Conflict & Justice

Cause of Thai refugee camp fire that killed 38 Burma refugees still a mystery


Myanmar refugee boys walk at their destroyed camp at the Mae Surin camp in Mae Hong Son province on March 24, 2013. Thai rescue workers picked through the ashes of hundreds of shelters for Myanmar refugees, after a ferocious blaze swept through a camp in northern Thailand killing 38 people. Around 100 people were injured.


Nicolas Asfouri

Thai border forces are still investigating the cause of a March 22 fire that killed 38 people and displaced over 2,000 more in the Ban Mae Surin refugee camp. According to local police under the authority of Colonel Naruchit, 300 of 400 witnesses have been questioned since the blaze.

Sally Thompson, Executive Director of The Border Consortium, which works with refugees on the Thai-Burma border, said three theories regarding the cause of the fire have emerged.

"One [story] is that it started accidentally through a spark from a cooking pot in the camp," she said. “Another is that it was from a spark from a forest fire in the surrounding area that has come into the camp. And then more recently some people have also said that they had seen a helicopter and a burning object coming from the sky."

The district police chief, Colonel Nitinart Wittayawuthikul, who was in charge of the camp at the time of the incident, has been transferred from his post for allegedly being negligent in his response to the fire. Wittayawuthikul says he believes he was transferred for refusing to declare the fire accidental after hearing conflicting stories from witnesses.

The Ban Mae Surin camp is located in the Mae Hong Son province in the Northwestern region of Thailand. It is home to some 3,500 ethnic Karen refugees who have fled the decades-long conflict in neighboring Burma. Border police had tightened security, stopping aid from entering the camp, on Sunday following the inferno. People arriving at the camp to deliver aid were told to drop off all deliveries at the Khun Yuam district warehouse, as the only deliveries to the camp would be made by local municipal and district offices, according to local police.

The Irrawaddy reported Monday that security began stopping vehicles, including those delivering aid to the devastated camp, and was only granting access to Thai officials.

Aid deliveries have since resumed, and Burmese state authorities made an unexpected gesture on Wednesday when they presented donations to the camp to support ongoing relief efforts for the refugees. According to a second report published by The Irrawaddy on Thursday, authorities from the Karenni National Progressive Party in the Karenni State, which sits not far from the Thai-Burma border where Ban Mae Surin camp is located, donated 10 million kyat—$11,000— in cash, to refugees affected by the fire.

Individual donations of blankets, mosquito nets, clothes and rice have been made by Karenni locals as well as the Nippon Foundation. Shally Than, leader of the camp, confirmed the arrival of the donations. Than has asked the international community for 13 million Thai baht — $444,000 — in donations toward rebuilding efforts.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the blaze destroyed more than 400 homes, a school, clinic, warehouse, community facilities, and government and aid offices. The International Rescue Committee, which was among the first responders to the tragedy, has reported that over 2,300 displaced refugees are now seeking shelter with relatives in unaffected areas of the camp.

“We are deeply saddened by this tragic event and the IRC is doing everything it can to provide swift aid and support to the survivors,” said Christine Petrie, Director of International Rescue Committee programs in Thailand. She said the Committee has already reestablished running water, to aid in the prevention of disease.

“In record time, we have managed to replace damaged water pipes and set up emergency taps where people can collect water. So many refugees have helped us with the work, despite the loss and trauma they have suffered.”