Around 400 Shan refugees live in limbo at the Koung Jor refugee camp in northern Thailand (Colin Hinshelwood)
The weather is often misty and cold in the mountainous jungle surrounding Koung Jor, the Shan refugee camp located a stone’s throw from the Burmese border in Thailand’s Wiang Haeng district.
Koung Jor means “happy hill”, and dozens of Shan families were smiling widely last Sunday morning when a donation of mosquito nets arrived from the International Office for Migration.
“Their happiness at receiving new mosquito nets will soon disappear if you start asking them how they feel about repatriation. They will panic,” said 33-year old Sai Kyaw, who has been volunteering for nearly 10 years on an education program for children at the camp.
Koung Jor has been populated since 2002 when some 400 displaced villagers from areas within a 10-mile radius of the Thai border fled fighting between Burmese government troops and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S).
But these Shans, or “Tai-Yai” as the Thais refer to their ancestral brothers, are not recognised as refugees by either the Thai government or the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has only been granted limited freedoms to operate in the Kingdom.
Since establishing the camp, Thai authorities have sheltered the displaced Shan villagers with an eye to repatriating them as soon as possible.
In July, Burmese policemen (introducing themselves as tourists from Tachilek) visited Koung Jor and inquired openly whether the refugees wanted to return to Burma. The response was a resounding “no”. Following their visit the camp leader was contacted by the Burmese military commander across the border at Mong Taw informing him that new housing would be built for returning families in that area.
“The Burmese military commander said they had already discussed and confirmed the matter with our chairman,” said camp representative Sai Leng, speaking to DVB last weekend. “I asked him who our chairman is. ‘He said Yawd Serk [the head of the SSA-S].’ Actually, he is not our chairman. I replied that we are not related to the SSA and that we are victims of war.”
Sai Leng said that neither the Burmese government nor any of the armed Shan groups have requested the consent or opinion of the Koung Jor refugees on the matter of repatriation.
In August 2012, a Norwegian NGO was contracted under the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative to survey the Shan refugees at the camp about returning to Burma. The survey was soon cancelled after word got around the camp that the designated resettlement site at Mong Taw was still an active war zone, peppered with land mines.
Many NGOs and rights groups have criticised the plan as an attempt to use the Shan refugees as guinea-pigs in testing the Norway-backed peace process.
“The Burmese government wants to show the world that everything is OK, but they never consider the lives and livelihoods of the refugees,” said Sai Leng. “Even if they sign ceasefires we wouldn’t believe they would hold. If they told us they had cleared all the land mines, we wouldn’t believe them.”
He pointed out that while waiting for an impending decision to forcibly repatriate everyone from the camp, the refugees’ rations have been cut by donors.
In August, Shan community groups urged Burmese, Thai and international parties to be fully transparent when deciding on the issue of repatriation, and to comply with international standards guaranteeing safety and dignity.
But many observers are still of the opinion that any repatriation must be voluntary.
“If the repatriation process goes ahead, the education of our children will be most affected. They will have to start all over again,” said teacher Sai Kyaw. “The older children who don’t wish to start at the bottom will lose their education. Here in Thailand, the education system is better than our country. Also, the children can read and speak Thai and Shan. If we have to go back, they will have to learn Burmese.”
Nearly half of the camp population are children who currently go to Thai schools and learn the national curriculum. Shan children born in the Kingdom also qualify for Thai citizenship. But since it is not possible to hold dual nationality under Burmese law, it has created a quandary for refugee families.
“Some parents would like to go back because they want their children to get Burmese citizenship. But they are wary that they may have to flee their homes again as they did many years ago. Even the children who are older than 11 have memories of the war,” said Sai Kyaw, adding that children without citizenship can rarely go on to tertiary education in Thailand.
Meanwhile, just over the border in eastern Shan state, violent skirmishes between government and rebel troops continue. More than 100 clashes have been reported since the two leading ethnic Shan militias, the SSA-S and SSA-North, signed preliminary ceasefires with Naypyidaw almost two years ago. Kept firmly out of the peace process, the refugees have no idea when they might be forced to return.
But to prepare, children at Koung Jor are now learning Burmese for the first time at night classes in the camp school – a wooden hut with space for 12 students at a time.
“We are teaching the children Burmese so they can get by if they have to go back to Burma and attend school,” said Sai Kyaw. “But we must approach the matter of resettlement slowly and carefully, otherwise there will be chaos.”