Refugees on the Thai-Burma border: ready for return?

For refugees in camps on the Thailand Burma border to be able to return to Burma, two main issues need to be addressed, the political situation, and the technical arrangements. Neither are even close to being addressed.

Zoya Phan
24 March 2014
Ethnic Karen refugees on the Burma - Thai border

In June 2009, over 4,000 ethnic Karen civilians fled Burma into Thailand to escape heavy fighting in ten days. Demotix/Nelson Rand. All rights reserved.

At the current time, talk of any kind of imminent return for refugees in camps on the Thailand Burma border is not only premature, it is also cruel and unfair, as it adds further stress and uncertainty to the lives of refugees who have already suffered so much.

Current peace process

I can’t call the current process a genuine peace process. It isn’t a genuine peace process when the Burmese government signs a ceasefire in one place, and then breaks it in another. Instead it is a process of trying to subdue ethnic resistance by whatever tactic necessary, whether it is force in one place, or using charm, bribes and promises in another.

The Burmese Army broke a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organisation because the KIO would not go along with their agenda.  Two years since a provisional ceasefire was agreed with the Karen National Union, there still isn’t even agreement on a code of conduct, let alone discussions on the root causes of the conflict. There are more Burmese Army soldiers coming into ethnic states after ceasefires are agreed. The government is confiscating land on a huge scale, grabbing the natural resources in ethnic states. They are offering some ethnic leaders lucrative licences for cars in Burma which are worth millions of dollars. These are seen as bribes by many ethnic people. If they are genuine about peace, why try to bribe leaders instead of negotiate with them? 

Sadly this so-called peace process has been endorsed and even funded by international donors, with donors taking the side of the Burmese government, providing them with funding for the Myanmar Peace Centre, and aid to use in the government’s political agenda of using development to try to undermine support for political organisations supporting resistance and seeking constitutional change.

It is ironic that while the EU, DFID and other donors boast about the millions of dollars they are giving to the peace process, many victims of the conflict are getting less support. It is immoral and unjust that support for food and basic essentials for refugees is being cut.

Refugee camps

To hear the way some international donors talk, you would think that Karen refugees living in camps on the Thailand Burma border are reluctant to return to Burma because they are living easy lives receiving international aid. As someone who has lived in those refugee camps, I know how untrue this is. 

Life in the camps is very hard. They are overcrowded and noisy. The rations are the same day after day, year after year. Education and health facilities are limited, and it is illegal to leave the camps and find work. People are there because they have to be, because they can’t return home. For some, what they experienced at the hands of the Burmese Army is so awful they never want to return home. But given a choice they don’t want to stay in the camps for the rest of their lives either.

Life in the camps is getting harder. Some donors have used the reforms in Burma as a justification for reducing funding for refugees, despite the fact that the number of refugees has not fallen. This is resulting in cuts in rations, shelter, clothing and other essential services. In some cases funding has been diverted towards livelihood programmes designed to help refugees when they return to Burma. By cutting and diverting funds, many refugees feel that the international community is trying to force them back to Burma against their will. Burma Campaign UK has been asked by refugees if the EU is trying to ‘starve us back’.

Aid to Burma

Aid to Burma, even to desperate refugees who have fled the most horrific human rights abuses, has often been directed according to the political agendas of those giving the aid. Donors like the EU have directed their aid to support and promote those willing to make significant compromises with the dictatorship, and now the military-backed government of Burma. They have tried to undermine those with a stronger emphasis on the promotion of human rights and a swift transition to democracy. 

The sad truth is, forcing refugees to return by reducing rations and other support probably is the unspoken agenda of donors like the EU, which have long tried to undermine support for those in the refugee camps. The camps are seen by some as centres of resistance to the government, providing support to organisations like the Karen National Union (KNU).

With the changes in Burma in the past three years it is now obvious that those making this case were wrong. The KNU is operating in Karen State and beyond, and is not going to decline without support from those in the camps. But the refugees, and their reluctance to return, remain a strong reminder that the reform process in Burma is not as positive as the EU and most of the rest of the international community are trying to claim. Donors want them gone as soon as possible.

Political solution

The political situation has to be addressed before the technical issues can be implemented. Yet virtually no attention is being paid to this. Unfortunately, as far as much of the international community is concerned, there is a political transition in Burma, ceasefires have been signed, elections in 2015 will bring in a democratically elected government, and so it’s time for refugees to return.

A ceasefire alone does not solve the problem. What is necessary is a political solution. International donors simply do not understand, and are not interested in understanding, the history of Burma and the root causes of conflict and dictatorship in my country.

Even if the 2015 elections could bring in a democratic government, which is impossible under the 2008 Constitution, that won’t tackle the root causes of conflict and dictatorship in Burma. We only need to look at Prime Minister U Nu’s period to see this. Ethnic people were persecuted and many of the armed ethnic struggles began during his period as Prime Minister.

Root causes of conflict

All governments in Burma, past and present, under democracy and dictatorship alike, have refused to accept Burma as a country of many ethnicities and religions. They want to impose their Burman Buddhist vision of Burma on everyone.

This attitude is the root cause of why Burma has not known peace since independence. It was one of the main reasons for the military coup in 1962. The current reform process in Burma is not genuinely addressing the most fundamental and important challenge, an agreement with Burma’s many ethnic people which leads to a federal Burma in which the rights and culture of ethnic people are protected.

On May 3, 2012, President Thein Sein’s government issued one of the most important documents since the beginning of reforms and the so-called peace process in Burma. This document stipulated the government’s eight points for union level peace negotiations. It is a demand for ethnic groups to agree to the undemocratic 2008 Constitution drafted by Thein Sein.

It was effectively a demand for surrender without any agreement on the political root causes of the conflict that has afflicted Burma since independence. Instead armed ethnic political organisations are meant to lay down their arms, ask to become registered political parties, and then seek constitutional change in a Parliament where the military have a veto over constitutional change. This is unacceptable to ethnic people. There will never be a genuine and lasting peace as long as the Burmese government takes this approach, and as long as the international community continues to ignore the root causes of the conflict.

It is quite simply wrong to try to force refugees back, whether officially or indirectly by using ration cuts, when the political root causes of the conflict remain unaddressed, and not even formally discussed.

Technical issues to be addressed

On the technical side, there is still a very long way to go as well. Most of the key concerns of refugees are being completely ignored by international donors such as DFID and the EU.

Burma Campaign UK has consulted refugees about their opinions on returning to Burma, and we found almost universal agreement on six key issues.

First is withdrawal of the Burmese army. They won’t feel safe while Burmese army posts are in their old village areas. People have been sneaking back to their villages and report that the number of soldiers is increasing since ceasefires were agreed.


Second issue is landmines. Very little mine clearance is taking place.


Third was the fact that for some their land has been confiscated by the army or government. They want it back.


Fourth is needing support for returning, and also compensation for their homes and farms being destroyed, and everything they owned stolen or destroyed.


Fifth, most want to return to their old villages, not be forced into special economic zones as the Burmese government proposes. They don’t want to be cheap labour in factories.


Sixth, justice and accountability. They want those who committed the abuses, who were responsible for what happened, to be held accountable. Not revenge, but justice.

The international community is mostly ignoring these problems, but that won’t make them go away. As Karen people we are not living in the past, but we have learnt from it. We want peace and to be able to safely return home more than anyone, and we have more at stake than any Burmese government minister, international donor or so-called ‘peace expert’. The political issues and technical issues remain unaddressed, yet pressure to return is increasing, and I fear there will be great suffering and lives lost as a result.

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