02/25/2011, 00.00
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Thousands of Karen refugees in Thailand risk hunger

Members of the Burmese ethnic minority fled their country because of fighting between the military and rebels. At least 10,000 complained about the lack of adequate shelter and food. Women, the elderly and children are the most affected. The Thai government is stopping donations of rice. Aung San Suu Kyi expresses her solidarity.
 Yangon (AsiaNews) – Thousands of ethnic Karen refugees, who fled Myanmar, could die of hunger in Thailand. Most have been living in makeshift tents in Tak province since January after intensified fighting between Karen rebels and Myanmar’s military forced them to leave their homes for the border area and then across the border into Thailand. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the refugee crisis, expressing hope that the refugees can come home quickly and enjoy better living conditions.

An estimated 10,000 Karen refugees have been surviving in Thailand without adequate shelter and food, eating plain rice, struggling to make any money since they are unable to work. “We only get rice,” said one man in the border town of Mae Sot, “two cups per person each day, provided once every two weeks”.

Making matters worse, “It’s difficult enough even for the [sympathisers] to donate rice because Thailand doesn’t officially approve this.”

Elderly women and young children are among the refugees who are most at risk for malnutrition.

In Thailand, they live makeshift tents set up in wooded areas. Some have found shelter in local farms.

Most want to go back to their villages in Myanmar, but the border region is covered in landmines. Last week for example, a seven-year-old girl was injured after she rode her bike over a mine.

Moreover, for many refugees the trip itself would be too expensive.

The United Nations special envoy to Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said yesterday that rising numbers of Burmese refugees and asylum seekers in Southeast Asian countries is evidence that the Myanmar’s regime is experiencing a serious domestic crisis that has become a regional problem.

Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), also spoke out on the refugee issue, expressing her solidarity towards fellow Burmese fleeing the country.

“I am very sorry that conditions in our country are such that the Burmese have been forced to become refugees,” said the Nobel Prize laureate.

“We hope that the day will come when they will be able to return to their homes in safety,” she noted, urging host countries “to look upon these refugees with compassion and understanding.”

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