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Once more across the Moei

Just a day after fleeing the country, thousands of people are making their way back from Thailand into Myanmar.

Last modified: 9 Nov 2010 17:31
Photo by EPA

As the sun begins to set over Mae Sot, scores of weary refugees, their few belongings hurriedly crammed into baskets, make their way back from Thailand into Myanmar.

It was just 24 hours ago that they made this same journey the other way around.

Many came on foot – crossing the Moei river at its lowest point between the two countries.

They were fleeing the post-election fighting that had broken out between the Myanmar military and a breakaway faction from the minority ethnic rebel group DKBA – or Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. 

In a few hours, 10,000 had made the short trek to Thailand, not a few visibly shaken, with tears in their eyes. 

They were used to living in fear of possible conflict between armed groups – but this time, the villagers worried the violence would be more personal. 

Many spoke of how they felt threatened by the military because they didn't go out and vote in Sunday's polls. 

Several explosions peppered Monday afternoon along the Moei, every loud boom immediately followed by another stream of residents fleeing across the riverbed.

So numerous that Thai soldiers could only shake their heads in amazement.

"We've never seen so many at one time," said one officer. 

The refugees were immediately transported to a Thai police camp and took shelter from the heat under hurriedly-erected tents. Food and water had been organised and charity workers set up to do what they could do. 

By Tuesday morning, the number in the camp had doubled.

If any displaced villagers woke up with questions about their future, they were dispelled by noon. Announcements were made over loud speakers reassuring them all was now "under control" across the border – and it would be safe for them to go home. 

"We are not forcing but requesting them to return,” Kittisak Tomornsak, Mae Sot’s district governor, told Al Jazeera. "They don’t need to stay here anymore." 

We asked if this meant those who may not feel ready to do so would be forcibly repatriated – he shook his head and simply said: "We will repeat the request for them to go."

Tomornsak insisted they would always be welcome to return - should the need arise again.

So in droves, confused refugees prepared to go home. Like the stateless political exiles we spoke to in a café here the other night, they too had become like "volleyballs" - endlessly passed from one side to another. 

Members of the National League for Democracy, Myanmar's most prominent opposition group, and other exiled political dissidents now based in Mae Sot, expressed concern. 

They fear the military regime was only saying what it could just to get the villagers home. 

"They cannot possibly say that things are under control now, why are they making these people go back?" one of the exiled dissidents told us. "How can anyone trust that government?"

It's a sentiment oft repeated about Myanmar’s military junta. 

But feeling they have little other choice, thousands prepared to make the journey back anyway

Despite assurances of "normality", Myanmar still hadn't officially reopened its border across the Friendship Bridge, so scores of villagers silently piled into wooden boats to be taken across the Moei.

"Like sheep being led to slaughter," whispered one by-stander.  

Like volleyballs being tossed back across the court.

There is a powerlessness that comes across in their eyes, but there is also a lack of desperation. 

Underneath it all, the resilience of the Burmese – (they don't want to be called anything else) – is clearly evident.

"Things won’t change so easily in Burma," another political exile said earlier. "We have to be patient."