A new stream of refugees began flowing out of Burma (or Myanmar) last month. Burmese troops broke a 20-year cease-fire with ethnic groups in the country's northeastern Shan region, causing an estimated 30,000 to flee across the border and into China.
The fighting is part of a trend toward more violence that will see yet another uptick in Burmese refugees, according to Jeremy Woodrum, director of the advocacy group U.S. Campaign for Burma.
"We could be looking at major conflict and refugee flows," Woodrum says.
In June, the Burmese military launched yet another attack against the Karen, which have been the most persecuted of the country's ethnic groups, causing 5,000 new refugees to flee into Thailand. As noted in this week's feature, the Karen are a large part of Houston's growing community of refugees from Burma.
Then in July, around 10,000 people fled within Burma after the military began attacking civilians further north. In all, there are at least 500,000 internally displaced people in eastern Burma, and between one and two million Burmese refugees are believed to be living in Thailand and Malaysia.
Burma's ruling military junta is trying to force splinter ethnic groups to join the national army or lay down their arms as part of last year's new constitution, which cements all levers of power into the military's hands. The junta will attempt to adopt a civilian face with an election planned for 2010. The party headed by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since it handily won the last elections in 1990, plans to boycott the election.
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Woodrum expect many of the newly displaced people will make their way into the Thai camps from which the United States has drawn the bulk of the Burmese refugees it is resettling in growing numbers.
There are reports that some of those who have fled into China have started to return home. But Woodrow doesn't expect them to remain there for long.
"It has more to do with the human rights abuses that happen (after the fighting)," he says, noting that the Burmese military is infamous for raping local women, burning villages and destroying livestock and crops--as it has in places like Karen.
"They bleed the local population until it's not possible for them to survive. And then they flee."