Monday, October 6, 2014

Reacting to reforms in Burma, donors leave refugees high and dry

A family at a refugee camp in Thailand, where there are still 150,000 UN-recognized refugees unable to return home to Burma. (Photo by Mikhail Esteves)

A lot has changed in Burma over the last four years.

The country, also known as Myanmar, has transitioned from military junta to elected government, from closed economy to booming foreign investment, and from non-existent foreign relations to a historic visit from President Obama.

But the refugee crisis that compelled Seattleite and Evergreen alumnus Garrett Kostin to found the Burma Study Center (BSC), a free community school and library for Burmese refugees in Chiang Mai, Thailand, still remains a reality.

Thailand alone still hosts nearly 150,000 UN-recognized Burmese refugees in camps along the Thai-Burmese border, with more than two million additional unregistered refugees and migrants living in urban areas.

Having fled Burma for reasons ranging from political persecution to ethnic discrimination to armed conflict, these refugees cannot yet go home.

Kostin, having lived and worked in Thailand since 2003, saw a clear need for action back in 2010 when he founded the center.

“The more knowledgeable I became about the oppressive military dictatorship that led Burma to becoming a refugee-producing nation, the more I felt I would be remiss if I didn’t do what I could to help,” Kostin said.

Today, BSC (where I am lucky enough to volunteer as a grant writer) offers free classes to refugees and migrants from Burma, and hosts a library of materials in English, Burmese, Shan, Karen, and Thai. The center conducts research on issues affecting refugees, and provides assistance to refugees facing medical and personal emergencies. Two partner libraries in Burma — in Shan State and Sagaing Division — offer similar services.

Taking advantage of its urban location in Thailand’s second largest city, BSC in Chiang Mai also focuses on raising community awareness.

“What was important was a center that could educate both the privileged and the under-privileged, and work from there,” Kostin said.

Garrett Kostin (left) helps Burmese students browse resources in the digital catalog at the Burma Study Center. (Photo courtesy Burma Study Center)

Soon after Kostin opened BSC, Burma commanded international attention with (at least nominally) democratic elections after decades of military rule. The newly elected government of former military commander Thein Sein released thousands of political prisoners, and ended civil society leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s 15 years of house arrest. The press saw harsh restrictions relaxed, and ceasefire talks with armed ethnic groups made encouraging progress. 

Since this hopeful moment, however, Burma’s reforms have veered from the expectations of both foreign observers and the Burmese public. As commentators like activist Zin Linn have cautioned, it seems “the [military] regime just changes its clothes” in the transition from a military to a civilian government.

Violent conflict remains a reality throughout the country, and negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire agreement with armed ethnic groups are uncertain. In a shock to the media, five journalists were arrested and imprisoned last July. And the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group in the western Rakhine State, continue to suffer blatant human rights abuses.

With a parliamentary system that ensures the continued primacy of military members, necessary reforms to the flawed 2008 constitution are unlikely before the upcoming 2015 elections.

Most critical for BSC, the number of Burmese refugees in Thailand has not decreased significantly since 2010. Instead, foreign aid for Burmese refugee organizations has steadily fallen.

“It has become more difficult to generate support for refugees from Burma because many countries would like to believe that support is no longer necessary,”Kostin said.

The EU, for example, halved support for refugee camps in Thailand between 2008 and 2012 in order to shift its attention to civil society groups within Burma. This so-called “livelihoods strategy” prioritizes aid efforts within Burma in the hopes that they will support reforms and pave the way for refugees’ return.

But as long as millions of refugees remain, sudden withdrawals of funding do little to serve their outstanding needs before they are prepared to go back.

“The misconception is that all resources and investments should now be directed inside the country to encourage further reforms,” Kostin said. “In fact, there is still a tremendous need to assist individuals from Burma who have been compelled to flee their country and who have not yet returned.”

Recent research conducted by BSC confirms this need.

The multilingual, anonymous study surveyed over 100 Burmese refugees in northern Thailand. Three-quarters of respondents saw little to no significant improvement in Burma since the 2010 elections. Only 3 percent of respondents thought the situation had improved considerably. Although 83 percent of refugees indicated a desire to go back to Burma, few believed it would be safe to do so in the foreseeable future.

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010. After almost 15 years under house arrest by the military junta, Suu Kyi was elected to Burmese Parliament in 2012. (Photo via US State Department)

“We would like to eventually see BSC’s operations outside of Burma become redundant,” Kostin said. “It would be wonderful if we were able to relocate all of our programs inside the country, but as long as migrants and refugees remain in Thailand, we are committed to continuing to offer them educational, health, and social welfare support.”

Until then, BSC and organizations like it must do more with less to serve Burmese refugee and migrant communities.

This weekend, BSC is launching its “One Evening for Burma” fundraising and awareness campaign. The campaign calls on people to donate an amount equal to what they would spend on a typical evening out with friends and family — that is, to pledge “one evening for Burma”—to support BSC. Donations can be made via PayPal. (See this page for more detailed instructions.)

For those in Seattle, the center is hosting a “One Evening for Burma” event with food, performances, and speakers on Saturday, September 13. Contact for more information and resources, and visit BSC’s website and Facebook page.