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Raid on refugees test for new ruler

South China Morning Post
Wednesday  November 26  1997

The Mekong Region 

Raid on refugees test for new rulers 

BURMA by William Barnes in Bangkok 
An ugly border scuffle in which a baby's neck was broken has become a
crucial test case for the new Thai Government's attitude towards Burmese

A foreign diplomat who happened to be at the makeshift Thay Pu Law Sue
camp when a Thai militia force struck 10 days ago reported shoving, shots
fired in the air and vile threats.

His account has reinforced the view of human rights workers that during
the wet season Thailand has a de facto policy of kicking back new
arrivals seeking a safe haven.

Officials in Bangkok have said refugees were "encouraged" to return to
their own country if there was no fighting in the area.

But human rights workers vehemently disagree that the absence of a
pitched battle means it is safe to return to the military regime.

"There is not much organised resistance [by ethnic rebels] anymore but
that is not the point. In many places the Burmese Army is sweeping
through the countryside destroying villages and worse," said an observer.

Many people familiar with the plight of the mostly ethnic minorities who
try to cross into Thailand argue that few are likely to do so

"These people leave cattle, crops, their homes. They don't leave Burma
unless they have to," said a veteran border-watcher.

What happened on the Burma border 10 days ago could easily be repeated -
without any useful witnesses - as several thousand new refugees are in
similar camps.

The arrival of the dry season will inevitably see more military activity
inside Burma and more people fleeing across the border.

Thailand is also trying to deal with its worst economic crisis for
decades, one that could lead to two million Thais losing their jobs.

But most vulnerable are the million Burmese estimated to be living off
Thailand's underground economy that values their ultra-cheap labour but
can discard them as soon as the work runs out.

Without the protection of employers or the money to pay police bribes,
many will be in danger of repatriation and the not-so-soft embrace of the
Burmese military.

"One piece of good news is that this Government is likely to be the most
sympathetic we can ever hope for in Thailand. They may at least try to
control the Thai Army," an observer said.

Seventeen Burmese opposition activists have been arrested by Thai police
in raids on their offices in western Thailand, a Burmese dissident
student group said yesterday.

Activists from five pro-democracy groups were arrested in the
Sangkhalaburi district of Kanchanaburi province on Monday, the All Burma
Students' Democratic Front said.

Thai military claimed 19 illegal Burmese immigrants were picked up, but
could not confirm whether they were from political groups.