Karen refugees, many who fled from the 60-year-long civil war between the Karen National Liberation Army and the Burmese government, may be sent back to their home country with all but one camp being dismantled. Asia-Pacific Journalism reports on the controversial move.
Report – By Johan Chang
The Karen and other ethnic minorities living in refugee camps provided by the United Nations High Comission for Refugees are facing “voluntary repatriation”.
The current Thai government led by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) after a coup d’état in May and under martial law, are pushing for the removal of refugees.
Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stressed in a statement that the government is “to prepare for a safe return in the future in accordance with humanitarian and human rights principles”.
While the discussion contained no specific timeframe, UNHCR has already drafted planning figures to assist with the repatriation.
Cicilia Dwe, a first-generation Karen-Kiwi, arrived in New Zealand with her family through the UNHCR refugee programme provided in 2001.
She was in the second wave of Karen refugees to be accepted by the New Zealand government.
She believes the Thai government’s proposal is untrue and a violation of human rights.
“They say it’s ‘voluntary repatriation’,” she says.
Cicilia Dwe (front row, third from right) and students from the Refugee Youth Action Network. Image: RYAN
“So if they go against what’s been said, their goals or their rules, then they’re not keeping their promise.”
In a trip to the Tenth Karen Unity Seminar in Thailand held in late May, the 24-year-old came face-to-face with the long struggle for freedom that has held her people in turmoil for the last 60 years.
According to information from UNHCR, the current conditions for voluntary return are not favourable, and the agency has neither put in place a plan for repatriation, nor promoted return.
The refugees, many who flee from the 60-year-long civil war between the Karen National Liberation Army and the Burmese government, are proposed to be sent back to their home country with all but one camp being dismantled.
The series of nine refugee camps currently line the Thailand-Myanmar border, the largest of which is Mae La, home to more than 40,000 refugees and winds along the western Thailand mountain ranges for 184 hectares.
It is estimated that about more than 120,000 Myanmar refugees reside in these camps, which were first established in 1980.
Considered by refugees to be the last bastion of safe haven in the region for ethnic minorities within Myanmar, it is mostly populated by refugees from the Kayin (Karen) state.
According to statistics from the UNHCR, some 66.5 percent of the refugees are Karen.
The camps provide medical and educational services, as well as providing a stable living situation that allows them to raise their families in relative peace.
For Dwe, it provided a fond multicultural experience, interacting with other children of the various minorities there, but the over-arching threat of oppression loomed.
“I didn’t experience much [oppression], fortunately for me,” she said.
“Obviously my sister, my older siblings, and mom and dad have a different experience to mine.”
Dwe was quickly moved by the UN with her family to New Zealand, in the second wave of Karen refugees that landed in Auckland in 2001.
Yet camps such as Mae La are not as promising as many refugees had hoped. While many, under a United Nations initiative, have been relocated to partner countries, more have been there for all their lives.
Some of the refugees have lived in these camps for as long as the camps have been operational. Many have grown up as children within the compounds, and are now married with their own children and are still there.
Furthermore, travel restrictions have been put in place, making those who seek to supplement their income outside of the camp fearful of their future.
Basic necessities such as rations are becoming increasingly scarce as donor funds dwindle, and without more income they may face the possibility of starvation.
Yet to travel outside of the camp can mean trouble for the refugees if they are caught, as refugees fear they will be either deported or losing their refugee status.
For many of the Karen who have come to the camps, going back in to Myanmar would be their worst nightmare.
Reports from UNHCR has shown in January 2014 there were 372,000 internally displaced persons within Myanmar. “People are very afraid for their lives,” Dwe says.
“They have no homes . . . they experience more suffering. There’s no help or support. Nothing education-wise or health clinics.”
In a short documentary called Against All Hope, produced in 2009, many of the subjects interviewed told of forced labour and sexual slavery carried out against the Karen.
One interviewee spoke of workers who were chained during the middle of the night to prevent them from running away; those who do were shot on sight, and most were worked to their deaths.
“I can name it. Forced relocation, forced labour, child soldiers, using rape as a weapon, and using all sorts of persecution against the Karen people,” one man said.
Kyaw Hsu Mon … atrocities have decreased. Image: Del Abcede/PMC
Yet such atrocities have decreased, according to Kyaw Hsu Mon, a senior journalist with The Irrawaddy.
“Around that Thai-Myanmar border, the numbers of refugees are getting less. The government and the Karen have come to a ceasefire agreement,” she said.
Kyaw believes that the decrease of violence has come with a change in government strategy, and the opening up of the country to the world.
However, Dwe believes differently. As the current negotiations are for the possibilities of a ceasefire, she thinks it’s just a political move from the Burmese for show.
“We’ve been fighting 60 years to finally get to a ceasefire negotiation,” she says.
“They said, ‘when we sign the ceasefire, we’ll leave the boundaries’ (of the Karen State). But that’s not true – they’re still there.
“We are not free.”
Johan Chang is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme at AUT University. He is reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.