Myanmar + 1 more

Myanmar: Mae La refugees begin leaving for US

By Bradley S. Klapper/AP Writer/Geneva

A group of 31 Burmese refugees left Tuesday for the United States, where they will be allowed to permanently settle after years of limbo in southeast Asia's biggest refugee camp.

The Burmese are the first of several thousand members of the Karen ethnic minority expected to leave Thailand's Mae La camp for a new life in the United States, the International Organization for Migration said.

Burma has been denounced by the United Nations for persistent human-rights violations against minorities in the eastern state of Karen, which borders Thailand. Last year, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waived certain restrictions on US resettlement of Karen refugees.

Many of the Karen have lived for years in Thai refugee camps as a result of persecution by Burma's ruling military junta. The Mae La camp was established in 1984 with an initial population of 1,100, but has since swelled to some 45,000 mainly Karen refugees.

IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said the refugees moving to the US range in age from 2 to 68.

The organization is transporting them by bus to Bangkok, where they will be flown to their new US homes in Oregon, Kentucky, Texas, New York, California, Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina, Chauzy said.

The Karen are an example of a group that the administration of US President George W. Bush is seeking to provide assistance for by changing immigration restrictions established after the September 11 attacks.

The proposed policy shift would offer the Bush administration greater flexibility in deciding who can and cannot enter the US, a simplification of the current waiver system for allowing in those who fought repressive governments or were forced under duress into providing support for armed groups.

Last year, the US government planned to accept 56,000 refugees; the actual number was 44,000, in large part due to the restrictions.

IOM could not say how many of the new refugees received the material support waiver from the US government because the Geneva-based body was not part of the interviewing process. IOM moved nearly 2,500 Karen refugees from another Thai border camp, Tham Hin, to the United States last year.

Karen rebels have been fighting for half a century for greater autonomy from Burma's central government. Cease-fire talks broke down three years ago, and Burmese army launched a major offensive in Karen State in 2005.

The Thailand Burma Border Consortium, the main aid agency caring for tens of thousands of refugees along the Thai-Burma frontier, estimates that in 2006 alone the violence forced 82,000 people to leave their homes.

Since 1996, more than 3,000 villages have been destroyed or abandoned in eastern Burma and more than 1 million people displaced, according to the group's most recent report, which said Burma's military was subjecting Karen women to brutal rapes, torture, murder and forced labor for the army as part of the offensive.

The military, which has been in power since 1962, has uprooted and abused residents in other ethnic minority areas such as Shan State. The current junta, which took power in 1988 after crushing pro-democracy demonstrations, held a general election in 1990 but refused to recognize the results after a landslide victory by the National League for Democracy party of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.