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October 18, 2010

Increase of Burma Refugees Concerns Thai Health Workers

Health care workers in Thailand offering care to Burma refugees say the numbers of those needing help are increasing. Many are fleeing a push by Burma's military against ethnic militias operating along the border. Most have no choice but to seek care inside Thailand.

The head of a clinic that offers free medical care to Burma refugees in northern Thailand says more and more people are flooding across the border.

Dr. Cynthia Maung is director of the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand, on the border with Burma.

At a news briefing in Bangkok Tuesday she said the numbers of people fleeing Burma and seeking free health care at her clinic has steadily increased.

"Especially infectious disease and reproductive health, and also there are many more malnutrition cases come across the border. So, every day the number of cases increasing," she said.

Maung and other medical aid organizations released a survey showing that in eastern Burma over 40 percent of children suffer from malnutrition and one in seven dies before the age of five, more than half from preventable diseases.

Burma's military attacks against ethnic groups along the border have in recent years driven tens of thousands into Thailand.

The refugees and Burmese rights activists say the military has stepped up assaults on ethnic militias ahead of next month's elections to force them into submission.

But rights groups say they also kill, rape and displace civilians - forcing many to flee to Thailand.   

"Unless something changes, something that addresses the underlying abuses, the mis-governance that fuels these health crises, the region, but particularly Thailand, will still bear the brunt of Burma's health failures," said Dr. Voravit Suwanvanichkij, a researcher based in Chiang Mai for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Public Health and Human Rights.

Voravit says health care is so poor in Burma that many people come to Thailand just to get treatment.

International organizations offering free health care face tough restrictions in Burma or are simply not allowed into the country.

Burma holds its first elections in 20 years on November 7. While the government says the elections are part of its plan to build a civilian democracy, critics say it is a sham that will keep the military in power.

A quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military. And many people and groups have been unable to take part, including the biggest opposition organization, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under detention.