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Burmese refugees wary over Thailand's changes

New ration reductions and movement restrictions have refugees from Myanmar anxious about their future in Thailand.

Last updated: 21 Aug 2014 09:58
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Thailand's Mae La camp is home to more than 40,000 refugees from Myanmar [Dene-Hern Chen/Al Jazeera]

Tha Song Yang, Thailand - Eight years ago, Saw Thi Say, 45, and his family left their home in Myanmar and relocated to a refugee camp in Thailand. They had endured the ongoing conflict between Myanmar's army and various ethnic groups in his country's northern state of Shan .

When the Burmese army confiscated their farmland in 2006, Saw Thi Say decided it was time to flee to the Thai border.

"We were forced to destroy our own crops and then they forced us to grow crops for [the army]," Saw Thi Say said. "So we came here. Our youngest was three at that time."

Mae La refugee camp, the largest in Thailand, is home to more than 40,000 people and stretches across 184 hectares along the mountain ranges of western Thailand. In operation for three decades, the majority of its residents - some of whom have lived there for just as long - are ethnic Karen who fled fighting.

"We need our children to get a good education and to have a good quality of life," the father of four daughters told Al Jazeera.

In Burma, we were oppressed by the military government. Now here, we feel the same, oppressed by the Thai military.

- Mary Thi Say, Burmese refugee

Saw Thi Say and his family thought life would be easier in Thailand. Although he no longer hears gunshots at night, he said living in Mae La remains challenging.

Thailand's military seized power on May 22, and since that time has cracked down on migrants from neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. These moves have many refugees in Thailand wondering what's next for them.  

Reduced rations

At first glance, the Mae La camp resembles a rural town, with row after row of bamboo-stilt houses lining the mountainous terrain. Rising in the early morning, refugees head to the bustling market area, which is located by the camp's entrance and manned by Thai soldiers. Within the market's centre are the ration stations, where refugees line up waiting to receive rice and cooking oil.

However, rations at the camp have recently been reduced because of dwindling donor funds, and, in the last two months, restrictions imposed by the Thai authorities have increased. Additionally, a population census carried out in July has left most of the camp's residents worried about what changes its results may bring.

A lack of communication between the authorities and residents has fuelled rumours about the intention of the census, leaving the refugees in a heightened state of anxiety for their future.

These new fears compound the already-precarious situation for refugees living in one of Thailand's nine border camps. For families such as Saw Thi Say's, the task of obtaining a good education for their children is saddled with daily difficulties.

"In [Myanmar], we were oppressed by the military government," Mary, Saw Thi Say's wife, said. "Now here, we feel the same, oppressed by the Thai military."

Restricting movement

Law Ba Htoo, 39, has lived in the camp since 1992, when he also fled Karen State in Myanmar to escape fighting.

Since the Thai military banned residents from leaving Mae La to seek work, the community has been left to fend for themselves, he said. They worry that their attempts to gain additional income would backfire, causing them to lose their refugee status.

"People cannot leave the camp at all now. Even if we try to go out, we have to get permission from the Thai authorities," he said. "Among all the camp people, we are very worried that we will be sent back, and then we would have to be registered as refugees again."

Law Ba Htoo's application for resettlement in the United States was also approved in October of last year; he and his family have been eagerly preparing for a new life in Dallas, Texas.

However, Law Ba Htoo has not heard anything from the US since March. He is worried that the recent population census will affect his status in the country.  

The Mae La refugee camp has been in operation for 30 years [Dene-Hern Chen/Al Jazeera]

"They don't share this information with us," he said. "The people who stay in the camp, they mostly want to resettle in the US because the restrictions by the Thai military are bad for our lives."

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) was not involved or consulted by the Thai government in the headcount, said UNHCR senior coordinator Iain Hall, who explained that authorities have said the census was done to ascertain the actual number of refugees living in the camps.

"UNHCR has shared its concern that refugees are very anxious about the purpose of the headcount, and therefore that they should be better informed," said Hall, adding the new Thai government has not stated any changes in its refugee policy.

Census concerns

Duncan McArthur, partnership director of The Border Consortium - a non-governmental organisation that distributes rations to the refugees - said while he doesn't expect the census to affect ration allocation, the reasons for it ambiguous.

"The actual purpose remains unclear but there haven't been any punitive outcomes to date," McArthur said in an email.

According to The Border Consortium's population records, there are more than 58,000 unregistered refugees in nine camps - almost 50 percent of the total camp population.

"The vast majority of unregistered refugees appear to have fled from the effects of conflict just like registered refugees before them," McArthur said. "It is not clear how unregistered refugees will be treated on this occasion, but they remain more vulnerable to discrimination than registered refugees."

Thai army spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukondhadpatipak told Al Jazeera the population census would also determine which refugees are moving in and out to work in Thailand illegally.

This issue confuses everyone - the entire camp feels this way. It decays my hope and my purpose.

- Saw Wah, Burmese refugee

"They need to be able to control the movement of the refugees living in the camp, for those moving out and moving in," Werachon said, adding the military would not forcibly deport anyone.

"We have to work with many organisations, including the UNHCR," he said. "We also need to work closely with the Myanmar authorities to find the right time to send them back."

Decaying hope

But camp residents remain in the dark, and view both the Thai and Myanmar governments' plans for them with mistrust. Saw Wah, 34, has been living in Mae La for 15 years and is accustomed to, yet frustrated by, the constant dearth of information. 

"When things change, I have to follow the situation to look out for my life," he said. "Things are never stable for us."

With his rations recently reduced, Saw Wah said he had hoped his small grocery store in the camp might bring in extra money. But now, his business has been affected by the restrictions.

"There is no transparency between [the Thai authorities] and the camp people. This issue confuses everyone - the entire camp feels this way," Saw Wah said, his two-year-old daughter on his knee. "It decays my hope and my purpose."

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Al Jazeera
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