Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Myanmar’s Forgotten Refugees

As a part of the first field study of the Rotary Peace Fellowship January-March 2014 program, we traveled to Mae Sot for a first-hand experience of the situation of Myanmar’s refugees and migrants that have made it across the Moei River to Thailand.

The 500 KM stretch on the Thai/Myanmar border in Tak Province, Northwest Thailand is dotted with 9 camps where approx. 130,000 people, who left their home country due to the world’s longest running civil war, now live. Since visitors are not allowed inside the camps, our group made a fleeting stop by Mae La Temporary Shelter to see for ourselves how the refugees lived from outside the camp! Whilst appreciating the opportunity, I felt rather uncomfortable to take even a few cursory glances at the camp for respect is the least we can show for a community living in such vulnerable conditions.

The Government of Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention related to the Status of Refugees, nor has it put in place national legislation to deal with issues associated with displacement and refugees. Hence, all nine camps on the Thai/Burma border continue to be universally referred to as ‘temporary shelters’ in all official communications by the host government. And, they are also referred to as people displaced by fighting. In the meantime, since the first major influx that took place in 1984, two or three generations of babies have been born into ‘statelessness’. The Thai government does not confer nationality on them despite cooperating with the UNHCR to register their births. And, at least one of the two parents has to be registered in order for a birth registration to be successful.

According to UNHCR figures, Mae La – home to one third of the entire refugee population – hosts 46,973 refugees and only 25,524 of them have been registered. These numbers speak for themselves: after having fled the raging civil-war between the Burmese army and ethnic rebels for the past 30 years, thousands of refugees continue to struggle for their basic needs and rights.

While a majority of the refugee population is said to be members of the Karen ethnic group, people of 13 other ethnicities, including Karenni, Mon and Shan have learnt to co-exist and tolerate each other within the camp environment in spite of deeply-rooted inter-ethnic rivalries evolving from six decades of civil war following the country’s independence[1]. Ethnic-rivalries, according to Field Coordinator Chris Clifford from The Border Consortium (TBC), have not hampered aid delivery in any significant manner.

Since Myanmar’s 2010 Parliamentary Election, a series of initiatives towards democratization have taken place under President Thein Sein[2]. As the country prepares for another election in 2015, talks of possible repatriation of refugees living on the Thai/Myanmar border appear to be gaining momentum. All organisations we met in Mae Sot mentioned this to us with different degrees of optimism. The UNHCR, for instance, believes conditions are “not yet conducive” to return[3].  A 2013 survey conducted by the UNHCR in Mae La revealed that nine out of 10[4] refugees would prefer to resettle in third countries or stay in Thailand instead of being repatriated to Myanmar. Possible lack of trust in the newly elected government, poor and unsafe living conditions in Myanmar are likely to have led to such strong opinions to emerge from this latest survey.

In comparison, within four years since the war ended, Sri Lanka’s government has been able to ensure the return of a majority of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their places of origin, except for those who have lost their homes to High Security Zones where the Sri Lankan security forces have set up military bases. Although there is space for improvements, my government is working with development agencies to resettle or relocate displaced communities and implement housing and infrastructure projects. However, Sri Lanka today remains a deeply-divided society and, unfortunately, little has been done in the post-war context by the government to heal the wounds and reconcile divided communities. This is where Myanmar can learn from Sri Lanka’s mistakes as it prepares to welcome the return of refugees to their homes and villages. Apart from addressing returnees’ housing, land, health, education, income and employment related problems, Myanmar’s government must have a plan on how it aims to end bitter inter-ethnic rancor and rivalry. Such a plan, once set in motion, will surely encourage its refugee population in Thailand to return home.

On its part, the Thai government should help with the repatriation process by ensuring the safe and dignified return of all refugees who want to return voluntarily. It should not rush to close all temporary shelters immediately after the 2015 elections as many fear this may be the case. While facilitating third country resettlement for those who express interest, the Thai government should be willing to host all refugees that are not yet prepared to return to their country of birth. This is where the international community should play its part in an effective manner by welcoming refugees who want to resettle in a third country as well as by providing funding and other assistance to the Thai government, which is likely to play host to a sizable population of refugees weary of returning to Myanmar in the near future. Rather than empty rhetoric, which has largely been the case as far as the international community’s attitude towards the post-war context in my country is concerned, constructive engagement with both Myanmar and Thailand has to be the way forward for handling the situation of Myanmar’s forgotten refugees.

Sulochana Peiris, Sri Lanka
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2014 Session

[1] C.S. Kuppuswamy. June 2013. Challenging the Reconciliation Process: Myanmar’s Ethnic Divide and Conflicts. Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
[2] ibid.
[4] S.Y. Naing. Most Burmese in Thailand Don’t Want Return: Survey. The Irrawaddy. October 2013

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This entry was posted on February 11, 2014 by .
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