Friday, November 12, 2010

Army should not decide the fate of Burmese refugees

By The Nation

Once again, the Thai government faces international condemantion over its treatment of victims fleeing from persecution or warfare

The smoke from the shelling in Burma has yet to disappear and the Thai Army is already forcing back the thousands of Burmese refugees who fled renewed fighting between Burmese troops and rebels from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). The fighting erupted in the wake of Burma's first election in twenty years, held last Sunday

Whatever happened to all the conventions and treaties Thailand signed with various international bodies, conventions that illustrate how much we care for our fellow human beings? Perhaps Thailand never officially recognised the concept of refugees in the first place, so therefore we are not legally obligated to any course of action, much less obliged to follow humanitarian convention. While it is easy to hide behind legal and technical jargon, there is still an ideal called international standards and norms that discourages the forcible repatriation of defenceless people back into conflict zones.

Less than 48 hours after the fighting erupted between Burmese government troops and a splinter group from the junta's long time ally, the DKBA, Thai military commanders were already mapping out the return of the refugees. The Third Army can argue otherwise, but excuse us for questioning its action.

This week's clashes between the junta and the DKBA were not the first and will not be the last, they are merely a sign of things to come. Ever since the DKBA broke away from the Karen National Union (KNU) in 1995, nobody has really believed that the good times between the Karen splinter group and the junta would last. In fact, none of the ceasefire agreements between the Burmese government and the various ethnic armies rest on solid ground. They are exactly what they appear to be: ceasefire agreements only - not comprehensive peace deals. And so when the man who orchestrated these agreements - General Khin Nyunt - was ousted from power, one could see that the writing was on the wall.

The junta - the State Peace and Development council (SPDC) - says it wants to bring all the ethnic armies under its command, but says nothing about an exit strategy for these groups. The junta only wants them to lay down their weapons and transform themselves into border guards under the direct command of the Tadmadaw (the Burmese armed forces). It says nothing about their historical investment, the fate of their leaders, nor the status of their people. In other words, the autonomous status they have previously enjoyed will just disappear overnight.

This is wishful thinking on the SPDC's part. Given the kind of demands the junta places on the ethnic armies, it is clear that peace has never really been on the cards. Yes, some of these so-called investments by the ethnic groups have been in opium cultivation and the illicit drug trade. But Burma knew all along what the ceasefires - first signed two decades ago - meant in real terms. It's just too convenient to label the "insurgents" drug-dealers when in fact the generals also benefit from the drug money that builds roads, hotels and other infrastructure.

Drugs and insurgency have always been two sides of the same coin in Burma, and no anti-narcotics policy has any chance of success unless it takes politics into consideration. If the junta is serious about peace, it should explore exit strategies instead of demanding that the rebel groups simply surrender and end the causes they have been fighting for since independence from Britain in 1948.

The clashes between the junta and the DKBA could intensify. Thailand needs to come up with a better way of handling the influx of refugees, if and when more fighting occurs. We should not leave it up to the Army to decide when and how these innocent victims are pushed back to Burma. It's not uncommon to see refugees return to villages infested with landmines and booby traps laid by Burmese troops. But the Thai Army doesn't to seem to have any problem with the possibility that these people could lose life or limb. To say the repatriation policy is heartless would be an understatement.

If our policy-makers can't find it in their hearts to do the right thing, they should know that the whole world is watching. If we continue to allow our bureaucrats and military leaders to get away with this kind of action - as they have done in the past with Lao refugees, the Rohingya boat people and others - then what kind of people are we?