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Burmese Ethnic Group Says Villages Facing Violence Ahead of Elections

Burma's ethnic Karen communities and rights groups are reporting stepped up attacks by Burma's military on villages in eastern Karen state, including the torching of homes forcing hundreds to flee into the jungles. Rights groups fear the attacks may be the start of a campaign ahead of national elections later this year.

Reports by the ethnic Karen National Union say attacks by the Burmese military started in early July in the northern Karen state of that borders Thailand. The military forces later torched the villages forcing more than 900 people to flee into the nearby jungles.

Zipporah Sein, general-secretary of the Karen National Union, fears the attacks are part of a new campaign of intimidation by the military ahead of national elections scheduled for later this year.

"Because the election is closer we realize that there is increased military offensive because now not only [is the military] in Da Der village [it is] in some other areas [as well] they send more troops that villages that they went through they destroy the villages," Zipporah said.

On July 23, troops destroyed property leaving 600 people displaced. Karen communities also reported a build up of both military and pro-government militia forces near the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

Analysts say the attacks may be part of the military's plans to clear the area of local communities ahead of construction of a hydro-electric power plant.

Debbie Stothardt, spokesperson for the Alternative ASEAN Network, says the army's campaign marks an escalation of abuses that has already led to the displacement of over 118,000 people in eastern Burma in the past 18 months.

"These attacks have been on-going for quite some time and the sudden escalation at a time when the regime is claiming that they're going to have democracy and elections and everything is going to be better is very disturbing," said Stothardt. "It's telling us the regime might be trying to use any good will over the elections as a smokescreen."

Burma's military is yet to announce when the exact date for the elections although analysts expect the vote, the first in 20 years, to be around October or November this year.

But the military government is set to maintain tight control over the vote amid calls by Burmese political activists for the international community to boycott the election result.

At the recently held leaders' summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, Burma's government faced ongoing pressure from regional governments to ensure the planned elections were credible. It also faced calls for the release of opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from house detention.

Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy or NLD is now disbanded after it refused to participate in the elections. The NLD won elections in 1990 by a landslide, but the military refused to recognize the result, instead undertook a campaign of harassment and arrest of opposition politicians.