Koung Jor camp, Thailand – Pa Jong, 85, cries as the solar-powered light bulb is fitted into the roof of her tiny shack in the Thai refugee camp encircled by lush mountainous terrain.
It is the first time in her life that she has had electricity in her home – part of a NGO project to install solar panels throughout the makeshift village.
“This is simply indescribable to me,” she says. “As my family lived in the jungle since I was a child, we never had power from my parents’ time until now.”
Pa Jong is one of about 500 ethnic Shan refugees living in Koung Jor camp, north of the Thai city Chiang Mai.
“There is little doubt they deserve refugee protection, given the situation on the ground in Shan state, where the Burma Army has continuously committed attacks and other human rights violations.“
– Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch
She fled her village in Myanmar’s Shan state as fighting flared between its notorious military and the rebel Shan State Army in 2002. The military had forced her family to haul weapons, and they decided it was time to escape.
Some Shan have resided here for a decade, about 20 kilometres across the border from their abandoned villages in Myanmar that are surrounded by land mines. It remains to be seen if they’ll ever return.
While they’ve escaped the fighting, the villagers did so at a cost. The group signed a special agreement with the Thai government that gave them an indefinite period of residence. In exchange, however, the Shan surrendered their freedom of movement.
They are unable to leave the camp’s confines except to farm nearby fields and forage for food.
Unlike other Burmese minorities such as the Karen, who have also fled en masse to Thailand because of conflict, the Shan were not afforded official refugee status by the Thai government.
As a result, the lack of recognition has translated into few legal protections and rights, limited livelihood opportunities, and no access to aid from the United Nations. Thailand only officially recognizes nine camps that house Myanmar refugees, meaning the UN refugee agency is not granted access to others such as Koung Jor.
Phil Robertson from New York-based Human Rights Watch said the Thai government has a “blatantly discriminatory policy that excludes the Shan as an ethnic group”.
“There is little doubt they deserve refugee protection, given the situation on the ground in Shan state, where the Burma Army has continuously committed attacks and other human rights violations against the Shan,” Robertson told Al Jazeera.
Small-scale organisations such as The Branch Foundation have helped fill the aid void amid the UN’s absence. It has provided food, toilets, a mushroom farm, weaving centre, and the solar panels atop thatch roofs to provide electricity.
Before the panels were installed, villagers dangerously relied on kerosene lamps and candles.
“The solar panels have had a positive effect on the residents’ lives, especially the children as it has allowed them to study after school when it is dark,” said the foundation’s Tom Rosen.
Hanging on to hope
Myanmar’s future has recently brightened as it sheds its international pariah status and economic reform takes hold. But for the thousands of ethnic refugees displaced by decades of fighting, the country’s transformation has yet to translate into better lives. Many here are unsure if it ever will.
The Shan are Myanmar’s largest ethnic minority, representing 10 per cent of the population. They migrated from China’s Yunnan province as early as the 8th century.
Myanmar refugees remain at risk
After years of ethnic insurgency throughout Myanmar, there are about 150,000 refugees who now live in camps along its borders with Thailand, Laos, and China – Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle.
Since independence from British colonial rule in 1948, many of the country’s ethnic minorities have demanded greater political rights and formed armed groups to achieve them. Myanmar’s hardline ruling generals responded by sending in the troops.
Fighting still rages today – the fiercest ongoing in the country’s north as the military battles ethnic Kachin guerrillas, after a 17-year ceasefire collapsed in June 2011. The UN estimates 75,000 people have been displaced there in recent months.
Ethnic Shan, meanwhile, have faced similar situations. According to the Chiang Mai-based Shan Relief and Development Committee, at least 1.2 million Shan have fled their homes.
Unprecedented progress in peace talks in early 2012 between 11 different ethnic minority groups and Myanmar’s government brought optimism.
While negotiations resulted in several ceasefire agreements, these have largely been ineffective. After years of animosity and large-scale military build-ups, outbreaks of violence continue between rebels and the army.
Sai Leng left his home in Shan state in 2003 after fighting erupted, and is now the leader at Koung Jor camp. He receives regular updates from his family living in Shan state, who say a ceasefire has failed to halt fighting. Over the past few months about 50 battles have occurred.
“The situation has not really changed for the [Shan] people politically, and the local military government and its cronies continue to seize more land from the civilians,” Sai Leng said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council surveyed families at Koung Jor in August on their “willingness” to return to Shan state. The mere process of the survey caused panic among residents.
An overwhelming majority responded that they were not eager to return to the war-ravaged area besieged by unexploded ordnance and land mines.
Several Thailand-based Shan organisations have called for foreign financial assistance to rehabilitate the region. They also have urged a major reduction in the number of Myanmar soldiers in Shan state, which they estimated at “a quarter of their total troop force”.
“Current ceasefire talks with various armed groups in Shan state have not yet resulted in political dialogue to address the structural root causes of the conflict, specifically the lack of rights for ethnic peoples and continued Burma Army dominance,” a joint statement said.
‘Right of return’
Myanmar’s government has implicitly acknowledged refugees’ “right to return”, but it remains to be seen if that is truly the case after years of military campaigns, which some analysts say were aimed at displacing minorities.
“The government needs to decrease the size of its military in the ethnic areas and also inside Burma, so that the money can be used for development.“
– Sai Leng, camp leader
Benjamin Zawacki is an independent human rights analyst based in Bangkok. He told Al Jazeera about 100 Shan villagers have left over the past months, fearful that the Thai government will forcefully return them.
“There is a general fear among the refugees in the camp that … they could be pushed back against their will,” said Zawacki. “The Shan have made it clear that while most want to return under the right circumstances, the security situation is currently too precarious to do so.”
Vivian Tan from the UNHCR office in Bangkok said a lot more needs to be done on both sides of the border before the refugees can go home.
“At this point, we don’t feel the conditions are right for refugee returns,” said Tan. “Ultimately, the refugees should be able to return home voluntarily and in safety and dignity, but we are not there yet.”
Those like camp leader Sai Leng who have grown up amid chronic warfare and displacement say economic and social progress in ethnic border areas cannot happen without an army withdrawal.
“The government needs to decrease the size of its military in the ethnic areas and also inside Burma, so that the money can be used for development,” he said.