(AFP) – Thailand must stop treating refugees fleeing conflict in eastern Myanmar as “human ping pong balls” who are returned to their home country prematurely, a top rights group warned Sunday.
Since fighting erupted in November more than 20,000 people have escaped across the border to Thailand, and while many returned within days, refugees continue to flee renewed conflict, said a Human Rights Watch (HRW) statement.
An election on November 7 has done nothing to change the Myanmar army’s tactics of “terrorising” civilians, who need expanded protection when they seek refuge in Thailand, according to HRW deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson.
“People fleeing conflict in Burma are being treated like human ping pong balls — reluctantly allowed into Thailand when fighting flares, but then returned to Burma (Myanmar) at the first sign of quiet,” said Pearson.
“Thailand should not return refugees until the risk to them in Burma truly ends, but should allow them to stay in safe areas away from the border with access to protection services and assistance from humanitarian agencies.”
Tensions soared in Myanmar on polling day when Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) ethnic rebels occupied Myawaddy town in Karen state, sparking a state army counter-attack and a mass exodus of civilians into Thailand.
Subsequent sporadic fighting at several points along the border, with state troops conducting a major build-up in the area, has caused continued displacement.
“Sadly, so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire,” said Pearson, adding that they suffered from indiscriminate shelling and rights abuses such as forced labour.
Civil war has wracked parts of Myanmar since its independence in 1948, although most insurgent groups — who seek more autonomy and rights — have agreed to ceasefires with the junta.
Military-ruled since 1962, Myanmar barred swathes of ethnic minorities from taking part in last month’s vote — the country’s first in 20 years, which was widely derided by Western nations.
Ahead of the poll, the regime pressured armed movements to give up their weapons or come under state control — a move most resisted, sparking fears of renewed conflict.