News about the construction of an alleged "resettlement" site in Karen State and claims that a dozen other sites have been earmarked for refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border have led to heightened tension in the nine border camps.
The increase in anxiety among the 140,000-plus refugees was the subject of an 18-minute video report shown recently at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok.
The film – ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’, which is posted on YouTube, was funded by the Burma Partnership and backed by groups such as the Karen Women’s Organisation. It reveals the psychological strains linked to a possible return after nearly three decades in camps on the border.
The main message from the film and a panel of representatives at the FCCT was that refugees want to be part of the repatriation process, with the freedom to pick when and where they return.
A key reason for the tension is the uneven nature of the reforms in Myanmar – while the Burman majority in central Myanmar have begun to see benefits from the dropping of sanctions, a managed exchange rate, liberalisation of the media, etc, ethnic areas have seen relatively little change on the ground. The military remains in many parts of eastern Myanmar, along with hundreds of thousands of landmines.
After 60 years of civil strife, ethnic minorities still have enormous scepticism about the reforms overseen by President Thein Sein. The ceasefire process has been repeatedly abused over the years and often led to greater inequities. Indeed, the plunder of Kachin State after the 1994 ceasefire – widespread land grabs, mass logging and social decay because of exploitative labor deals, greater drug use and the spread of HIV/Aids – is a prime cause of the conflict that has raged in the far north for the past 18 months.
While Western governments have hailed the turnaround, ethnic groups are upset that the regime’s “development first” focus, and the shocking stampede of land confiscation – while demands for greater autonomy in their areas have been pushed to the side.
‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ accuses the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, of planning to repatriate refugees from the border camps with the Thai and Myanmar governments.
But the UN agency denies this, saying that things are still in a preparatory phase and that it wants a voluntary return when refugees are ready and able to go home.
The plight of the border refugees was discussed at a two-day conference at Chulalongkorn University this week.
Academics and other “stakeholders” suggested that the Karen and others in the camps may have to pick the best of several less favourable options if the reform process in Myanmar stalls. Some would go back and work in special economic zones planned across the border, while others would resettle abroad (following the 80,000 who have already gone to the US and a dozen other countries), and a smaller number may attempt to stay in Thailand, despite opposition to them remaining by bodies such as the National Security Council.
But there was general agreement that nothing was likely to happen in the short term.
UNHCR official Iain Hall said the desire to return home was “always in people’s heart”. But he noted that “the mood for return is not yet there”.
Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, just back from another visit to Yangon, said he was not very optimistic about Myanmar’s immediate prospects, predicting that development would be “very patchy and Yangon-based”, partly because the geography and terrain in Myanmar was difficult and expatriates “don’t want to go to the boondocks”.
“Jobs aren’t going to spread to Shan State or to Chin State. You’ll see Yangon resembling what we saw in Vietnam.” He expected that migrants would continue to flock to Thailand for work.
Thitinan, who admitted to having a low opinion of almost all Thai governments, said authorities in Bangkok “need to think very long-term” instead of the usual “ad hoc fix-it-as-you-go approach”.
Refugees in the camps should be offered residency, citizenship rights and eventually “voting rights”.
“A lot [of the refugees in the camps] will not go back. Most, I think, will stay,” he predicted. “Thai authorities need to think about that.
“Ultimately, we need global solutions. Regional [solutions] also offer some headway. Ultimately, it’ll be piecemeal and self-help. Refugees will increasingly become migrant labourers.”
And, over time, the role of the Tatmadaw – the military in Myanmar – would reduce.
Other academics lamented at the Thai military’s conservative mindset which viewed the refugees as a threat to national security and required that they be confined to camps – even after 28 years.
They noted that Myanmar was going through a fragile transitional phase, and that if governments really wanted the refugees to return they needed to offer durable solutions – and for people who had lost everything in fleeing to Thailand, that might entail plots of arable land for them to farm and raise families.
Myanmar peace negotiator Aung Min has signaled that Nay Pyi Daw would accept birth records of ethnic children born in the border camps or at the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot. But academics said the government would also need to recognize the education children received in the border camps – often rated as better than Thai state schools – if young returnees wanted to do further study at university in their homeland.
Cynthia Maung, the acclaimed Karen doctor who runs the Mae Tao Clinic, said her people wanted the peace process to continue and to be serious. Troops had to be withdrawn and landmines removed. Development projects were “causing a lot of forced displacement” and further conflict.
Land confiscation was ongoing, with forced relocations and no proper discussion about restitution for people who lost their homes and property before fleeing to Thailand.
“The military is everywhere... the livelihoods of people is threatened. Since they see many army [personnel] around their village, they don’t feel very confident about the ceasefire process. The initial stage of the process is still very fragile.”