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Burmese Minorities Head for Safer Pastures Ahead of Poll


In Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh, and in countries further afield like Australia, authorities are bracing for a wave of refugees from Burma. Thousands are fleeing the military government's crackdown on dissent ahead of elections.

Human rights groups say pre-election bullying of ethnic groups by Burma's government has prompted thousands to vote with their feet.

Muslims are among the largest group leaving. However, Temme Lee, refugee coordinator at the Malaysian human rights organization Suaram, says members of the Kachin, Karen and Chin ethnic groups also have joined the cross-border march.

She says Burma's military government is pressuring ethnic communities to conform to its pre-election demands, which includes merging local ethnic militias with the government's Border Guard Forces, in return for the right to vote.

Among those who fled Burma is Hamid bin Hatin, a 17-year-old. He says was being pressed into the Burmese military to perform menial labor far away from his home in Rakhine on the country's west coast.

Hatin spent almost $1,000 on agent fees to get to Thailand and then Malaysia. Here, he has spent two months sleeping on a cement floor in a detention camp and has been beaten by fellow inmates.

"I come out of Burma because the military recruits young people to join by force and also since the day we join until we die, we'll never get a chance to be [in] contact again with our family," he says, "so that I'm very scared and my parents also are very worried for me and I decided to leave Burma."

The Burmese are adding to already cramped conditions in the region's migrant detention camps. That includes Australia's center at Christmas Island, where Burmese already make-up the third largest group after Afghans and Sri Lankans.

New efforts by Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia to curb people smuggling have resulted in a substantial build-up of refugees in detention camps in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Refugee advocates such as Lee say it is time to reassess how to care for migrants.

"Asylum seekers usually end up in detention centers for month and months," Lee said. "For us it's quite irresponsible of the Australian government to only emphasize on the security measures taken by the Malaysian government but does not address at all - seemingly - the protection issues for these asylum seekers and refugees, and that is definitely problematic."

No official date has been set for Burma's election, although many regional political analysts and Burmese expatriates expect it to be in October.

The opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, easily won the last election, in 1990. But the military never allowed it to take power, and has kept Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest for most of time since. The NLD not take part in this election.

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