Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Refugees in Thai camps waiting for peace

Tuesday, 27 December 2011 12:50 Jude James

(Mizzima) – The Nu Po refugee camp in Thailand has a feeling of permanence. Nestled in the Thai hills tight on the border with Karen State, the camp is a six-hour dirve south of Mae Sot in Umphang District in Tak Province.

But, set up in 1997, it is now threatened by changes in Bangkok and Naypyitaw.

Tawin Pleansri, the secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council, said in April, “I cannot say when we will close down the camps but we intend to do it”. Only months later, the new President of Burma, Thein Sein, publicly invited exiles to return home.

The Mae La refugee camp is located about 90 kilometres from Mae Sot on the Thai-Burmese border. Photo: AFP

But whether the refugees feel they can safely go home may ultimately lie in the hands of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her work with Naypyitaw’s “Peace Committees,” which are engaged in working out a comprehensive peace deal with various ethnic armed groups.

Despite the call by Thein Sein for exiles to return, most refugees in Thai camps are sitting tight.

Underlining these realities, the first official trip to Burma by the new Thai Prime Minister included a focus on economic cooperation including the countries energy interests.

“Maybe I'm more realistic than optimistic,” said Zulu, who has a bright smile and warm, open demeanour. She gives no hint of the five years she spent as a political prisoner in Burma's notorious prison system.

Speaking at a NGO office in Mae Sot, she said: “For this question, it is too early to judge, but how we can measure the changes... there are three things; If they release all political prisoners, also internal peace between ethnic groups and Burmese army... and how they give the space to do politics. We must measure these areas.”

The sustained news of the changes coming out of Burma has generated much discussion in the media, diplomatic circles and within the camps.

“The people in the refugee camp don't have much work to do... so they have much time to listen to rumours, so they've heard a lot of rumours and are worried,” said Zulu, who spent a year in the Nu Po refugee camp.

Sitting down with two of the camps residents over a cup of coffee, I ask what they thought of the changes. Khin (names change at their request) smiled and pointed to his friend,Thet. “He thinks it's a trick, but I think there are little positive changes”. Both have been in the camp for four years after  fleeing their homes in Rangoon.

The camp is really more like a small city. Unable to work in the outside world, camp residents have created everything from beauty salons to bike shops and tea stalls. Churches, mosques and Buddhist temples dot the area. With little to do but wait, schools offer the chance to learn English or skills like hairdressing.

Khin's brother was a member of the National League for Democracy and fled Burma after spending eight years in prison. He fled to the Thai border and after extensive screening, he resettled in America.

Almost 70,000 refugees have already chosen to go to a third country, with another 9,000 leaving this year. A similar number are expected to leave next year, but that will account for nearly all the registered refugees. The last official registration took place in 2006.

A number of the people I spoke to pointed out that while the resettlement is good for individuals who leave, it has negative impacts for the wider camp, often taking skilled people like teachers and nurses away from the community.

The current international climate is also challenging. Rations in the camps, and the yearly allotment for building materials have both been cut.

A recent report, which noted the U.S. has accepted the lion’s  share of refugees, is a further point of concern. The report compiled by researchers at San Francisco State University and the Burma Refugee Family Network (BRFN) and released this week found that nearly 60 per cent of the Burmese refugees in Oakland are living in extreme poverty. The Karen and Karenni are most at risk due to added language barriers and lower rates of education but even taken as a whole, Burmese refugees “are at risk of becoming a permanent, poverty-stricken underclass.”

When another official screening will start no one knows, Khin said, “but it depends on (the) Thai government.” A number of people said they though the lack of official screening was an attempt to discourage more people fleeing to the camps.

In an interview with Karen news, the Secretary of Nu Po refugee camp, Saw Thoolei Doh Soe, said “The people who want to resettle are around 50 per cent, and another 40 per cent want to still remain as refugees. Not even 1 percent of people want to go back to Burma now.”

There are good reasons for this. Karen State is one of the most mined areas on earth. Forced labour is still endemic and woman across the state are at risk of rape and sexual assault from government soldiers. 

Since the 1980s camps along the Thai-Burma boarder have been home to refugees fleeing the world's longest running civil war. They have also been home to the political activists forced to flee waves of repression.

While the officially registered number of refugees in the camps is 90,000, the Thai-Burma Boarder Consortium (TBBC), which provides humanitarian aid inside the camps, last month fed 148,000 in the 10 camps that hug the boarder.

Inside Burma, TBBC estimates at least 112,000 have been forced to flee their homes in the past year. This is the highest yearly number since TBBC “and partners started documenting displacement in 2002”, and is an indication that if anything the situation in ethnic areas has got worse over the last year.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Burma marked the highest level of engagement between the U.S. and Burma in 50 years and comes only weeks after Burma was named Asean chair for 2014.

Some refugees think the international community may be moving too fast to reengage with Burma.

“I'm not surprised by them, but I'm surprised with the international community, and how come they don't know these peoples games,” said Naw Htoo Paw.

To illustrate her point she described trying to help negotiate for around 100 villagers who fled “from active fighting”, after the election, to stay in Thailand. “We tried to say the fighting has not stopped yet” but the authorities maintained it had.

After sending back the last boatload across the river “another mortar landed” and the boat wanted to return. But the authorities said “it’s only mortar shelling, we have to wait for more fighting… the population was mainly woman and small children... and this was only one boat so this is the Thai relations to refugees, they don't want more.”

She understands the dangers. At age 11, she witnessed a man from her village killed on suspicion of being an insurgent.

Such doubts will only be put to rest by a lasting peace in the ethnic areas and the unconditional release of all political prisoners.

Without lasting peace in the ethnic regions, Thailand seems unlikely to find an acceptable way to close the camps. No matter how much it wants to or how much the refugees wish to return home, without a stable peace, the camps will remain in the unenviable position of being between a rock and a very hard, unforgiving place.

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