At least 15,000 Myanmar refugees enter Thailand

Thousands of escapees looking to avoid anti-government violence after a failed election

Published November 8, 2010 7:05PM (EST)

Mothers carrying babies and grown men hoisting elders on their backs fled Myanmar with 15,000 countrymen Monday as ethnic rebels clashed with government troops a day after an election widely considered a sham to cement military power.

Fighting raged at key points on the Thai border, wounding at least 10 people on both sides of the frontier as stray shots fell into Thai territory.

The clashes underlined Myanmar's vulnerability to unrest even as it passes through a key stage of the ruling junta's self-proclaimed "road map to democracy." The country has been ruled by the military near-continuously since 1962, and rebellions by its ethnic minorities predate its independence from Britain in 1948.

In the heaviest clashes, Karen rebels reportedly seized a police station and post office Sunday in the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy. Sporadic gun and mortar fire continued into Monday afternoon. More fighting broke out further south for one hour Monday at the Three Pagodas Pass, said local Thai official Chamras Jungnoi, but there was no word on any casualties.

Thai officials said late Monday that fighting had quieted and government troops had regained control of Myawaddy.

Groups representing ethnic minorities who make up some 40 percent of Myanmar's population had warned in recent days that civil war could erupt if the military tried to impose its highly centralized constitution and deprive them of rights.

Refugee camps in Thailand already house tens of thousands of ethnic Karen who have fled decades of fighting in the border regions, but Monday marked the biggest one-day tide of refugees to flee into Thailand in recent years.

Refugees marched, shepherded by Thai security personnel, through the streets of the Thai town of Mae Sot, which is just across a river from Myawaddy. Those few carrying belongings toted them on top of their heads, while several lucky ones got rides on pickup trucks.

"At least 15,000 refugees have crossed from eastern Myanmar into northern Thailand since this morning," said Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the U.N.'s refugee agency, which was providing tents and other materials to shelter the refugees. Non-governmental groups also were offering aid, he said from the agency's headquarters in Geneva.

Refugees continued to arrive into the evening, and some independent estimates put their number closer to 20,000.

They were being sheltered near the Mae Sot airport at a location that was becoming overcrowded, Mahecic said.

Col. Wannatip Wongwai, commander of Thailand's Third Army Region responsible for security in the area, said Myanmar government troops appeared to have retaken control of Myawaddy, and the Karen rebels held just a few positions on the town's outskirts.

"As soon as the situation is under control, we will start sending the refugees back to Myawaddy," he told The Associated Press.

The fighting threatened to overshadow electoral developments, which include mounting chagrin on the part of anti-government parties over what they charge was blatant cheating on behalf of the military's chosen candidates.

Visiting New Delhi, President Barack Obama said it was unacceptable for Myanmar's government to "steal an election" and hold its people's aspirations hostage to the regime's greed and paranoia.

Obama says leaders in countries like the U.S. and India have a responsibility to condemn such gross violations of human rights. He was speaking before India's parliament.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said "the voting was held in conditions that were insufficiently inclusive, participatory and transparent," and expressed concern about the reports of fighting, urging all sides to refrain from actions that could raise tensions further, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Monday from the United Nations.

State media and the Election Commission reported Monday that 40 junta-backed candidates won their races, but a day after the polls closed, virtually no other official results -- even on voter turnout -- were available, and there was no timetable for releasing them.

The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party was certain to win an overwhelming number of seats. It fielded 1,112 candidates for the 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments. The largest anti-government party, the National Democratic Force, contested just 164 spots.

And the constitution sets aside 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees.

The NDF said provisional returns it had collected showed it winning 15 seats.

NDF chief Khin Maung Swe accused the USDP of using every possible method to steal the vote, and said it was "sure to win 90 percent if they continue to cheat in such manner."

He described a case in the central city of Mandalay, where one NDF candidate ran against Health Minister Kyaw Myint, the USDP candidate. An initial count at polling booths Sunday evening showed the NDF candidate in front, but later that night, a bag of 3,376 ballots from advance voting arrived, which included 2,500 in favor of the USDP, enough to make it the winner.

Khin Maung Swe said there were many cases where lagging USDP candidates received a boost from the arrival of such ballots. Exile Myanmar media had reported that people casting advance ballots were often pressured to vote for the pro-government party.

The NDF is led by breakaway members of the former National League for Democracy of detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in the last elections in 1990 but was barred from taking office. It was disbanded this year after declining to register.

Suu Kyi's term of house arrest is supposed to expire Saturday, and her lawyer Nyan Win said Monday he was certain she would be released. "We are making plans for a welcoming ceremony," he said.

Ban's statement from U.N. headquarters repeated a call for lifting restrictions on Suu Kyi, who has been locked up in her Yangon villa on and off since 1989 and is one of some 2,200 political prisoners in Myanmar.

One of her two sons, 33-year-old Kim Aris, applied for a visa Monday in Bangkok in hopes of seeing his mother for the first time in 10 years. He lives in Britain and repeatedly has been denied visas to enter Myanmar.

Asked if he was optimistic, Aris told reporters he had "not too much hope. But there's always a little bit of hope. We'll see." He called the elections "a load of rubbish."


Associated Press photographer Apichart Weerawong in Mae Sot, Thailand, and writers Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.

By Associated Press

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