Saturday, January 22, 2011

Suu Kyi’s Release Offers Little Hope For Refugees

By ALEX ELLGEE

 MAE SOT—During the three-hour bus journey from Mae Sot to Umpiem refugee camp there are at least five checkpoints. For Myat Thint this is a problem. He tried to avoid eye contact with the police as they circled the taxis demanding papers.
“Being a refugee is like being in prison,” he said after we had successfully gotten through the first checkpoint.

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An ethnic Mon, the Burmese military regime forced Myat Thint's family off their land, which five generations of his family had lived on, in order to build a highway. When he resisted he was sent to prison for six years, but managed to flee to Thailand.
When asked whether he felt Suu Kyi’s release may help his situation he said, “I am really happy that 'our mother' is not locked up, but I don’t expect I can return home any time soon.”
He pointed out that her release could put an end to sanctions, which would just increase forced relocations such as that which had displaced his family in Mon State.
“The generals will exploit her release. They didn't let her go free for the good of the country,” he said as the pick-up truck-cum-taxi roared along the dusty border road. “The international community will think it’s time to stop imposing sanctions, but the SPDC [ruling State Peace and Development Council] don’t know how to organize development for the common people. They will just force thousands from their land to increase their profits.”
Myat Thint had just traveled to Mae Sot to take his mother to the general hospital to receive treatment for a severe infection. He went through the official procedure and obtained a camp pass. However his mother had to stay longer and he wanted to stay by her side.
“She was scared to stay by herself in a Thai hospital, so I stayed an extra day. But when they said she would have to stay even longer I had to come back,” he said.
At the next checkpoint, he wasn’t so lucky. Once again the police swirled around the car, as if sizing up their Burmese prey. When they got to Myat Thint, they found that his camp pass is one day out of date. He showed them his UNHCR card, it had little effect. He was ordered off the bus. Later that night, he had still not arrived at the camp.
News of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release on Nov. 13 spread quickly through the refugee camps dotted along the Thai-Burmese border. For the 130,000-plus refugees who have escaped Burma citing oppression and human rights abuse, it was a happy moment; but, like Myat Thint, few expect the event to enable them to return to Burma any time soon.
On that same date, Thiha sat in his flimsy bamboo home in Umpiem refugee camp listening to the events unfold on a wireless radio. He heard that the barricades were removed from University Avenue and supporters were rushing in to get a glimpse of “The Lady.”
“I was so happy when I heard that she was released,” Thiha said.
In 1996, Thiha listened to Suu Kyi’s speeches every week when she was free to speak publicly as much as she wanted. Suddenly, though, the SPDC placed heavy restrictions on her, including banning her weekly speeches.
In response to the SPDC’s actions, Thiha was one of many who protested. He was subsequently caught and arrested by Burma's notorious security forces and punished with seven years imprisonment for his actions. When he was released, he was under heavy surveillance. He said he no longer wanted to live under the fear that he could be arrested at any time, so fled to Thailand.
“The moment they feel Daw Suu is getting too powerful again, I am sure they will just place restrictions on her and lock up her supporters,” he said.
Former Karen National Union major Saw Htoo, now a resident at Umpiem refugee camp, said he shares the others' happiness but doesn’t see how she can improve the country in the near future.
“Suu Kyi is sincere, and is the true leader of the country,” said Saw Htoo. “But she can’t change the country if she has no position of power in Burmese politics, and the regime won’t allow her to have the power to do anything.
“Everything is up to the SPDC,” he added. “If they change their minds, then the country can change. Meanwhile, we have to remain in the refugee camps.”
Soe Lay, a former political prisoner of 10 years due to his involvement in the 1988 uprising, also voiced his doubts about what Suu Kyi can achieve.
“She has been trying to achieve national reconciliation for 10 years now, but the regime has shown no desire to work with her,” he said.
Soe Lay said he believes they will arrest Suu Kyi after Parliament is convened at the end of January, and he warned the Nobel Peace Prize laureate to start making plans. He suggested that she should become more unified with the insurgent groups.
“This time, she will try non-violent methods and they will arrest her again,” he said. “She needs to get closer to the insurgent groups and unify them. When the time comes and she is arrested, the insurgent groups must unify and rise up to save the country.”
One of the biggest concerns among refugees in the camps is for the safety of Suu Kyi. Many fear the ruling junta could “take her out” at any time. Many recall the day she was almost assassinated in May 2003 when a government-sponsored mob attacked her convoy in Depayin killing at least 70 NLD members.
“My fear is that the SPDC organizes something similar to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto,” said Toe Aung, a former NLD member and NLD youth co-coordinator.
When asked whether he felt that Suu Kyi could improve the conditions for refugees, he said, “She can try with words, but it is up to Thailand.
“Now the Thai authorities have stopped registering refugees since 2005, so many of us remain unregistered and without any foreseeable futures.”
Naw Ploe, an ethnic Karen woman who 10 years ago fled the fighting in Karen State and now lives in Mae La camp, said she felt Suu Kyi’s release could even worsen their situation.
“For 10 years I have lived with my family in Thailand in relative safety to escape all the fighting,” she said from the steps of her bamboo home.
“Suu Kyi’s release could give Thailand an excuse to send us back,” she said. “But we can’t go back. You can see from the recent fighting that there is no peace in Burma.”
Despite the many concerns, there has been an increase in energy among some youths, according to May Thaw, a student in Nu Po refugee camp.
“Many of the young people in the camp are always complaining that we don’t get real education certificates and have no future,” she said. “Now we try not to think about what might happen, and instead just enjoy the fact that Suu Kyi is released and appreciate the energy it gives us to be more hard-working and brave.”
While Suu Kyi’s release has given hope to many inside Burma, it seems a majority of those refugees who remain languishing in camps on the Thai-Burmese border predict little change in Burma. With little hope that Thailand will begin registering refugees again, many fear being repatriated to military-ruled Burma in the near future.
“We are trapped between a regime which oppresses us and a country which is scared of that regime,” said Naw Ploe. “Suu Kyi’s release is just another performance to help the regime get richer and more powerful.”