Vera Kiss

Although Burmese President Thein Sein has initiated a series of democratic changes that the international world optimistically welcomed, Burma still remains divided by

ethnic conflicts. While Yangoon is bustling, people in the countryside are constantly harassed by the Army and live in unimaginable poverty. There are many that fled Burma decades ago and there’s little chance that they can return anytime soon. Thailand is home to about 120,000 refugees in ten camps along the border. Since Thailand has not ratified the 1951 refugee convention and has no refugee law or formalized asylum procedures, refugees are left without many options. They cannot leave the camps, and if they do, they have no rights and no protection from arrest and deportation. 

In early March I visited two camps, Umpiem Mai and NuPo, for a training organized by Minority Rights Group International. According to the latest estimates there are 119,694 Burmese refugees living in Thailand, while in Burma itself there are currently about 400,000 IDPs  (internally displaced people) due to ethnic conflicts and the Burmese Army’s attacks on civilians. Minorities stand for 40 percent of Burma’s population. Of these minority groups, 135 are recognized, but many are not included, like the Rohingya, who live as stateless people without any protection.

Umpiem Mai is a medium-sized camp with around 13,000 refugees, but only about 9,800 are registered. The camp was opened in 1999 after the previous Wangka and Mawker camps were repeatedly attacked by the Burmese Army. The area is remote; the camp was constructed on hills of an altitude of 4,000 feet, adding an extra twist to the roughness of the refugee life.  The other camp, NuPo, was set up in 1997 in the aftermath of a harsh Burmese Army offensive in the state of Karen which forced many people to flee their homes. The population of this camp is about 12,000, but only half of them are officially registered. 

Although the camps were built as temporary shelters, in the past thirty years they have become permanent. Many refugees have been living in the camps for decades. They are farmers who had to run from the military, former soldiers of the several

ethnic armies, or former political prisoners and their children who were born in the camps. As I walk around I have the feeling that each face, each pair of eyes has a unique story to tell, although most of them are condemned to remain unrepresented.

Char Tut, a Karen man, used to be a soldier of the Karen National Union (KNU) and fled to Burma because he was no longer able to support his three children. Beh Htoo arrived in Thailand on his mother’s shoulders after having crossed the jungle during the rainy season. His village was burned down by the Burmese army and his father and brother died while fighting as KNU soldiers. His mother passed away soon after their arrival. Now he lives with his aunt and is considering requesting resettlement in a third country. 

A few miles away in the famous Section 19 of NuPo camp live almost only former political prisoners. Moew Kyaw Aung was detained several times because of his involvement in the 1988 uprising, and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison in 1998 for his political activism, namely for sending a list of imprisoned monks to Australia. After five years he was released under the Article 401, which gives the president authority to free prisoners, but also to return them to prison at any time to serve the rest of their sentence. 

People in the camps are mainly ethnic Karens, but there are also Shan, Mon, Karenni, Muslim and Burmese. The conflict in Burma always had a strong ethnic aspect and although no one dares to speak too openly about it, these differences are present in the camps as well. Some Muslims and ethnic Burmese secretly told us that they felt prejudiced against the Karen; they had fewer opportunities to work with the NGOs or to apply for resettlement. Still, the camps look like peaceful islands in the chaos, with churches, mosques and temples next to each other.

Each camp has a committee that tends to have members from several ethnic backgrounds and is responsible for running life as smoothly as possible. Lately it

hasn’t been easy, as the rice rations were cut due to decreased funding from donors, mainly the EU. This has increased the feeling of despair for many of the people who lack income and use rice as their main currency. 

Yet there are schools and vocational courses at the camps that even students from Burma attend, as the quality is often better than back home. Prices are also fixed by the camp committee in order to avoid competition and conflicts. There are dance groups, language classes and ethnic festivities, trying to ease the pain of lost freedom.

Christopher, a former KNU soldier who fled due to internal conflicts between KNU and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, says that everyday life in the camps is sorrowful: “You see how we live, we can’t leave the camps. The rations were cut, families with disabled members face real difficulties now.” 

Kyaw Thaunk, a former monk, however, believes that everything depends on one’s attitude: “You have to look for your own happiness,” he says. “Donors are not our mothers. You can’t just say you want 500 baht [Thai currency] instead of a 100. You just have to get used to it,” he adds. 

But getting used to the lack of freedom and opportunities is not an easy task.

Additionally, many refugees carry horrible memories and need psychological assistance, but the resources are limited. Depression and drug use are thus very common both at NuPo and Umpiem Mai. Saw Thun Min, a former patient, now the

supervisor of the DARE drug clinic at Umpiem Mai, estimates that around 40 percent of the camp population is addicted to drugs like alcohol, opium and yaba. DARE runs healing, training and drug prevention programs for the refugees. 

People are reticent about openly discussing these issues and do not want to be a burden to anyone. They emphasize how thankful they are for the support they receive from the international community, even including Thailand. 

Most refugees would like to return to Burma, but they don’t trust the government. NGOs and most donors also agree that the time for the 120,000 refugees to return home hasn’t come yet. In Thailand they lack any recognition and support; they cannot even leave the camps without permission. 

Resettlement in third countries has been another option. Many refugees, mainly those who are educated, took the opportunity and asked for resettlement in the US, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden. But resettlement is only available for registered refugees who arrived before 2005 and it is a very time-consuming process. Additionally, the US stopped group resettlement for Burmese refugees in January 2014.

The latest reports show that there are still deaths and displacements due to Burmese Army shelling, burning of homes, forced portering, torture and sexual

violence. The number of IDPs in the Shan state has risen significantly since 2012 and 200 people have been killed and about 140,000 have been displaced. 

Although ceasefires have been signed, the burning of the forests and the exploitation of natural resources mainly by Chinese investors has accelerated. The Constitution of 2008 says that, “the State is the ultimate owner of the land,” which means that no one can feel safe, despite the ceasefires. 

There are also serious issues with press freedom and free speech, as a recent article in Foreign Policy described. Poe, an activist with the Palaung Women’s Organisation, a minority living in the North of Shan state, gave a press conference about the military’s involvement in the drug trade and was forced to flee Thailand almost immediately because she started receiving threats right after the conference ended.

She doesn’t feel optimistic regarding Burma’s democratic transformation either. “No international organizations truly care about what is happening. They only care about investment,” she says. 

Umpiem Mai and NuPo are only a few miles from Burma, and while the refugees keep hoping to return home one day, they are trapped between the walls of the camps guarded by the Thai military. Freedom is a very long way to go.

Vera Kiss was born in Hungary. She graduated with an MA in International Journalism at London Metropolitan University and currently works as a freelance journalist and human rights activist. Her main interests are human rights and development journalism with special attention to the Roma people in Eastern Europe.