Myanmar refugees receive little relief at Thai border
Thousands of people running from reported Myanmar military raids find little sense of safety at refugee camps in Thailand.
Mae Sot, Thailand – It was dark when Ayenwin Oo, 47, led a group of people from Myanmar through a thick wall of grass leading to a refugee settlement. Only a few faint lights coming from their phones illuminated the dirt path ahead. Silence was replaced by the din of hundreds of voices as he stepped into one of four small camps on the Thai side of the border in the province of Mae Sot.
Once inside, a campfire and a few small lights revealed about 1,000 refugees scattered around the area. In one corner, a woman was sitting on the floor of a hut, measuring medicine in a syringe for her infant, who, like many other children, was suffering from health issues such as diarrhoea.
“We’ve been in this camp for six days now,” Ayenwin Oo told Al Jazeera. He and his family are among the many new refugees who fled from violence in Myanmar’s Lay Kay Kaw area of Myawaddy township in Kayin state.
“But it’s been over 30 days since we’ve fled. We had to escape our city as the Tatmadaw came,” he said, referring to the Myanmar military. “We’ve had to move so many times along the river. We get settled, and when it gets dangerous we need to run again.”
As he spoke to Al Jazeera, Ayenwin Oo pointed to a makeshift kitchen at the camp. He said the refugees are in need of more food, clean water and medication.
A few steps from the kitchen, a small health clinic was set up for the sick. There was a line of women waiting in total darkness to receive medication from a small pile of boxes.
Since last year’s February 1 military takeover in Myanmar, security forces have carried out a deadly crackdown on protesters and activists, as well as other civilians who opposed the coup, igniting armed resistance.
According to the Myanmar rights watchdog, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 1,488 people have been killed during the government crackdown. The Myanmar government has repeatedly justified the violence saying security forces are only going after “terrorists”.
In recent weeks, air attacks and mass killings allegedly carried out by Myanmar’s military in Kayin and Kayah states have forced thousands to escape to relative safety in Thailand.
But even those who managed to across the border say they still feel unsafe from the Myanmar army. Many say they are struggling to survive at the camps in Thailand because of inadequate food, water and medical assistance.
“The Thai soldiers come here sometimes, but mainly to tell us that we are not allowed to go up to the village. But it’s dangerous here because the Burma army is not too far on the other side of the river,” Ayenwin Oo said, using the former name of Myanmar.
Myanmar’s military has been known to target fleeing civilians and bomb their settlements. Last week, three people were killed, including two children, after a military fighter bombarded two refugee camps in southeastern Kayah state.
One of the bloodiest attacks was reported on Christmas eve in Hpruso town that left more than 30 civilians dead and burned beyond recognition.
More food aid needed
The majority of the newly displaced people from Kayin and Kayah states are making their way to different points on the Moei River, a natural borderline between Thailand and Myanmar stretching some 327km (233 miles).
Al Jazeera spoke to multiple sources helping distribute food to the refugees in Mahawan, a subdistrict in Mae Sot on the Thai side of the Moei River. They said they are struggling to get aid to the refugees.
“The Thai military only lets us donate small portions of fresh food, so if it goes bad, the refugees have to throw it away,” Mahawan’s village head, who goes by the name Sopa, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s not easy, because the government doesn’t allow just anyone to come and give donations. If you want to help, if you want to take food or water to the refugees, you cannot go directly. It has to come through us first, and we have to report to the military,” he explained.
Since October, Sopa and his team of about 10 to 15 local people from Mahawan have set up a kitchen to prepare food for the refugees every day. He said donations have been decreasing in the last few weeks, and that there is a greater need for resources like bottled water, medicine, shoes and tarps.
Over four days, Al Jazeera has documented the Thai military arbitrarily stopping the flow of aid at drop-off points to certain camps.
When asked why this was happening, military personnel said they are concerned the food would not be delivered to the refugees, while claiming it could end up in the hands of the Myanmar military.
Today bringing more rice to the informal refugee camp/cattle farm at the border, Mae Sot, Thailand. New arrivals daily without large NGO support puts a strain on the small CBOs providing for them, but we will make sure they have food, with your donations! #whatshappeninginmyanmar pic.twitter.com/9Px4ZfkhZW
— Free Bird Cafe/Thai Freedom House (@FreeBirdCafe) January 17, 2022
Patrick Phongsathorn, a human rights specialist for Fortify Rights, told Al Jazeera the Thai government has not given humanitarian groups access to refugees.
“The Thai government is trying to control the situation, but it’s a really disastrous way to handle things,” he said.
On few occasions, some Thai aid groups have successfully gained access to the camps. But they also said there were instances in previous months that they were pushed back.
“It’s really sad that the Thai government is playing politics with what is essentially a humanitarian crisis.”
Phongsathorn said Thai authorities are trying their best to preserve their close ties with the Myanmar military, while at the same time making promises to countries such as the US that they would give humanitarian access.
Thai authorities have also been accused of sending refugees back to Myanmar on more than one occasion in December, violating international laws that forbid the forcible return of individuals or group of people to a country where their are lives are in danger.
Morgane Roussel-Hemery, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Al Jazeera the UN body opposes any move to forcibly return the refugees to Myanmar, while also pleading with the Thai government to give them access to those in the camps.
UNHCR also urged the Thai government to transfer the refugees to a better location where they can access “safer and more dignified temporary accommodation, and receive improved humanitarian assistance”.
‘Nowhere is safe’
While access to aid is a major problem, the continuous shelling of civilians by Myanmar remains the dominant concern for the fleeing refugees.
Despite the risk of being killed by shelling from the Myanmar army, refugees have not been allowed by Thai authorities to move further inland where they would be out of harm’s way.
Last week, a clash broke out between resistance fighters and the Myanmar military further east on the banks of the Moei River, according to sources and news reports.
During the fighting, the Myanmar military reportedly chased down a group of young resistance fighters, who eventually ran out of ammunition and were forced to cross the river to the Thai side. But once they emerged from the river, the Myanmar army fired and killed them, even after they had made it to the other side of the border.
“So after that happened a few days ago, people don’t even want to bathe in the river,” Daa, a woman leading the flow of local donations directly to the camps, told Al Jazeera.
“They know that the Burmese military is so close on the other side, that they could be seen and then targeted.”
Back at the settlement in Mae Sot, Ayenwin’s family suffers from debilitating anxiety. On one side of the Moei River, the Myanmar military awaits them. But on the other side, the Thai military still refuses to give them proper shelter.
He told Al Jazeera it could just be a matter of time until fighting breaks out again.
“We’re afraid that the situation will get worse and that fighting will continue. The Burmese military came to our village and they are still there, so we can’t go back home.”