By Jim Pollard
Thailand has been hit by the negative impacts from wars and civil strife in neighbouring countries for years, and that pattern shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
Waves of refugees arrived following the end of the war in Vietnam in 1975 and the advent of communist governments there and in Laos and Cambodia. The situation worsened when hundreds of thousands of Cambodians poured over the eastern border in 1979 after the Vietnamese army swept the horrific Khmer Rouge regime from power in Phnom Penh.
The humanitarian crisis that suddenly swamped Sa Kaew province dragged on for over a decade before a peace settlement in Paris opened the door for Cambodian refugees to return home in the early 90s as a UN peacekeeping force arrived to oversee a much-touted election.
In the midst of that high-profile saga, a much smaller influx of refugees crossed into northern Thailand from eastern Burma. About 10,000 mainly ethnic Karen fled into Tak province after clashes in their home state in 1984.
Members of a committee of international groups supporting Indochinese refugees agreed to go to Mae Sot to help deal with the Burmese influx. Few thought the problem would last. However, massive rallies against the Ne Win dictatorship in Rangoon in 1988 led to a bloody crackdown and an even more brutal military regime, whose methods have slowly transformed eastern Burma - if not the entire country - into another humanitarian tragedy.
The scale of the trauma flared in the mid-90s when the junta reinforced its military campaign against ethnic armies on its eastern frontier. The fall of Manerplaw and other rebel bases in early 1995 was followed by vast forced relocations of villages and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
Thailand saw a huge influx of refugees. In 1994, there were 80,000 refugees in 30 small camps. But the massive and ruthless relocation of villagers in Karen state - who faced summary execution, forced labour and portering (often through minefields) - spurred a continued exodus to Thailand.
Cross-border raids on some camps - seen as harbouring rebel fighters - forced Thai authorities to consolidate the camps in areas less vulnerable to attack. By mid-1997 there were 115,000 refugees in nine camps and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was invited to provide protection services (as Thailand has never signed the UN Convention on Refugees).
The gradual militarisation and takeover of ethnic territory - and the serious risks and difficulty in reaching areas targeted for suppression by the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) has meant the crisis in eastern Burma has been little reported by both the Thai and international media.
But the chaos and brutality persists. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), the biggest of about 20 NGOs providing services to refugees in border camps, run by the Ministry of Interior and refugee committees, has been monitoring the crisis zone for years. It says more than 3,500 villages and hiding sites in eastern Burma have been destroyed or forcibly relocated since 1996, including 120 communities between August 2008 and July 2009.
"The scale of displaced villages is comparable to Darfur and has been recognised as the strongest single indicator of crimes against humanity in eastern Burma. At least 75,000 people were forced to leave their homes this past year, and more than half a million remain internally displaced," it said in a recent statement.
"The highest rates of recent displacement were reported in northern Karen areas and southern Shan State. Almost 60,000 Karen are hiding in the mountains of Kyaukgyi, Thandaung and Papun townships, and a third of these fled from artillery attacks or the threat of Burmese Army patrols during the past year.
"Similarly, nearly 20,000 civilians from 30 Shan villages were forcibly relocated by the Burmese Army in retaliation for Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) operations in Laikha, Mong Kung and Keh Si townships."
The relentless repression and deliberate targeting of civilians - under the notorious "Four Cuts" policy to cut off food, funds, information and support to the rebels - has reached a point where eastern Burma is now seen as Southeast Asia's "new Killing Fields".
Calls for Burma's top generals to be dragged before an international court for crimes against humanity have grown louder and more frequent in recent years.
But while former heads of Khmer Rouge face trial in Phnom Penh, the junta is happily ensconsed in its new capital Napyidaw, buttressed by billions from its gas pipeline to Thailand and unburdened by ties with China and Asean, both of which adhere to policies of non-interference.
All of Burma's neighbours have suffered an influx of refugees, particularly ethnic groups oppressed by the Tatmadaw's violence. Thailand, at least, has wealthy allies, such as the US, Europe, Australia and Canada, who help care for the refugees.
Some 16 foreign governments plus international aid groups support TBBC - a small, efficient outfit that manages nine camps from Kanchanaburi right up to Mae Hong Son. It provides food and shelter to about 150,000 refugees, an operation that cost about Bt1.2 billion (US$35 million) last year.
Over the past five years more than 50,000 refugees have been resettled abroad, mainly in the US, but a similar number has flooded in to replace them. The Interior Ministry is interviewing these recent arrivals to determine if they are genuine refugees or opportunists seeking a new life in the West.
TBBC executive director Jack Dunford has the daunting task of getting funds from international donors, who have been calling for Thailand to allow the refugees to work and be more self-reliant. Moves are slowly being made in that direction with the help of UNHCR and IOM.
TBBC has faced tough times in recent years, with the price of rice soaring in 2008 and a push by some donors to give more aid directly into Burma, which receives little humanitarian assistance because of the onerous restrictions it places on aid groups.
Small rises in three uncontrollable factors - exchange rates, the price of rice and refugee numbers - "can suddenly add millions" to their costs, but there is also huge international goodwill.
"It is remarkable that we've been able to do what we've done for 25 years and that is thanks to the incredible support we've had," Dunford said.
The Englishman said, after a quarter of a century, he and his colleagues have much to be proud of.
"We have never in 25 years failed to give the refugees a full food basket, whereas all over the world refugees are getting partial rations."