Fire at Thai refugee camp on Myanmar border leaves 30 dead

Most victims were women and children; many in camp had fled violence in nearby Myanmar

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 2:37am


Thirty people were killed and about 200 injured yesterday when a fire broke out in a camp in northern Thailand housing refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, Thai officials said.

Many of the victims were believed to be women and children.

"The fire destroyed 100 makeshift houses. There are 30 people dead and many injured," said an interior ministry official.

The fire destroyed 100 makeshift houses. There are 30 people dead and many injured

The blaze broke out at about 4pm at the Mae Surin camp in Mae Hong Son province and was extinguished about two hours later. It is believed to have been caused by people cooking.

"Most of the dead are women, elderly and children. Some 200 are wounded and hospitalised," an intelligence official said.

The Thai government pledged an investigation into the fire at the camp, which houses about 3,700 refugees.

"I regret this incident and too many people died," Interior Minister Jarupong Ruaengsuwan said. "The casualties should not be so high. I will investigate the cause of the fire."

Ten camps strung out along the Thai-Myanmar border house a total of about 130,000 people, who first began arriving in the 1980s. Many of the refugees have fled conflict zones in ethnic areas of Myanmar. Families often live close together in simple bamboo-and-thatch dwellings.

Scores of the camp's residents have been registered with the UN as refugees, and an ongoing resettlement programme has allowed tens of thousands to move to third countries.

After a new quasi-civilian government replaced the long-ruling junta in Myanmar, Thailand announced it wanted to shut the border camps, raising concern among their residents.

But so far the refugees have been allowed to stay and the Thai government has stressed that it would only send them back when it was safe.

Many of the refugees are from Myanmar's eastern Karen state, where a major rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU), signed a ceasefire with the new government last year after decades of civil war.

Vast numbers of people fled the former Myanmar junta's counter-insurgency campaign, which rights groups say deliberately targeted civilians, driving them from their homes, destroying villages and forcing them to work for the army.

Years of war have left the Karen region littered with landmines while development has been held back.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed at a different border camp in February last year by a fire that authorities also blamed on cooking.