Saturday, August 31, 2013

Burma refugees strive for self-reliance in Thailand

Burma refugees strive for self-reliance in Thailand

A Shan refugee student studies in a local community school. Burmese Shan community members embrace the opportunity to educate their children while seeking protection in Thailand. (Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific)

One group of seven women took part in a Jesuit Refugee Service tailoring workshop and have since been hired by a local tailor shop where they make a living. "JRS training opportunities allowed us to learn new business skills," said Ms. Onkham, one of the course graduates who now works in a shop.

(Wieng Haeng, Thailand) August 29, 2013 – More than a decade ago, two Thai Buddhist temples opened their doors to provide sanctuary to 500 Burmese Shan refugees fleeing conflict between the Shan State Army and Burmese military forces in southern Burma. This hospitality was later extended to the refugees by the local authorities of the rural town of Wieng Haeng, which allowed the establishment of Koung Jor in 2002. But with the human rights situation improving in Burma, there is much talk of sending Burmese refugees home.

Despite progress in Shan State, the 2013 Amnesty International report documented a myriad of human rights violations faced by minorities in the country. This is in sharp contrast with the relative security offered to Shan refugees in Koung Jor camp where many have been able to access education services and employment, albeit in the informal labour market, according to camp leader and Shan advocate, 61-year-old Mr. Sai Lemg.

While ceasefires have been signed with eight ethnic opposition groups, including Shan rebels, and the government has agreed to end forced labor and child military recruitment, real change is likely to take years. Meanwhile, Amnesty reported an intensification of armed conflict last year and that many Shan in Burma remain subject to arbitrary arrest, unlawful killings, sexual violence, torture, and destruction of livelihood.

According to Mr. Lemg, control of resources — gold, rubies, sapphires and teak — fueled the violence in Shan State in which the Burmese military engaged in practices such as forced labour, military conscription and rape as a tactics of war. Unfortunately, the lure of huge wealth is still very powerful.

"In ethnic areas like Shan or Karin states, the Burmese (military) are still seizing land from people to sell to foreign companies for activities like tourism."

Mr. Lemg believes that if his community were to return, it is unlikely they would be able to sustain their families.

Over time, many of the 500 Burmese Shan have been able to find ways to provide for their families while living in Koung Jor. This has earned the community a level of acceptance from the host community, which in turn heightens opportunities for self-reliance and community building. This has of course been helped by the fact that nearly all Thai citizens in Wieng Haeng are also ethnic Shan. Similar language, religious and cultural customs as the Burmese Shan has facilitated a degree of integration.

Due to the unofficial nature of Koung Jor camp, as well as a lack of citizenship, voting or employment rights, the Shan refugees have been dependent on NGOs and local communities to start anew in Thailand.

Today, many Burmese Shan are able to make the same wages as Thai workers, an average of 175 Thai baht (5.5 US dollars) per day, working as seasonal farmers in garlic, bean, corn or chili fields.

Jesuit Refugee Service is a member of the Thai Border Consortium (TBC), a network often NGOs established in 2009 to provide emergency relief and healthcare, but which now focusing on helping refugees become self-reliant.

One group of seven women took part in a JRS tailoring workshop and have since been hired by a local tailor shop where they make a living.

"JRS training opportunities allowed us to learn new business skills," said Ms. Onkham, one of the course graduates who now works in a shop.

"Now the refugee women have stable employment in the local community. It's more sustainable than providing aid," said Ms. Chantanee Paoponglertsiri, JRS Project Director in Wieng Haeng.

Since 2006 Thai schools have accepted all minors, irrespective of migration status, said Camp Education Coordinator, Mr. Sai Do.

In Wieng Haeng more than 300 students attend primary and nursery schools supported by JRS. Here, both Burmese Shan refugees and Thai students from the local community learn together.

Unlike other Burmese refugees in Thailand, after the Shan refugee students finish primary school they can apply for travel documents with local administration to continue their studies in Chiang Mai. This opportunity is often more accessible to boys who study while training as a novice monk, but Mr. Lemg encourages parents to also prioritize education for daughters.

"In the past, it wasn't a priority to educate girls, but this is now changing and becoming more important. I try to emphasize that just learning to write isn't enough for the girls, they are eager to learn and need higher education to contribute to their societies and families."

More than ever before, Shan refugee parents value the educational opportunities they have for their children in Thailand which are not available in Shan State, where as few as four percent of children attend school.

"It would be a shame for Shan students to have to leave their schools in Thailand as their education would be halted. The Shan children born in Thailand know more about Thai than Burmese society", said Mr Lemg who advocates in favour of local integration over repatriation.

By Angela Wells, JRS International Communications Assistant
and Dana MacLean, JRS Asia Pacific Communications Officer