The case of Ban Mae Surin: tragic accident or foul play?

Daniel Pye and Saw C Rogers investigate a suspicious fire which killed 37 Burmese refugees in Thailand.

Makeshift graves for the victims of the fire.

Daniel Pye

The inferno that burst upon the remote refugee camp of Ban Mae Surin in northwest Thailand on 22 March this year gave the bamboo and dry leaf huts little chance of survival.

Families caught in the blaze huddled around toilets, desperately hoping the water would save them. A pregnant woman suffocated in the toxic black and white plumes of smoke. Fathers used their blistering bodies as human shields in a hopeless attempt to shelter their children from the flames.

In 30 minutes, 200 homes were reduced to white-hot ashes. By the time the flames had had their fill, 37 people were dead, 2,300 refugees were without shelter and more than 100 lay injured, some with life-threatening burns.

We gained access to Ban Mae Surin in March, interviewing more than 20 witnesses and taking documentation of the fire gathered by the refugee committee in the camp to world-renowned experts in international criminal investigations. Our investigation suggests the fire may have been an intentional attack, rather than an accident as the Thai authorities claim.

The refugees say the camp was attacked by unknown assailants using aircraft resembling OV-10C Broncos, US-made light attack aircraft. The government maintains the fire was a cooking accident or forest fire spread by strong winds, despite a local police investigation finding evidence of white phosphorous (which burns fiercely and is used in incendiary munitions).

It is not clear who was responsible for the fire in Ban Mae Surin, home to about 3,300 ethnic Karenni refugees from eastern Burma. But there is no shortage of possibilities, as the camp lies at the heart of the Golden Triangle – the world’s largest heroin- and methamphetamine-producing region after Afghanistan – and a complex web of competing military and paramilitary groups vie for control of these mountainous jungles.

Falling ‘crystals’

The Karenni are one of Burma’s most persecuted ethnic minorities. Burma’s military and paramilitary groups, allied with the former regime, have aggressively targeted them for more than 50 years. More than 20,000 have fled to Thailand, according to Minority Rights Group International. Now, as Burma opens its doors to foreign investors and relations with the US and Europe improve, many refugees fear repatriation to a country where, for them, little will have changed.

From Khun Yuam – the nearest town – it is a treacherous two-hour drive to Ban Mae Surin along a dirt mountain track that fords several rivers, our truck rattling round tight bends inches away from cavernous ravines.

In Ban Mae Surin, witnesses detailed how three planes flew low over the remote camp on the day of the fire, dropping what they described as white ‘powder’ or ‘crystals’ on their homes minutes before the fire broke out.

Witnesses detailed how three planes flew low over the remote camp, dropping what they described as white ‘powder’ or ‘crystals’ on their homes minutes before the fire broke out

Forensic and military experts were not able to confirm beyond all doubt that phosphorus had been used on the camp. But several aspects of the documentation did provide supporting evidence that the fire may have resulted from white phosphorus being dispersed by the aircraft. John Ralston, executive director of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI), is a former lead investigator of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Darfur. He said the witness reports of ‘crystals’ falling on their homes shortly before the fire started was ‘consistent with some form of dropped incendiary device’.

‘If an incendiary munition was dropped… it would be a crime against humanity,’ Ralston told us by email. ‘If it is white phosphorous, so long as there is oxygen you are not going to put it out.’ The refugees said even small fires they tried to put out were not stymied by water. ‘Once the water drained off it would reignite,’ Ralston commented.

A young Karenni girl walks through the ruins of Ban Mae Surin in March.

Daniel Pye

A director of the IICI with extensive military experience, who also reviewed the files, said if a pyrophoric – a chemical that can ignite without fuse or flame – was dropped on the camp, it would almost certainly have been white phosphorus.

‘It should be borne in mind that if this incident was caused by an air-delivered munition then there is a very strong possibility that the incendiary device used… is very likely to be white phosphorus,’ he said. ‘This is so because it is the cheapest of the pyrophoric… chemicals available and is commonplace among munitions of this nature in use today.’

‘In this case it would have been the perfect accelerant if somebody wanted to set the camp on fire,’ Ralston added.

An intentional blaze?

Nitinart Wittayawuthiku, the Khun Yuam District police chief who carried out the initial investigation into the fire, was removed from his post after the blaze. The authorities said he had failed to carry out a proper investigation, but Nitinart told us that the real reason was because he was questioning the official account.

His forensic team found traces of phosphorus in soil samples collected at Ban Mae Surin in the days immediately after the fire, before an outside force took jurisdiction, he said. Nitinart believes the fire was started intentionally, possibly using phosphorus, to ‘encircle’ the camp. Witness statements described the flight path of three planes that ‘circled’ areas of the camp for several minutes, before flying away at high speed.

‘It was not the wind that carried the flames that caused my house to burn down. There were no forest fires that day around the camp’

A witness, who asked to remain anonymous, said he saw three aircraft fly over the camp minutes before the fires started. ‘One of the planes was flying lower than the others, while the other two were flying around nearby,’ he said. ‘The first one seemed to release something that looked like smoke above our houses. After the first plane had almost disappeared from view, the other two followed it.’

Another refugee, whose house was one of the first to burn, described how he watched as one of the planes that flew over Ban Mae Surin descended low over the camp, dispersing the white substance.

The substance ‘was like vapour at first before it became fire’, he said. ‘It was not the wind that carried the flames that caused my house to burn down. There were no forest fires that day around the camp.’

There have been two fires in Ban Mae Surin since it was built in the early 1990s. However, when fires have broken out in the camp in previous years they have been extinguished or contained easily, residents said. The camp is crisscrossed by rivers, which provide a convenient source of hydropower, as well as water for the groups of refugees who hurry to put out their neighbours’ houses if they set alight.

Jungle warfare

Refugees’ drawings of the aircraft that flew over the camp on the day of the fire closely resemble an OV-10C Bronco, made by Rockwell North American for the Thai Royal Air Force. Thailand bought 38 Broncos from Rockwell between 1973 and 1978. The Bronco, developed by Rockwell in 1965 for counter-insurgency operations in South Vietnam, was used in Thailand’s campaign against communist guerrillas in the 1970s.

A police cordon around the house in Zone 1 of the camp where the fire is said to have originated.

Daniel Pye

Designed for jungle warfare and reconnaissance, the OV-10 was decommissioned by the Thai Royal Air Force in 2011 and several were donated to the Philippines or sold to Pakistan. But it is not clear where the remaining OV-10s ended up. If the drawings are accurate, the other possibility is that the plane was a T.05, a Thai-made plane similar in appearance to the OV-10.

During our visit, a military officer said the border paramilitary force, Thahan Phran, also known as the Rangers, had taken control of the main access road and was blocking independent aid deliveries. For some time all aid had to be delivered to the ‘emergency centre’ in Khun Yuam under the security regime imposed by the Rangers.

The Rangers were quick to the scene of the fire, arriving in a white helicopter on the morning of 23 March. Photographs taken by the Camp Committee – the civil society group that administers camp affairs – the morning after the fire show Rangers from Regiment 36, based in Mae Sariang to the south, inspecting the site where the fire started.

The Rangers was formed in 1978 to fight an anti-communist guerrilla war in northeast Thailand and was a proxy ‘secret army’ of the US during its war against Vietnamese forces in the Plain of Jars in Laos. The Rangers have been linked to the illicit cross-border trade in heroin and methamphetamine and have close ties to drug syndicates in Burma, just a few miles from Ban Mae Surin across the Salween River to the west.

In early 1998, Regiment 36 and the Rangers’ Salween Special Task Force conducted a large operation following an incursion of Burmese army units into Thailand. In the 1998 operation, the Rangers were given air support by OV-10s flown by Squadron 41 out of Chiang Mai airforce base.

Several bulldozers and a digger were flown in to clear the site of debris in early April, despite there being an ongoing police investigation into the cause of the fire. Nitinart confirmed that they were used to destroy any remaining evidence of a crime. ‘Bulldozers are cleaning up the site for reconstruction. So, it is not possible to work on a criminal investigation,’ he said.

International aid agencies have since moved in and erected temporary shelters for the displaced. The tents will provide scant comfort for the refugees, as the second of two tropical storms makes its way toward northern Burma from Vietnam, threatening the region with heavy rains and flooding.

Behind two parched fields at the edge of Ban Mae Surin, mourners buried the dead in modest graves. Two rows of wooden markers display the name of the deceased and a number they were assigned from 1 to 37. Flowers and offerings of water and food adorn each grave. A guitar propped against one marker suggests a young musician was among the victims.

Mahn Saw, Chair of the Karenni Refugee Committee, said the refugees needed a transparent investigation into the allegations of foul play. ‘The police are conducting an investigation. But they have not told us when they will announce their findings,’ he said.

Daniel Pye is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia and Saw C Rogers is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Thailand.