Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Uncertain fate surrounds Myanmar’s border outcasts

Displaced members of ethnic groups living in camps are worried cuts to food, health and education are signs of secret plans to force them back
Published: 23/02/2014 at 12:25 AM
Newspaper section: Spectrum
Writer: Phil Thornton

It is a difficult time to be a refugee on the Thai-Myanmar border. Last month, the US all but stopped its refugee resettlement programme and many aid agencies have reduced their services.
STATE OF FLUX: The Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border. Last month, the US all but stopped its refugee resettlement programme and many aid agencies have reduced their services. Photos by Phil Thorhton and Saw Mort) 

Meanwhile rumours and misinformation continue to circulate around the future of the nine refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border, estimated to be home to between 128,000 and 140,000 displaced people. Rumours include stories that Muslims will be forced to convert to Christianity before they will be registered for possible resettlement; that resettled Karen men had to sign up to fight for the United States in the Middle East; that fires at camps were deliberately started by drones or saboteurs; and that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and its aid agency allies have a detailed “secret plan” to repatriate all camp residents to Myanmar government “holding pens”.

In recent times, Myanmar has undergone changes that even its harshest critics cannot ignore or dismiss. Political prisoners have been released, media crackdowns have eased, ceasefire agreements have been signed between the government and ethnic armed groups, and villagers report that there are fewer travel restrictions.

But between the good news stories are disturbing reports of the Myanmar military’s ongoing human rights abuses in Kachin and Shan states, the jailing of five journalists for reporting on an alleged government chemical weapons facility, the plight of Rohingya being beaten and killed because of their religious beliefs, and the constant reports of confiscation of ethnic lands.

The message refugees are taking from this distorts what they think and feel about repatriation. One international aid worker who has worked in Southeast Asia on refugee issues for more than a decade warns that, “Unless there’s real information being given [to refugees] you are never going to stop the rumours.”

The international aid worker, who asked not to be identified, said that there was much crucial information that was not getting through to refugees. “Aid agencies are good at communicating to their donors but crap at talking to refugees. You can’t keep telling them nothing. Why are border-based international NGOs moving to Yangon? What’s the massive amounts of Japanese aid money been used for in ethnic areas? There’s lots of positive stuff as well as negative.”

The aid worker said refugees and camp officials were being left to puzzle out what’s happening for themselves.

“Refugees know that their camp rations and services are being cut at the same time as the same aid agencies are opening expensive offices in Yangon. They know that Kachin villages are being shelled by the Myanmar army [Tatmadaw] at the same time as there’s talk about them being returned to Myanmar.”

Naw Way Wah sweeps the split bamboo that forms the thin floor to the main room in her house in Mae La refugee camp. The two-room bamboo hut with separate kitchen space is sparsely decorated, but has all the characteristics of a long-term home. Family photos are stuck alongside religious pictures on the thin bamboo walls. Two sacks of rice guard the entrance to the small kitchen. Out of reach of rodents, perishable goods hang in plastic bags from ceiling beams. A half-finished Karen sarong lies folded among cotton threads. Naw Way Wah puts away the broom and spreads two mats over the bamboo floor.

Naw Way Wah and her husband, Saw Kyal Lir,
 at home.
Naw Way Wah explains that she and her family fled 29 years ago from her village, Ker Ghaw, in Myawaddy township. In 1986, she and her family ran from a Myanmar army attack on her village to hide in the jungle before taking refuge in neighbouring Thailand.

Naw Way Wah is now 70, and her husband, Saw Kyal Lir, a fit-looking 80. Together they have raised seven children and numerous grandchildren in the refugee camp that they call home. Mae La is 60km north of Mae Sot on the Thai side of the border, and is one of one of nine such camps in the country.

Naw Way Wah and Saw Kyal Lir were married in 1969, but have spent most of their life together in a refugee camp.

“I worry all the time that the camp will close and we won’t be prepared,” Naw Way Wah said while picking at the frayed edges of the floor mat and avoiding eye contact. “Our generation has experienced a lot of hurt, maybe for our younger generation it will be different.”

Both Naw Way Wah and Saw Kyal Lir confirmed that the rumours circulating through the camp about returning to Myanmar are unsettling.

“We hear nothing official, but it doesn’t stop the rumours. The Thais came and did a survey, we told them that ‘we could not, dare not go back’. We’re afraid of the guns. It’s why we ran away in the first place. I worry all the time. If the camp closes what will we do?”

The survey referred to by Naw Way Wah and Saw Kyal Lir was conducted by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, a Thai charity. Initial misunderstanding surrounding the survey’s objectives increased tension in the refugee community, with many believing that its real agenda was to force people back to Myanmar.

The results of the survey showed that an overwhelming number of Mae La refugees did not want to return to Myanmar, with only 2% wanting to go back. The majority, 60%, wanted to resettle in a third country, and 38% wanted to remain in Thailand. A lack of trust in ceasefires, lack of economic livelihoods, lack of land and a lack of infrastructure in Myanmar were among the reasons given.

A UNHCR document puts the number of Thai-based refugees who resettled to a third country from 2005 to 2013 at 89,937. In 2013 the US was the biggest taker with 7,085, Australia took 847, Finland 105, New Zealand 70 and Canada 38.

Naw Way Wah said life in the camp was preferable to living under the control of the Myanmar army.

“We have many restrictions here, but at least our children finished their education and we have healthcare and food. Living here is better than being chased out of your home by guns.”
Saw Kyal Lir is concerned that the international community will be quick to forget the hurts and wrongs that the Karen have experienced at the hands of the Myanmar army.

“We’re not ready to go back to our village, the army is still there. We don’t want to be army slaves. We won’t go where the government wants us to go. We want to return to our village, but we can’t trust their words, if they leave our village we can then begin to trust their actions.”
But Naw Way Wah takes a more practical approach to the idea of the refugee camp closing, and lists what she will need to start a new life.

“We’ll need a house, all the things you need to sleep and to cook. We’ll need security and health services, these are important and we have them here. We want to be able to take care of ourselves, but we need help.”

The UNHCR, in a recent copy of its Thailand-Myanmar Cross Border Bulletin, explained that the “Royal Thai Government has provided those fleeing armed conflict and persecution with access to safety and humanitarian assistance in nine Temporary Shelters or camps along its border with Myanmar”.

A provincial admissions board will “determine the asylum claims of those cases presented to it, and to date over 102,000 refugees have been registered by the Ministry of Interior and UNHCR”.
The registration of refugees by provincial admissions boards stopped in 2006. The UNHCR bulletin noted that “access to services including food, shelter, health and education is assured by NGOs to all 128,000 residents of the nine camps, irrespective of whether they have been formally registered or not”. Being unregistered denies people the opportunity of applying for resettlement to a third country.

“Since 2012, there have been non-stop discussions on refugees returning. Our position today is that it is not the time to promote the return of refugees from Thailand to Myanmar. We have an assessment and at the moment the conditions are not conducive for return,” said Iain Hall, the senior field coordinator for the UNHCR based in Mae Sot.

ATTEMPTED ACTION: A refugee looks at an international NGO office set up in Mae La. Photos: Phil Thornton

Mr Hall said any plans that the UNHCR makes on repatriation would be guided by international law and standards.

“People fled for genuine reasons. They were chased from their villages by the military. Repatriation needs to be voluntary, it has to be safe and with dignity,” he said.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights demands “public assurances of safety, non-discrimination and freedom from fear of persecution or punishment upon return”.

The international standards and guidelines that Mr Hall follows are not that different to what Mae La refugees Naw Way Wah and Saw Kyal Lir told Spectrum they would need if they were to return to their homeland. The guidelines and standards that the UNHCR are working to are clear.

“Returning refugees need ‘physical security, including protection from armed attacks, landmine-free routes or at least demarcated settlement sites; and material security — access to land and/or a means of livelihood and support from the government, humanitarian organisations, and the donor community for sustainable reintegration activities,’ ” he added.

The question of returning in dignity states that it is “to ensure that refugees are not harassed; that they can return unconditionally; that they are not arbitrarily separated from their family members; that they are treated with respect by the national authorities of Myanmar, including a full restoration of their human rights; and the more complex issue of their civil rights”.

David Mathieson, the senior researcher on Myanmar in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) agreed with Mr Hall’s assessment that now is not the time for repatriation.

“It’s a good thing that the process is moving slowly, repatriation of 140,000 people after a 60-year conflict is not going to be easy to manage. The Thai government and UNHCR must maintain their pledge that repatriation is done with safety and dignity.

“We need to be satisfied that the government of Myanmar is taking its responsibilities for its citizens’ welfare seriously. Refugees have a lack of trust in the political process. They have seen ceasefires come and go in the past without change. They are looking for signs to build their confidence,” Mr Hall said.

Mr Hall said the Myanmar government needed to “open up the humanitarian space” and allow international NGOs and community groups to do their work without restriction.
“If the community groups are telling us something is not right, we listen,” he said, adding that they needed funding to continue their work.

In the coolness of a large bamboo house at Mae La, a group of Karen men and women juggle ration cuts, teacher shortages and providing help to the camp vulnerable, the elderly and the young. The Thai government administers the refugee camps, and the camp committees are a vital conduit between Thai officials, refugees, NGOs, the UNHCR and community groups.
A camp official who asked not to be identified said refugees were worried that there would be forced repatriation.

“There is nothing ready in Burma [Myanmar], even though there’s a ceasefire it’s still not stable. The international NGOs who are in Burma claim that they have ease of access, but I doubt it. NGOs have to see and be aware of what’s really happening on the ground, not just believe what the government tells them.”

He said that the real obstacle to refugees returning was the continued presence of the Myanmar army camps and its reinforcing of them, from simple bamboo and wood structures to concrete fortresses.

“We know the media is freer, travel is easier, but we also know the government is dishonest. Refugees don’t trust the government. Villagers’ land has been confiscated and controlled by the Burma army.”

A recent report by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) confirms what the camp official claims about the permanent nature of Myanmar army camps in or near civilian areas. The KHRG received 16 separate letters of complaint from internally displaced people. An extract taken from one letter sent by a villager from Hpapun township was received by KHRG on July 29, 2013, and states: “Tatmadaw has set up their army camp for more than 10 years there, and the resident villagers do not dare go back to their village. Therefore, I hope that the Tatmadaw based in our area will move quickly in order for us to work back on our farm land and take care of the graveyard and pay proper respect.”

The camp official said the constant rumours about returning to Myanmar had placed a heavy strain on people living in the camps.

“We hear it will be in one year, two years, three years, before the 2015 election and so on. Fires in the camp and the rice ration cuts didn’t help, especially when we know the NGO has opened an office in Rangoon [Yangon]. We ask how can you afford to open an office when you are cutting the rice rations? NGOs talk about consultation, but we know that they don’t tell us everything.”
The camp official said if people were not getting truthful and understandable information they would fill in the gaps for themselves.

“Here we have our curriculum, teachers and school system, but once we go back that will stop and it will be a government education system. Will our education system be accredited? Will our health workers be accredited?”

The camp official was adamant that the reinforced concrete camps of the Myanmar army were a clear indication that the military is using the ceasefire to consolidate its stranglehold in ethnic areas.

“If Burma had real peace there would be no need for anyone to come and tell us to go. We would have gone.”

Camp officials cited a recent video as an example that it is only the surface that has changed in Myanmar. The video captures a government minister reacting to villagers who asked him for aid. The video has since gone viral on the internet.

The official caught on the video is Ohn Myint, the Myanmar Minister of Livestock Breeding, Fisheries and Rural Development. Ohn Myint is caught lashing out at villagers in Tanintharyi and Magwe regions. The former military general’s outburst was reported by the Democratic Voice of Burma.

“I am Gen Ohn Myint and I’ll dare to slap anyone in the face,” he said. “I will attack anyone who insults the ruling government and if I cannot attack them verbally, I will throw them in jail. This is how it’s done internationally. If you oppose the government, you go to jail and only come out when we’re out of office.”

The camp official echoed what the UNHCR’s Mr Hall said about the Thai government’s tolerance of the current refugee situation on its border.

“Thai officials have told us not to worry, they will support us until the situation in Burma is safe for us to return — they said, ‘We welcome you until Burma is ready for you to go back in safety.’ “
Mr Hall agreed that the Thai government had shown a willingness to work to international guidelines on refugees, and that this was to its credit.

“The Royal Thai government has no documented plan — it has no end date or start date. They want it to happen, but only under the international principles and standards.”

Saw Win grew up in a refugee camp and now works for an international NGO. He explained that it was hard for young Karen to think about returning to Myanmar.

“I have an idealistic vision of returning, but the reality is very different. I can’t farm. It would be hard to find a job. I’m used to computers, air-conditioning, cars, DVDs and supermarkets. I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Saw Win explained that despite his lack of agricultural skills he still wanted to help his community.
“I would like to help my people, maybe as a medic, a social worker or a teacher. It’s very hard for Karen like me now we know the difference. For young refugees without skills they also want to stay in Thailand as migrant workers — construction and domestic work.”

Saw Win said he wanted electricity, television, computers and shops.

“The young think of factory or office work, the old want jungles, farms, fishing and hunting. For us that’s a romantic thought. Even though we know there are changes in Burma, young rural people don’t want to stay there, they come to Thailand for work.”

Saw Dino agreed with Saw Win that what young refugees wanted was different to the older generation of refugees. “Many left [Myanmar] when they were babies. Their memories and conversation is all about running, how the Burmese army mistreated their family and now occupies their land. Young people ask, ‘Back to what?’ We’re now used to schools, shops, and clinics, and we know none of these exist back there.”

Saw Dino explained that for him, settling back into his old village would not be a problem, but his wife would find it difficult.

“There’s no electricity, no fridge and it takes a day to get to the border. In the wet season you can only travel by tractor. If we are to go back we need services — jobs, roads and health care. If there’s no trust and confidence in the process, refugees won’t voluntarily decide to go back.”
Saw Dino said that his sister now lived in Umpiem Mai refugee camp and had a big family to look after while suffering from ill health.

“The ration cuts have hurt them. Her husband sneaks out [of the camp] to find work as a daily labourer, if he can’t go he has to borrow money. His work is seasonal, but his needs are everyday. He’s now thinking about returning. My brother-in-law wants to find permanent work so he can take care of his family.”

Karen Women Organisation general secretary Naw K’nay Paw stressed that land disputes had to be settled before refugees and displaced people were returned.

“There’s no government land body with teeth to settle disputes. Villagers’ land has been stolen for rubber plantations, gold mining or for military camps. There has to be a mechanism to register land claims and act on complaints.”

Naw K’nay Paw said land had to be part of the peace talks between the government and ethnic leaders.

“It is important our leaders take this seriously. The Karen National Union has good land policies that recognise customary laws. The government has put in place land laws that are disadvantaging ethnic customary laws. The international community has experience in settling land disputes — they should use this experience to pressure the government.”

Naw K’nay Paw made it clear what she thought was needed before the return of internally displaced people and refugees could begin.

“Before repatriation, infrastructure needs to be put in place. There’s a community structure in place already. When refugees return there should be community-run schools and health services partnered with international donors.”

Naw K’nay Paw said that swapping a refugee camp for a government-approved camp is not a solution.

“People are worried that they will be sent back to a piece of useless land that they can build on, but can’t grow anything on to make a living. People should not be sent back to wasteland.”
The latest incident that heightened refuges fears of being forcibly returned to Myanmar came from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica).

A community-based group, the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (Kesan) on Tuesday last week criticised detailed plans by Jica to develop southeastern Myanmar.
Kesan warned that the plan is flawed and that it is concerned at what Jica proposes as a solution for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Jica’s plans include the development of four settlement sites, access roads to the sites and an information centre where refugees and IDPs can learn about conditions at the sites and any job vacancies.

Paul Sein Twa, from Kesan, said proposing four settlement sites that had no relevance to Karen people was alarming.

“Jica’s process is all wrong. Jica already has a detailed plan and has already decided on a framework without real consultation. There have not been any public forums, no apparatus to voice concerns, and ethnic people only heard about it when Jica released its development plan.”
HRW’s Mr Mathieson warns that the design of any repatriation plans needs to involve the refugees.

“All government and UN agencies should ensure that the voices of the refugees shape how it [repatriation] is done — not overpaid international consultants who lack the fundamental understanding of the complexity and contours of this conflict.

“The government has to understand the Karen attachment to the land, their own livelihood strategies and they way they view security — and they don’t associate security with the Burmese army.”

Mr Hall said the UNHCR needed to talk to both the Myanmar and Thai governments, community groups, refugees, donors and NGOs before advising the High Commissioner on repatriation. But he added that “at the moment the conditions are not conducive for return”.

Mr Hall also rejected speculation in the camps that there was a clandestine plan to return refugees to Myanmar.

“UNHCR does not have a plan. There’s no plan at the moment. There are no secret deals with anyone,” he said.
A woman sells goods at Mae La.
UNCERTAIN HOPE: A child at Mae La.
THROUGH THE MUD: Mae La residents gather water during the rainy season.