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Thailand Border Bracing for New Burmese Refugees

Communities along Thailand's border with Burma are closely watching for signs of a new wave of refugees following violence in Rangoon over the past week. As Chad Bouchard reports from the Thai border town of Mae Sot, fears are rising among refugees and human rights workers.

At the tightly controlled Mae Sot Boundary Post, pedestrians and trucks cross the long bridge connecting Thailand and Burma.

A constant trickle of pedestrians crosses in both directions. People laden with sacks of rice and canvas stretchers full of watermelons and beans march to Burma, while empty bags return.

Inside Burma, this border area is home to the Karen ethnic group, which has been fighting the country's military dictatorship for decades.

A Karen human rights worker in Thailand who asked that her name not be used says refugees are hopeful for change but worried about their relatives in Burma. She says even young people who were born abroad and have never set foot in their homeland feel a new passion about returning there after seeing the news about protests in Rangoon and other cities.

"They never be in Burma but even they never be, right now they heard about the people in Burma; they are trying to be freedom and then to have democracy so they hope this time maybe we can go back to Burma," said the woman. "Even they are not sure, they are excited to be back to Burma."

While the refugees may be eager to support countrymen across the border, she says Thai police have kept a lid on the local political scene. She says the police have tightened security, arresting dozens of illegal Karen immigrants over the past week and sending them back to Burma.

Karen Human Rights Group researcher Stephen Hull says the Karen refugees are unlikely to be discouraged no matter what the outcome.

Hull says Karens have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with Burma's government for decades, defying the military's orders and sometimes sabotaging its operations.

"Although the scale of open revolt is definitely unique in the past 19 years, the fact that people are resisting is not unique," he said. "People do continue to resist and they will continue to resist. The recent repression that we've seen won't change people's will to resist."

Hundreds of thousands of Burmese people are refugees in border countries, some exiled for more than 20 years.

The protests in Burma started more than a month ago after the regime raised fuel prices, and intensified after Buddhist monks marched in the streets.

At least 10 people have been killed since a military crackdown began September 26, but human rights groups and diplomats say the toll is much higher.