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Last Updated: Friday, 5 October 2007, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Living in fear in Burma
The BBC's Mike Thomson travels over the border from Thailand to Burma to visit a community of ethnic Karen who talk about their persecution under the military regime.

Child in Lerperher camp, northern Burma
People in the camp live in fear of the soldiers returning

Dusk is fast approaching as my Karen guide pushes our small wooden motor boat into the brown waters of the Moei river which forms the border between Thailand and Burma.

The engine kicks into life and we gently accelerate down stream hugging the Thai riverbank as closely as possible. The sound of the rickety craft's motor is drowned by the late afternoon roar of cicadas.

We are heading for Lerperher, a camp for internally displaced people just inside the Burmese border, about two hours drive from the north-west Thai town of Mae Sot.

It is home to nearly 800 people who have been forced to flee their homes after repeated attacks by Burmese government soldiers.

Across the country around 3,000 villages have been burnt to the ground over the last decade - their inhabitants often killed, raped or made to do forced labour.

Armed ethnic groups such as the Karen in this area of Burma, along with others such as the Shan and Kareni elsewhere, have been fighting the military regime for more than four decades.

They say they have suffered extreme persecution at the hands of the junta and want autonomous regions of their own. Rangoon is determined to crush their armies and mounts frequent offensives against them.

In all, half-a-million people in eastern Burma live in fear of this fate, 30,000 of whom have been displaced by a recent offensive.

Torture

As our boats follow the snaking river through the lush jungle forest that hugs its banks, my guide scans the shore to our left for signs of men in uniforms.

Suddenly he turns the boat. He cuts the engine and we paddle, discreetly, to a small clearing on the Burmese bank.

Thai-Burmese border
Many have headed for the Thai border to escape the violence

I am urged to leave the craft quickly and follow a narrow path through the trees.

After talking for a short while we hear the sounds of voices. Word has got around that we are coming and we are greeted by two middlemen in threadbare clothes and taken to the camp a short distance away.

We arrive at a collection of open-fronted wooden houses on stilts perched on a steep hillside. Members of the first family I meet tell me why they are here.

"The Burmese soldiers came to my village. They beat me and forced me to carry things for them for days at a time. Sometimes I would be tortured," one man says.

What, I ask him, would the Burmese soldiers do if they found you here?

"They would kill me and all these people on sight. We'd have to run away quickly," he says.

Sometimes at night when I hear a noise I am afraid, I think it is them. Often, I cannot sleep because of this fear
Pogonar, aged 10

A young woman, who does not know her exact age but looks about 20 years old tells me: "When the soldiers came to my village they burned down our home and then tortured members of my family. We ran for our lives. Finally we found our way here."

I ask her what sort of torture was inflicted on her loved ones. She becomes silent, turns away and begins to quietly sob, unable to say any more.

As I walk further through the camp I see scores of other homes built on the small hills that stretch towards the edge of the tree line.

The homes look spartan but comfortable, and a water pipe runs through the settlement providing drinking water and a rudimentary shower. Scantily-clad children play happily on the muddy slopes.

It seems hard to believe that this is the third time in recent years that these people have had to set up new homes. Their two previous camps nearby were burnt down by marauding Burmese soldiers within six months of being built.

'Really scared'

I ask a 10-year-old girl sitting on the ground stroking her younger brother's head what life is like for a child here.

"When I was seven years old the Burmese soldiers came and burned down our house," Pogonar said. "Then they smashed all the furniture we had tried to save. We were all frightened and ran away into the forest."

Map

She points to the hill behind us and insists that the same troops are not far beyond it.

Everyone, Pogonar says, fears the military will be back again soon.

"Sometimes at night when I hear a noise I am afraid, I think it is them. Often, I cannot sleep because of this fear."

A painfully-thin looking middle-aged man who has been listening to our conversation adds: "We have heard that the Burmese soldiers plan to come back to this camp. I am really scared and do not know how long I will continue living here."

With darkness falling fast, my guide motions for me to leave quickly. We stumble in the fading light through the undergrowth and back onto the path leading to our boat.

As we push off from the bank and head for the safety of the Thai side of the river, I think of Pogonar and the scores of other families we have left behind at Lerperher.

With the Thai authorities now clamping down hard on the growing number of refugees fleeing Burma, no such easy escape is open to them.

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