
killed in Hway Kaloke hospital as it was razed to the ground.
An elderly woman from Mae La camp was also killed, and two
other women there were wounded. The attacks come less than
four weeks after a similar incident in a Karenni camp in which
three refugees were killed. Calls made at the time for
increased protection in all camps went unheeded by Thai
      Each of the refugee camps is situated along the banks of
the Moei river which marks the border between Burma and
Thailand.  While there are Thai Border Patrol Police
checkpoints on the roads into Hway Kaloke and Don Pa Kiang,
only Mae La, the largest single camp on the border, has any
significant Thai military presence. According to refugee
leaders, no Thai soldiers intervened in the attacks at Hway
Kaloke and Don Pa Kiang, and the DKBA troops only left when
both camps had been largely razed.  Only  100 houses were left
standing out of a total of 1,240 in Hway Kaloke, and at Don Pa
Kiang, only ninety-seven out of 730 homes remain.  
     The attack at Hway Kaloke (population 6,720)  took place
at about 10:00 p.m. local time, when between 100 and 150 DKBA
troops entered the camp in trucks and began to ransack the
market area, the hospital, which is run by the aid agency
Mdcins Sans Fronti
res, and all public buildings. The
soldiers then went about systematically setting fire to all
buildings, including houses. Only one section of the camp,
around the Buddhist monastery, was untouched. The camp leader
had been given a warning by the DKBA less than a hour before
the attack, and most refugees were already evacuating the camp
when the attack began. At about the same time, forty DKBA
soldiers entered Don Pa Kiang (population 3,827), where the
attack followed the same pattern.  There were no armed KNLA
soldiers in either camp.      

     At Mae La, around 40 DKBA soldiers crossed the river to
the camp at 2:00 a.m. and began shelling it. Some seventeen
houses and a Christian school were razed in one section of the
camp.  Over 100 DKBA soldiers then returned at 7:00 a.m. and
there was fighting between the DKBA and Karen camp guards
until 9:30 a.m.  Reports indicate that Thai Border Patrol
Police were also involved in repelling the attack.  DKBA forces remained active near Mae La
and on the Burmese side of the border through the night of Janaury 29, though a Thai military
plane surveilled the border.  Without a strong and immediate response from the Thai
authorities, refugees and aid agencies still fear further attacks on Mae La and the nearby camp
of Shoklo (population 7,300) in the next few days.  
     The attacks are part of an attempt by the DKBA and the
Burmese government to terrorize the refugees into returning to
Burma. Throughout 1995 and 1996 refugees in these camps faced
abductions and killings.  In April 1995, 300 houses were razed
and scores of refugees abducted in attacks which continued
over two days.  Because of the inadequate measure taken by the
Thai authorities to protect the camps, refugee leaders were
forced to seek the protection of armed KNLA guerrillas who
then established a small presence in some of the camps, with
the apparent approval of local Thai authorities.  After high
level protests by the Thai government to the SLORC the attacks
ceased by the middle of 1996 but began again towards the end
of the year.  At the same time, in March 1996, Mae La camp was
raided by Thai authorities and all guns and ammunition held by
the KNLA were seized.  Despite these measures, DKBA members
continued to send threatening letters to camp leaders and
individuals, and on January 15, 1997 a 'final warning' was
sent to the camp leader at Don Pa Kiang, threatening to attack
the camp if all the refugees did not return to Burma by
January 31.  The refugees feared for their lives if they
returned, but had nowhere else to go and simply stayed in the

      For the past two years the Karen National Union and the
SLORC have held intermittent meetings to discuss a cease-fire
agreement, as the KNLA is one of only two ethnic-based
insurgencies continuing to fight the SLORC. Unlike the fifteen
cease-fires which have been made with other ethnic groups
since 1989, the SLORC insists that the KNLA give up its arms
and surrender.  The KNU leadership considers this an
unacceptable condition, and the talks have been stalled since
early January 1997. 

     Representatives of the office of the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees were in the area when the attacks
took place, and are reported to be in urgent discussions with
Thai authorities in order to provide increased protection for
the refugees.  However, speaking to reporters in Bangkok on January 30, Thai army
commander Gen. Chetta  Tanajaro said that the camps would not be moved, and described the
situation as an "internal Burmese matter." Human Rights Watch/Asia urges the Thai
government to reconsider its position and permit the refugees to establish new camps further
from the border, where they can be adequately protected. The refugees should not be forced
to seek protection from the KNU, as this could lead to the camps being considered military
targets.  Although Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, under
international law all nations are considered responsible for the protection of asylum seekers in
their territory.

Human Rights Watch/Asia
Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization
established in 1978 to monitor and promote the observance of internationally
recognized human rights in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and
among the signatories of the Helsinki accords. Kenneth Roth is the
executive director; Cynthia Brown is the program director.  Robert L.
Bernstein is the chair of the board and Adrian W. DeWind is vice chair. 
Its Asia division was established in 1985 to monitor and promote the
observance of internationally recognized human rights in Asia.  Sidney Jones
is the executive director; Mike Jendrzejczyk is the Washington
director;  Andrew J. Nathan is chair of the advisory committee and Orville
Schell is vice chair