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As junta cuts off communications, refugees crucial source of information, says SEAPA

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The following is a 2 October 2007 SEAPA press release:

Refugees crucial to providing eyewitness accounts as junta cuts off communications

A looming humanitarian crisis in Burma is being exacerbated by the junta's determination to cut all news and information flowing out of the country.

At a forum on 1 October 2007 in Bangkok, members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, officers of civil society groups and diplomats from various governments monitoring the situation in Burma were equally helpless in updating each other or confirming the meagre news that anybody could offer. With the Internet cut, foreign journalists and diplomats refused entry, rebellious local journalists missing or arrested, and state-controlled media forced to publish government propaganda about recent bloody protests, refugees escaping to neighbouring countries have become the only source of information about the unfolding tragedy in the country. And even the entry of refugees, journalists and Burma advocates say, has no guarantee of being tolerated by neighbouring governments.

Burma's shared borders with Thailand and India are already hosting some 200,000 Burmese refugees that had fled the country over the past two decades. Following the recent violence in Burma, the borders have been relatively quiet, according to the UNHCR on 1 October, but the ongoing crackdown and deteriorating economic conditions which sparked the biggest demonstrations in the dictatorship in two decades are anticipated to trigger a surge of refugees in the weeks and months ahead.

SEAPA joins other civil and aid organisations in urging Burma's neighbouring governments - particularly that of Thailand - to accommodate the Burmese refugees. The need for humanitarian intervention is clear. At the same time, with Burma isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, the refugees are crucial to providing eyewitness accounts of the latest atrocities the junta is committing against the unarmed civilians.

On 2 October, for example, a Norwegian journalist quoted a defecting intelligence officer for Burma's ruling junta as saying he had refused orders to massacre thousands of protesting monks rounded up following raids on monasteries. The former intelligence officer also recounted to the journalist how bodies of hundreds of mass-executed monks have supposedly been dumped in the jungles. "Many more people have been killed in recent days than you've heard about. The bodies can be counted in several thousand," he was quoted as saying.

The same day, British tabloid the "Daily Mail" quoted an unnamed Swedish diplomat as saying that "one of the largest embassies in Burma" revealed that 40 monks in the notorious Insein prison "were beaten to death today and subsequently burned".

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that that sources from a government-sponsored militia said the 4,000-plus monks detained in Rangoon, the main site of the protests, will be sent to prisons in the far north of the country. The monks, disrobed and shackled, are reportedly still protesting by going on a hunger strike.

No outside news agency could independently confirm any of the accounts, but that fact only further heightens the desperation to ensure that information and news can somehow make it out of Burma.

The government claims the death toll from the crackdown is between nine and 15 people. Local journalists said 40 and 50 people have been killed since 26 October. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which keeps track of political detainees in Burma's 43 prisons, estimates that up to 1,500 people have been detained since the crackdown.

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