Trees give way to primitive wooden homes in the rolling hills approaching Mae La refugee camp on Thailand’s border with Burma. Access is controlled by the Thai army. The largest camp in Thailand, Mae La, holds 50,000 refugees. Some residents have spent their entire lives within Mae La’s confines.
Burma, also known as Myanmar, has been at war most of its history. A British colony occupied by Japan during World War II, Burma gained its independence shortly after that conflict ended. But the new government refused to grant the autonomy promised the nation’s many ethnic groups. War erupted.
Although the bloodiest and most tragic aspect of Burma’s history, the fragmented civil war has been overshadowed by the democracy struggle centered in Rangoon. In 1962 the superstitious Gen. Ne Win overthrew his country’s young democracy. The junta changed shape over the years, with his eventual ouster, but the generals refused to relax their bloody grip.
Democracy protests were brutally suppressed in 1988; two years later the junta foolishly held an election, decisively won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The regime refused to recognize the results and reinforced its repressive rule, placing Suu Kyi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, under long‐term house arrest. But three years ago the generals moved into the background and yielded authority to a new nominally civilian leadership. The reform process has since slowed if not stalled.
As the regime was liberalizing politically it initiated a series of ceasefires with the various ethnic groups. Today 14 agreements are in force; only the Kachin and Palaung remain formally at war with the central government, now based in Naypyitaw.
The resulting peace is real but imperfect — besides fighting with the Kachin there recently has been some combat in the Shan State. (Violence also has erupted against the Islamic Rohingya, but the conflict is mostly civilian and sectarian.) The process of reaching a nation‐wide ceasefire is only slowly moving forward. In August the central government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC) met with the 16 ethnic groups’ National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) to discuss such issues as location of military forces, creation of a joint peacekeeping personnel, and refugee resettlement. While the Thein Sein government appears genuinely committed to peace, the Burmese military’s support seems less complete.
Addressing the status of those displaced by the war is one of the most important issues. About three million people have been displaced within Burma. Some live and work illegally in Thailand, where they are vulnerable to detention and repatriation. Finally, there are as many as 150,000 (the official number as of September was 120,000) refugees in ten Thai camps. The majority of refugees are ethnic Karen (or Kayin). Other groups include the Bamar, Karenni, Kayah, Mon, Rohingya, and Shan. Overcrowded Mae La, in the hills about an hour or so from the town of Mae Sot, is populated overwhelmingly by Karen. It was established three decades ago when refugees began streaming across the lengthy uncontrolled border. Many assumed that their stay would be short but found no escape from the camps.
The Border Consortium (TBC) is responsible for managing the camps, a task made more difficult with recent funding reductions. During the first decade refugees were allowed outside, but then the Thai authorities imposed more restrictions. Today residents are barred from even leaving the camps without official permission. Caught outside they are subject to detention and may be handed over to the Burmese government. One NGO survey found that a third of Mae La’s refugees had been arrested at some point and 16 percent had been forcibly returned to Burma at least once. Moreover, Thailand refused to sign the 1951 UN convention setting standards for refugees. Burmese refugees have no rights or protections in Thailand.
Some refugees have resettled overseas but the process requires receptive foreign governments — the U.S. took about 50,000 through a group settlement program a few years back, but it has since ended. Also necessary is registration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which Thailand has allowed only intermittently. About one‐third of residents are not registered, and thus are ineligible for any program. Some refugees are reluctant to resettle if they will be separated from family members.
A number of residents have been born in the camps and never left its confines. Education is difficult. Refugees organize schools with the assistance of outside organizations. Some students leave other camps to board at Mae La for school. But few young people are able to attend university.
An administrator responsible for the education of nearly 600 Mae La students told me that “We have no education rights. Graduates here are not recognized by Thailand. They are not recognized by Burma. You can’t apply to university from here.” Few scholarships are available from universities willing to admit camp graduates, for which those who are unregistered with the UNHCR are not even eligible. There is no chance to start a business, excel at sports, enjoy a musical career, or much else. People’s lives, futures, and dreams are all confined by fences and armed guards.
Perhaps worse, residents live in communities where sustenance is provided and work prohibited. This has discouraged independence, enterprise, and entrepreneurship. The Mae La educator admitted: “Leaving the camp is very difficult. We have lost our ability to work ourselves. Everything is provided by someone else or organization.”
With the changes in Burma a serious discussion about closing the camps has begun. As reforms took off the TBC and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees started preparing for the refugees’ return. In March 2011 the civilian Thai government announced discussions with Burma over closing the camps. In July Thailand’s military junta, which appears to be in no hurry to relax its grip on power, declared its objective to repatriate all refugees by 2015.
Opposition to the idea is strong. Mae La refugees I talked to wanted to return, but worried about security. One opined that the government “really doesn’t want to make peace with the Karen people.” NGOs worry that a national ceasefire has yet to be reached and a political settlement has yet to be implemented. TBC’s Jack Dunford argued that “Any plans to close the camps at this point would be premature. We all want the camps to close and for the people to return. But that can only happen when things in Burma change, allowing the people to return in safety and dignity.”
Yet the camps undermine dignity if not safety. No doubt the concern over repatriation is genuine, but there also is a strong financial incentive for some groups to oppose the return of refugees. My friend Jim Jacobson, president of the humanitarian group Christian Freedom International, observed that “a lot of people benefit from the camps. A lot of government aid goes through the camps and trickles out. A lot of people outside the camps benefit.”
Ironically, the supposed direct beneficiaries suffer the most. The camps have attributes of prisons: no one is locked in a cell, but residents are surrounded by guards, fences, and even barbed wire. Nor is there any privacy. There are too many people in too little space; homes are rudimentary and side‐by‐side. The camps also are all‐inclusive welfare systems. Residents ultimately are dependent on others for the most important things in their lives: shelter, sustenance, employment, education, and security. Although the refugees try to remain active, engaging in everything from gardening to managing camp facilities to holding worship services, they ultimately control nothing. They cannot plan for the future.
The result is a mix of psychological and behavioral problems. A survey by the French medical NGO Premiere Urgence‐Aide Medicale Internationale (PU-AMI) found that half of adult camp residents suffered from some mental health problem; anti‐depressants were among the most commonly prescribed drugs. In many cases dependence exacerbated the violent trauma suffered in Burma years ago before fleeing to Thailand.
Another problem, say those who work with refugees, is a loss of self‐sufficiency and growth of short‐term thinking. Some outside organizations teach technical and work skills, but such opportunities are limited and there are few chances to put such training to use. TBC maintains an agricultural program, which helps provide fresh food but cannot be turned into a commercial enterprise to provide a livelihood for people. The Thai government continues to reject proposals to relax restrictions on refugees leaving the camps.
Jim Jacobson has assisted the Karen since 1998. CFI has supported medics and health clinics, schools and orphanages, churches and handicraft enterprises. He has worked with Karen in and out of the camps. He noted that there often was a “visible difference” between those from the camps and those from outside. Those from Burma “are hard‐working.” In contrast, those from the camps are less self‐reliant and demonstrate less initiative, and you “need to kick their rear end.” Jacobson worried: “An entire generation has been raised on complete welfare.” The longer the dependency, the harder it will be for camp residents to manage life outside.
CFI runs a school — formally the Huai Kalok Bible Institute — in Mae Sot. The Karen students receive academic and vocational training, learn to work with computers and livestock, study theology, manage agriculture, practice music, and play sports. CFI urged creation of the U.S. resettlement program for the Karen and helped place those chosen. Moreover, despite a lean budget CFI confronts religious persecution in such countries as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
While the peace is incomplete, as camp advocates warn, the change is dramatic. When I last visited in 2006, any trek into Burma was fraught with danger. The Karen National Liberation Army would only approve visits to seemingly safe areas, but could offer no guarantee that the Burmese military would not show up, and be in a very ugly mood.
Conditions obviously were much worse for the Karen, since they had to live through the violence. The Burmese army, or Tatmadaw as it is known, routinely attacked villages, burned homes, killed residents, shot animals, and sowed land mines, hence the steady flow of refugees into Thailand. Today Huai Kalok students go back and spend time in their villages, something that would have been impossible before. Indeed, said Jacobson, “we are seeing real change coming. The Karen are putting down roots.”
Last month I visited a small village called Wallay, in which new farm equipment was visible, as well as a rudimentary saw mill. “Refugees could come to a village like this,” argued Jacobson. “Imagine if a couple hundred thousand people returned to villages like this.” The local pastor agreed. Burmese coming home would spur development. An official with the Karen National Union feared return would be premature, but even he acknowledged the lack of conflict. Soldiers from both the Karen National Liberation Army and Tatmadaw occasionally visit the village but, he added, they “try to avoid each other. They know where each other are.” That’s quite different from the past, when they looked for each other for the purpose of fighting. The Karen people were losing the military battle then, hence the large number of villagers forced from their homes.
Another important sign of change is the background of the students attending Huai Kalok. In 2006 I stayed at the school and asked the students to write up their life stories. Almost all had fled the depredations of the Burmese military. Many had lost at least one parent, some both; the Tatmadaw had destroyed most of their homes, with buildings burned down and villages sown with land mines. The details varied, but they were uniformly depressing.
On my trip last month I asked today’s students for a similar account. Other than an 18‐year‐old young man who lost a leg to a land mine three years ago, their accounts generally were positive. Only three wrote of losing a parent — and they didn’t indicate violent causes. Most wrote of hearing about the school and wanting to learn. A 17‐year‐old girl explained that her father, a missionary, “wished all his children to become educated.” Several said that they had no money to pay for schooling and HBI gave them an opportunity not available elsewhere. Many of their families live in Burma, and they came for education, not safety.
Another argument for starting the repatriation process is the scale of necessary reconstruction. Displaced people have been forced “here and there, and their original villages have been burned, so they can’t go back,” one refugee leader told me. Which means new homes and villages must be constructed. The sooner the Karen, with aid from groups like CFI, come back and start working, the sooner they will be able to re‐create communities. This suggests a policy that begins returning the best prepared, increasing the speed of repatriation over time, especially when a firm peace is reached.
Moving people back into Burma obviously would entail some risks. But “[w]here is there perfect security,” asked Jacobson? “The ceasefire is not perfect,” he admitted, “but it has created new opportunities.” New development and growth are evident in some Karen areas. Coming back despite the uncertainty would be “better than being human debris at a refugee camp.” Indeed, he contended, it would be a “worse crime keeping the camps open.”
Life in a refugee camp is hard. It’s a better option than living in a warzone, of course. But now that at least a rough peace has come to Burma, it is time to start planning for the return of refugees to Burma. If not today, then soon. Only then will people who have suffered through so much be able to prepare for a better future.