Saturday, March 10, 2012

Burma/Myanmar's steps toward reform bring opportunities, challenges

NEW YORK, NY--After six decades of civil conflict, recent steps toward democratization by Burma’s (Myanmar’s) new government are being met with widespread optimism, reports Jack Dunford, executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) and a 28-year veteran of service to Burma’s refugees and internally displaced.  Church World Service is a TBBC founding member and funder. 

Opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest, and her National League for Democracy is now campaigning for April 1 by-elections to fill 48 vacant parliamentary seats.  Burma’s army has signed ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed forces, including the Karen National Union, resulting in a significant decrease in clashes in parts of eastern Burma.

“This is the best opportunity we have seen in decades,” said Dunford during a visit to New York.  “It’s the first time since 1984, when the TBBC was founded, that I have seen Burma’s military regime acknowledge the political aspirations of the country’s ethnic nationalities and the need for dialogue.  If this fails, there may not be another chance.”

Necessary for peace, he said, is a careful process of national reconciliation with all parties at the table - including refugee and IDP (internally displaced persons) groups, and including both the Burman majority and Burma’s indigenous ethnic nationalities.

Dunford helped found the Bangkok-based TBBC in 1984 when Burma’s ruling regime drove the first 10,000 refugees permanently into Thailand.  Today the TBBC provides food, shelter and capacity-building support to 138,000 refugees in nine camps in Thailand, also assisting about 50,000 internally displaced persons in eastern Burma. 

Burma’s regime long accused the TBBC of supporting the ethnic opposition by providing assistance to indigenous ethnic refugees, but now the government is recognizing the consortium for caring for so many of Burma’s people for so long.  “Now we are seen as part of the solution, not as part of the problem,” Dunford said.

Even as it continues to sustain the refugees and IDPs, the TBBC is working to be sure refugees are not forced to return before conditions in Burma allow safe, lasting repatriation.  As hopes for real reform are raised, Dunford said it is crucial for all parties - including the international community - to exercise common sense and to continue to support the refugees until conditions allow safe, lasting repatriation.

More than 3,700 villages have been destroyed since 1996 alone, and the countryside is littered with landmines, according to TBBC documentation.  Some 450,000 people remain displaced in Burma’s southeastern region - at least 112,000 of them newly forced from their homes in just the past year.  TBBC’s latest survey in the region finds that nearly two-thirds of rural households in the region live in poverty, unable to meet their basic needs. 

Moreover, there is still conflict in some areas - most notably Northern Shan and Kachin states.  Some 70,000 people are currently displaced by fighting in Kachin State.  Human rights abuses against civilians, including forced labor and conscription of child soldiers, continue in conflict-affected areas. 

In addition to the 138,000 refugees from Burma living in the Thailand-Burma border camps, there also are 90,000 refugees from Burma living in Malaysia.  Seventy-five refugees from Burma have been resettled from Thailand to other countries, 50,000 of them to the United States. 

As part of “preparedness” for eventual repatriation, UNHCR (the United Nation’s refugee agency) has commissioned a survey of the skills and assets of the refugees in the Thailand-Burma border camps.  The camps are governed by the refugees and all services, from health to education to warehousing and distribution of rations. are staffed by the refugees.  As a result, if and when the refugees do repatriate, they will have a wide range of skills to offer.

For its part, the TBBC is convening as many “dialogues” as it can among refugees and, when appropriate, governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, with two goals: to listen to the refugees’ concerns and aspirations, and to contribute to sharing of accurate information about what is going on in Burma.

“Refugees want to return home to Burma, but as always what’s stopping them is fear of Burma’s army,” Dunford said.  “They hear about ‘ceasefire’ and worry it is a ruse to push them back into danger.” 

He praised the U.S. government for never waivering in its support for the refugees from Burma.  Some 40 percent of the TBBC’s budget now comes from the U.S. government, which, Dunford said, is sympathetic to the plight of Burma’s ethnic nationalities and is also supportive of TBBC’s cross-border work.

We need to keep both cross-border and in-country humanitarian work,” Dunford said.  “These two approaches are complementary and it will take time before it becomes possible to access the conflict areas from the inside.” 

The TBBC is a consortium of 10 international nongovernmental organizations in eight countries.  Church World Service is one of two U.S.-based members, the other being the International Rescue Committee.

In addition to supporting the TBBC, CWS has been providing humanitarian assistance inside Burma via Rangoon since Cyclone Nargis in 2008.  CWS currently supports programs of disaster risk reduction, capacity building for local nongovernmental organizations, microcredit for farmers, maternal and newborn child health, snakebite prevention and treatment, and a small HIV/AIDS program.

Source and Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676,
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526,