The country’s political reforms have not shielded remote communities from being devastated by ongoing conflicts.
Tha Song Yang, Thailand – An organisation representing the ethnic Karen minority in Myanmar has warned against the hasty repatriation of more than 130,000 refugees currently residing in Thai border camps.
Issuing a statement to coincide with World Refugee Day on Saturday, the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) cited ongoing conflict in Myanmar and the refugees’ distrust of the Myanmar government as reasons against premature repatriation.
“The conditions that lead refugees to flee in the first place have yet to be resolved, as initial ceasefires have proven to be fragile and regularly breached,” the KWO said in their statement on Saturday.
“In ceasefire areas, an increased presence of [Myanmar] army troops, in terms of both numbers of personnel and infrastructure, threaten the lives of those who continue to live in fear of conflict.”
Many armed ethnic groups signed a ceasefire after Myanmar transitioned to a nominally civilian government in 2011.
Deadly clashes between the groups and the Myanmar military, however, have continued and the flow of refugees to nine border camps in Thailand has not stopped.
“Premature repatriation under these current conditions will lead to further suffering for refugees who have already experienced persecution and human rights abuses by the Burma Army,” the KWO statement said, referring to Myanmar’s former name.
The UNHCR conducted a refugee verification process in the Thai border camps earlier this year – recording fingerprints and photographs of all the residents – to figure out the number of people physically in the camp, upping worries among residents that repatriation was imminent.
Since the coup last May, Thailand’s military government has tightened control over the camps, restricting the residents’ movements.
Thai army officials have said repeatedly that the nine camps – some of which have been running for 30 years – would be shut down.
Thai army spokesman Colonel Weerachon Sukondhadpatipak said he is not aware of any set timeline for the refugees’ return, but the government is eager to close the camps.
“It would be better for Thailand if the process and repatriation can be done as soon as possible but at the same time, we understand the limitations and we respect the Myanmar authorities,” Weerachon said.
“We care about the human rights [of the refugees] and we will make a good balance on this.”
While peace talks are ongoing between the Myanmar government and various ethnic groups, news reports of abuse committed by the military have surfaced over the years.
According to the KWO, local civil society groups have documented more than 100 cases of sexual violence – including gang rape – perpetrated by the Myanmar military, with none of the perpetrators brought to justice.
Myanmar’s Minister of Information Ye Htut could not be reached for comment.
Nowhere to go
Within Mae La – the largest camp in Thailand housing more than 40,000 people – roughly 2,000 students gathered on Friday to celebrate World Refugee Day. Nearby, various ethnic groups were serving food of the 13 ethnicities residing within the camp.
Taking part in the festivities was Bryan Tawng, 71, who has lived in the camp for over a decade. Tawng said that his family fled fighting between the Myanmar military and four other ethnic armed groups in Kachin State, and he has no desire to return.
“Now, when the outside world is talking about us and when we hear something about repatriation, all the people’s feelings on this is fear,” Tawng said. He hopes to eventually join his grandchildren who have been resettled in Salt Lake City in the US.
Pee Yaw, 58, has a great level of distrust and fear for the Myanmar military. Five years ago, she fled Karen State with her children after her husband was shot by the military while he was hunting for frogs at night.
“I am never going back. I will stay here in this camp until I die,” she said. “If I return, I won’t have a home, I won’t have my family, and I can’t do anything.”
But Hayso Thako, 34, said that despite worries about stability and security, he wants to return to Myanmar.
“It’s not good to have another generation grow up in the camps,” said Thako, who was born in a camp along the Thai-Myanmar border.
“I want to go back. I don’t want to see my children grow up here.”