Fear and uncertainty for Myanmar dissidents in Thailand

Myanmar dissidents who fled army crackdown are living in hiding in Thailand as they try to seek humanitarian protection in third countries.

A woman cries as she shows the three-finger salute during a prayer ceremony for those who died in Myanmar during anti-coup protests, in front of the UN building in Bangkok, Thailand on March 4, 2021 [File: Soe Zeya Tun/ Reuters]

When Myanmar’s military staged a coup on February 1, Kaung Latt’s career as an entertainer came to an abrupt halt. A prominent supporter of the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) government and a social media star with hundreds of thousands of followers, Kaung Latt knew he was likely to become a high-profile target for arrest.

On the morning of the coup, as security forces began rounding up NLD officials, activists, and influential public figures, Kaung Latt went into hiding. His neighbours later told him security forces had been at his house twice that day looking for him.

Over the next month, Kaung Latt sheltered with different friends in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, but when the military issued an arrest warrant accusing him of “using [his] popularity to incite the people” through social media “to destroy the state’s law and order,” he decided it was too risky for him to stay with his hosts.

Unable to fly out of the country, he crossed secretly into neighbouring Thailand in early March, where he has since remained in a state of limbo.

“I don’t feel safe living here because of my undocumented status,” he said. “This is my first time to come to another country without documentation, and I feel very small – like I lost my identity.”

Kaung Latt is among three people with whom Al Jazeera spoke who fled to Thailand since the coup.

They fear for their lives should they return to Myanmar but are unable to claim asylum in Thailand, whose government does not distinguish refugees or asylum-seekers from economic migrants, and considers undocumented or unauthorised entry or stay as “illegal immigration”.

So the dissidents are trying to get to a third country on humanitarian grounds, dealing in the meantime with anxiety about their future and struggling to cope with traumatic memories amid the continued violence back home.

In order to protect the people featured in this article and their families, Al Jazeera has used pseudonyms and anonymised some details from their accounts.

The coup, Kaung Latt said, turned his life upside down, destroying his career as well as his sense of security in Myanmar. “I felt anxious all the time about when [security forces] might come and arrest me,” he said. Fearing he could be tortured or disappeared if caught by the military, he began to feel physically unwell. “I don’t have heart disease but I felt pain in the left side of my chest, and when I told my friends, they said it was caused by the trauma I faced,” he said.

Seven months after the coup, neither his sorrow for his country nor his anxiety about his personal safety has gone away. “I still have the feelings from when the coup first happened in February of being upset, hurt and robbed of my vote,” he said, adding that he continues to have nightmares that the military is searching for him. “I feel a lot better here [in Thailand] but I still have trauma,” he told Al Jazeera.

In August, he decided to seek humanitarian protection in a third country. A friend connected him with a foreign embassy, and he is now awaiting a response about the status of his case.

“Since I lost my identity, I am trying to resettle,” he said over the phone from a town on the Thai border. “If I get my identity after I resettle, I will help my country any way I can.”

‘I was worried for my life’

During Myanmar’s former military rule, which lasted from 1962 to 2011, Thailand’s border town of Mae Sot and the northern city of Chiang Mai became hubs for exiled dissidents. In the 1980s, armed conflict in Myanmar’s southeast sparked the beginning of more than 20 years of mass displacement, and nine camps were established in Thailand’s border provinces, supported by a consortium of international nongovernmental organisations.

The number of refugees in these camps peaked at 150,000 in 2005, following which tens of thousands were resettled in third countries. A few hundred refugees returned to Myanmar through a facilitated voluntary repatriation program launched by the Thai and Myanmar governments in 2016 but issues, including an ongoing military presence in refugees’ villages, fear of renewed conflict and unexploded landmines, and weak education, healthcare and livelihood options left many hesitant to go back. Today, more than 90,000 refugees remain in the camps.

Since the February coup, thousands of people from Myanmar have sought refuge in Thailand following air attacks and armed clashes along Myanmar’s southeastern border, but Thailand has not granted them any formal protections.

In late March, when more than 2,000 civilians attempted to cross the border amid military air attacks in Karen State, they were forced back, according to human rights groups, although Thai authorities maintain that the returns were safe and voluntary.

Thousands more crossed into Thailand fleeing military attacks in Karen in April, May and June; rights groups say that they were also forced back or pressured to return.

Dissidents and others who managed to flee to Thailand after being persecuted in Myanmar are also vulnerable. In March, three journalists and two activists were arrested in Chiang Mai and sentenced to seven months in prison for illegal entry. Amid an outcry from rights groups, they were granted asylum in an undisclosed third country.

Meanwhile, Myanmar-based media outlet The Irrawaddy reported on September 7 that Thai police had been alerted to arrest anyone connected with Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government (NUG) and to raid places suspected of sheltering NUG members.

Among those wanted by the Myanmar military for participating in anti-coup protests and speaking out against the military on social media is Ko Moe, a performing artist.

When he fled his home in Yangon in March, Ko Moe had no plans to cross into Thailand. “Even If I crossed the border, I didn’t know where to go or where to stay. Moreover, if the Thai police arrested me and sent me back to Myanmar, it would be very bad for me,” he said.

He first hid with relatives in Yangon, but when that became too risky, he sought protection in the territory of an ethnic armed organisation along the Thailand border, arriving there in April just before the warrant for his arrest was issued.

Ethnic armed groups, some of which have been fighting against the military for decades, have sheltered thousands of activists and dissidents since the coup, even as fighting escalated in their territories. Ko Moe said soldiers from a unit under the Myanmar military were stationed near the house where he was staying, and he feared to even go outside.

A friend helped him initiate the process to apply for humanitarian protection in a third country, but he needed to be living outside Myanmar in order to qualify, according to international refugee law.

After much deliberation, he decided to take his chances and cross into Thailand.

In his last act before leaving Myanmar, he recorded a protest song calling for people to come together and to have empathy for each other. “I wanted to give a message to the people of Myanmar that I am with them as an artist,” he told Al Jazeera.

The same day, with the help of friends, he clandestinely crossed the border.

“The main reason I came here is because I was worried for my life … that [security forces] could arrest me at night and call my family the next morning to pick up the body,” he said.

While Ko Moe feels safer in Thailand, he has avoided going outside due to his undocumented status. He is now awaiting transit to a third country, having already completed the screening processes.

Living in hiding

It is hard to pinpoint the number of people from Myanmar who escaped to Thailand since the coup, as many of those who fled – like Ko Moe – are undocumented and living in hiding.

Thailand pledged in 2016 to develop a national screening mechanism to identify those in need of humanitarian protection and, in December 2019, formally approved the screening mechanism’s establishment. It was set to come into force in June 2020 but, according to Naiyana Thanawattho, the executive director of Asylum Access Thailand, details about how the law will be implemented are still under discussion, and it has not yet been rolled out in practice.

Asylum Access Thailand is part of a coalition of more than 40 civil society groups that are calling on Thailand to speed up the law’s implementation and ensure that NGOs promoting the rights of refugees and stateless persons are meaningfully represented in discussions about it.

Coalition members hope that the screening mechanism will allow recognised asylum seekers and refugees to live and work in Thailand without the risk of arrest or deportation. But among several concerns are that those living in refugee camps, those from specific nationalities and newly arrived refugees would be excluded from the law. The committee established to review asylum claims includes many members from a national security background.

“We are afraid the purpose of the law will be to exclude people rather than to protect people,” said Thanawattho. “[The government] should not exclude refugees from accessing protection.”

Options for accessing humanitarian protection in a third country are also exceedingly few. In 2020, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, identified 20.7 million refugees of concern globally, of whom less than 1 percent were resettled.

Al Jazeera contacted the governments of eight countries with a history of offering humanitarian protection to people from Myanmar, as well as the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, but was unable to confirm specific details about how many people persecuted by the Myanmar military since the coup have been offered humanitarian protection in a third country.

New Zealand said that it had received 11 refugee and protection claims from Myanmar nationals inside the country, all of which were being considered, while Germany has approved six asylum applications from within the country since the power grab. Australia said it has received 2,097 applications for humanitarian visas from Myanmar nationals outside of the country in that time period, but did not mention the number of people it granted protection.

The United Kingdom did not provide details while the United States, Netherlands, Spain and Canada did not respond to requests for comment.

Citing reasons of confidentiality and protection, UNHCR declined to comment on what kind of temporary protection, if any, is offered during refugees’ transit period in Thailand.

‘I want to live legally’

Kaung Htoo is among those who managed to make contact with a foreign embassy and apply for protection in a third country but, currently lacking support from any organisation in Thailand and fearing arrest, he only goes outside when necessary and his wife and children do not go out at all.

The university professor joined the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement and went on strike from his post in central Myanmar weeks after the coup.  In May, shortly after the start of the university school year, the military-run news channel broadcast his name on the arrest warrant list and warned that those who tried to hide education staff would also be charged.

The next day, Kaung Htoo began an arduous journey through the jungle with his wife and children, crossing into Thailand days before security forces ransacked their house. “We had no idea what to do or [what organisations] to contact when we arrived in Thailand. Our friends told us not to go outside or we could be arrested,” he said.

Some friends from Myanmar helped the family find accommodation in a village on the outskirts of a border town, and in August, his parents joined them. “In Myanmar, I worked as a professor for 17 years. As a civil servant, I didn’t even drink or smoke,” he said. “I want to live legally.”

With this in mind, as well as a desire for his children to be able to continue their education, he decided to explore third-country protection options for himself and his family and has since connected with a foreign embassy and begun the screening process.

“[My wife and I] mainly focus on our children’s futures when we think about our plans,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera