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Aid Agencies Pessimistic on Outlook for Burmese Refugees  


Aid workers in Thailand say a change of leadership in Burma has dashed hopes that Burmese refugees would soon be able to go home. There are fears the new government will take a more hard-line approach toward rebel groups and refugees.

The ouster of Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt last month has stalled progress on reconciliation talks with several of the country's ethnic minority groups.

Refugee experts say that means more than 150,000 thousand Burmese refugees now in Thailand have little chance of going home in the coming months.

General Khin Nyunt is under house arrest and has been accused of corruption. He played a key role in arranging cease-fires with rebellious ethnic minority groups, including a partial deal with the Karen National Union (KNU). His successor, General Soe Win, is considered to be hard-liner wary of the cease-fire talks.

Jean Rigal heads the Thailand office of the aid group Doctors Without Borders. He says the talks had raised the refugees' hopes of going home.

"I did participate in a huge number of seminars, conference, meetings about repatriation. We really believe that it should be in the next months and it made a lot of hope within the camps," he noted.

The Thai government has supported Burma's steps to reconcile with its ethnic minority groups. Thailand has provided millions of dollars in aid to Burma, and has called on the Rangoon government to open areas to enable refugees to return.

But United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) officials say there now appears little chance of that happening anytime soon.

The UNHCR representative in Rangoon, Rajiv Kapur, says solid repatriation agreements are necessary before the agency can help the refugees return.

"There has to be agreement between the parties to the conflict, which would then have to be followed by an agreement on the various modalities of repatriation," he said. "So until we fulfill the first one we don't see the situation being conducive to return."

Many Burmese exiles and political observers say there are fears that the Rangoon government may not want to pursue cease-fires and that it might seek to quash minority groups with force.

Aung Zaw is the editor of the independent Burmese-community newspaper, The Irrawaddy, based in Thailand. He says it is not clear if the talks with the Karen National Union will continue.

"The KNU wants to continue the talks, but at the same time there's a lot of confusion on the Burmese side because after the removal of Khin Nyunt.," he said. "I think the KNU is not clear who they are going to deal with."

Echoing comments by security analysts in Bangkok and diplomats in Rangoon, Aung Zaw says troop movements near the Thai border indicate Burma is preparing an offensive against the Shan or Wa people in northeastern Burma.

"In the Wa region, the troops have been alert and some Wa leaders are worried the Burmese might attack," he added.

Doctor Rigal with Doctors Without Borders says much must be done to prepare for repatriation, even if cease-fire agreements are signed.

"It will not be this year. Maybe not even next year, even though there is a cease-fire agreement," he explained. "There is still a huge landmines problem and there's also a lack of means on the other side. Nothing is ready."

Aid workers say the military government's internal power struggles have left Burma's refugees trapped, with nowhere to go, and little hope.

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