The near-future of Karen refugees to Thailand seems cloudy as the peace process in Myanmar has failed to deliver their hoped-for rights and land
The 71st anniversary of the Karen National Day was held this year under uncertainty and anxiety as the Karen National Union (KNU) withdrew from the on-going peace process, leaving little hope for the Karen who dream of returning home.
Deep within the mountainous terrain of the Tanintharyi special division on the strife-torn Myanmar-Thailand border, the national day for the Karen minority was celebrated on February 11 at the Amara camp – a shelter that was meant to handle the return of Karen refugees from Thailand.
Thousands of Karen from both Thailand and Myanmar gathered to participate in the parade. Businessmen from both countries could also be seen checking out the untapped resources and business opportunities, thus highlighting the economic significance of this region where KNU and the Nay Pyi Taw government have long competed for domination, once via armed clashes and now through other means.
The Karen National Day has been held annually for 70 years to commemorate the day when a hundred-thousand Karen rallied in the former capital of Yangon to call for their right to self-determination after Myanmar – then Burma – became independent from the British Empire in 1948.
After their demand was rejected, the KNU took up armed struggle for autonomy. Leaders of the struggle’s founding generation eventually passed away. After Bo Mya died in 2006, a new generation of leaders emerged and decided to join the Nay Pyi Taw-sponsored Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015.
The KNU decided to walk away from the peace process last year after the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) refused to reconsider its principle of non-separation and having a single army, thus making the peace process seem like a pact for surrender. The withdrawal, however, left the KNU facing political uncertainty over its long-standing aim to achieve rights and autonomy over its land.
Thaw Thi, a member of the Myeik-Dewei administration committee, said KNU withdrew because the central government could not function freely in the peace-building process. The group might consider a return to peace talks if there was an opening that would allow them to achieve their objectives peacefully.
Lt-General Sunny, the KNU’s 4th Brigade commander, said the agency remained in informal contact with Myanmar authorities despite its withdrawal. It was for the KNU Congress, the highest decision-making body that takes place once every four years, to make the final decision over the Karens’ political future.
Local sheriff Aye Doh said two out of nine villages in Tanintharyi have already been put under Myanmar’s newly established sub-district administration and Nay Pyi Taw has tried to include the remaining four villages.
While the ceasefire-agreement process had created safeguards for normal people’s lives, the KNU withdrawal has created an atmosphere of uncertainty and they fear violence from future attacks.
The KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), has seven brigades across the border areas with Thailand and the 4th brigade’s stance does not represent them all.
Clashes could take place at any time and the violence has long affected the border with Thailand.
Surapong Kongchanteuk, director of Karen Studies and Development Centre in Thailand, said the Tatmadaw offensive against KNU strongholds over the past two decades has forced the displacement of thousands of Karen refugees to Thailand.
Soider parade to mark the Karen Natioanl Day
More than 97,000 refugees from Myanmar have taken shelter in nine camps along the Thai border since the late 1980s. Bangkok reached a deal with Nay Pyi Taw to repatriate them a few years ago, but the enforcement was at a slow pace. This week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the repatriation of more than 500 Myanmar refugees – the third attempt of its kind since 2016 – was taking place. However, only 164 refugees returned in the previous two attempts.
Future uncertainty due to the KNU peace-process break down posed a major stumbling block for the repatriation plan.
“Even though many houses were built, the returnees were in small numbers since the refugees feared for their safety and the lack of land and rights,” Surapong said.
“I perceive that they came to Thailand because Myanmar is not safe.
“If their safety were genuinely guaranteed, they would voluntarily return home. There would be no need to force them back or even to build any houses for them,” he said.
“Thailand needs to talk to Myanmar and have Nay Pyi Taw ensure that the returnees can have a good life in their homeland.”
Also, he said, the repatriation must be conducted on a voluntary basis. otherwise Thailand will be criticised heavily.
The uncertain political direction among their elite has left the average Karen with fewer choices. Perhaps uncertainty is the only certainty as 71 years of struggle continue and whether they like it or not, they are in this together.