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700 Ethnic Karen Flee Burma, Seek Refuge in Thailand - 2002-06-03

More than 700 ethnic Karen villagers have been forced to flee their homes inside Burma to seek sanctuary across the border in Thailand. Tensions at the border are already running high after weeks of sporadic fighting. The Karen refugees fled from 22 villages in the Kyar Inn Seik Kyee township of Burma, around 40 kilometers from the Thai border.

Thai border officials said the refugees began arriving Friday in the Umphang district, 190 kilometers northwest of Bangkok. Eyewitnesses told the Associated Press that at least five villagers were killed by the Burmese military. They said Burmese troops accused the villagers of supporting the separatist rebels, the Karen National Union (KNU). The KNU has been fighting for autonomy since Burma's independence from Britain in 1948. The Burmese military often raids Karen villages, accusing the people of aiding and supporting the KNU. This has created around 120,000 Burmese refugees living along the Thai-Burma border.

The Thai-Burma border has long been a source of tension due to a large refugee population, fighting by several ethnic minority groups opposed to Burmese rule and the presence of major narcotics traffickers. Tensions have lead to cross border shelling - sometimes by soldiers and sometimes by rebels or drug lords.

The latest flareup began in May with a series of skirmishes.

Burma blames the lucrative and illegal drug trade problem on Shan rebels and says the Thai government is helping the Shan to destabilize Burma.

"In some of the attacks on some of our military bases, there was the support given by the Thai army - artillery support as well as tank fire support," charged Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister Khin Maung Win. "So ... the crux of the matter is that there are some elements in Thailand which are giving refuge, logistics support as well direct combat support, with these insurgents."

Thailand accuses Burma of allowing Wa rebels to run the drug trade along the border after signing a peace agreement with Rangoon. Thailand's Deputy Defense Minister says his country has been unfairly accused of compounding the internal disputes within Burma's border regions close to Thai territory.

"The tension is because the territory the Burmese troops and the minority groups are ... very close to the border," said Gen. Yutthasak Sasiprapha. "The terrain along the border is rough and mountainous forests, so it is very difficult to recognize which is the Thai territory and the Burmese territory."

The Thai Foreign Ministry says, in order to ease current tensions, it hopes to arrange Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's visit to Rangoon, an invitation Burma extended to Thailand in April.