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Loss, Fear Hangs Over Refugees From Burmese Military Offensive

February 4, 1995

MAE TOU LA, Thailand (AP) _ Wails of sick children fill this refugee camp where plastic covers and blankets are the only shelter for thousands of Burmese fleeing army mortar attacks across the border.

The Burmese military junta is fighting to crush rebel holdouts along the Thai border after seizing their headquarters Jan. 27. Its main target is the Karen, the largest of the ethnic minority groups fighting for greater autonomy.

Taking advantage of divisions within the Karen, the junta has attacked with impunity, ignoring condemnations from around the world.

Buddhist Karen troops broke rank with the Christian-dominated leadership in December to support the junta, guiding its troops through hidden paths to the Manerplaw mountain stronghold.

Aid agencies estimate some 100,000 Karen and Burmese have been displaced by the fighting, the majority fleeing deeper into Burma’s jungles.

About 3,000 Karen refugees who fled the junta’s advance are gathered now at Mae Tou La, 372 miles from Bangkok. They joined 70,000 Burmese already in Thai refugee camps from previous flareups in the decades-long conflict.

International relief agencies and the Thai government provide food and medical care.

Many refugees are suffering from dysentery, fever, malaria and malnutrition after days of traveling through the jungle to escape the junta’s shelling.

Then there are the invisible scars that came with the loss of Manerplaw _ the symbol of the Karen’s four decade struggle. It has left a huge hole in Burma’s pro-democracy struggle.

One doctor fought back tears amid a scene of Karen mothers with sick children in their arms.

``We are fighting a losing battle and for this the people have had to suffer,″ Dr. Saw Po Thew said Saturday.

Sar Mu Htow, a 26-year-old farmer, said he and his family fled their village under a hail of mortar fire. Four men were +h led trying to hold off the army until women and children could get out, he said.

He said the shelling was accompanied by a torrent of grenades.

The headquarters also was the center of students and politicians who fled Rangoon when the junta clamped down on the pro-democracy movement and ignored a 1990 election won by the opposition.

The students and other rebels now are regrouping with the Karen in a bid to recover lost ground and hang onto their last three main strongholds.

The Burmese army, buoyed by Manerplaw’s fall, has turned to the Karen’s second most important stronghold _ Kawmoora, near the Thai town of Mae Sot, 298 miles northwest of Bangkok.

The constant pounding of Burmese artillery there can be heard five miles across the border, at the Huay Kalok Karen refugee camp.

Update hourly