KAREN STATE and MAE HONG SON, Northern Thailand — After living for years in Thailand, thousands of ethnic Hmong refugees from Laos were forced back to their country by the Thai authorities in 2009.
This is the fate that more than 150,000 refugees from Burma now fear, as decades of conflict ease and pressure grows for their return—whether they or their former homeland are ready or not.
After more than a quarter of a century on Thai soil, the refugees—mostly ethnic Karen villagers from eastern Burma—say the signs of change are already apparent.
“The NGOs that have long supported us are now reducing their assistance more and more,” said Win Win Kyaw, secretary 1 of the Mae La Oon refugee camp, which houses about 15,000 refugees.
“Instead of giving us supplies to repair our shelters, they are providing vocational training so we’ll be able to stand on our own feet.”
The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an umbrella group of aid agencies formed when the first wave of refugees began fleeing civil war in the mid-1980s, has started urging the refugees to become more self-sufficient by engaging in trade or agriculture.
With donors to the TBBC tightening their purse strings, the refugees are receiving smaller and smaller rations each year. Building materials for shelters are becoming harder to come by, and basic staples such as rice, cooking oil and fish paste are provided in ever-decreasing quantities.
Recent developments suggest this process is likely to accelerate.
Following a visit to Rangoon earlier this month, the TBBC released a statement saying that political reforms in Burma have increased the likelihood of the refugees’ return. Then, soon after a meeting with Aung Min, the government’s chief peace negotiator, the secretary general of Thailand’s National Security, Wichean Potephosree, said the Kingdom could begin repatriating the refugees within the next year.
In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy, Aung Min said the government would guarantee that returning refugees have shelter and food security, as well as employment opportunities. However, conditions on the ground are far from reassuring.
Many refugees said that their greatest fear is the same one that forced them out of the country in the first place—the presence of government troops. Beyond this, many worry about landmines planted by both the Burmese army and Karen rebel forces.
Still, many refugees say they would be happy to return, as long as the conditions are right.
“If it is safe for us, we will go back for sure. We are not happy to stay in the camp, either,” said one refugee named Aung Min (no relation to the government minister).
“Actually, we want to return home. But the NGOs or government should come and observe the situation before they repatriate us.”
Saw Myint Naing, the secretary of the Ei Tu Hta camp, which houses about 4,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), said there is good reason to fear a premature return. In June, he said, one of the camp’s IDPs, a man named Saw Kree, was shot dead by a Burmese soldier when he went left the camp to find vegetables.
Duncan McArthur, the TBBC’s emergency response director, said after his trip to Burma that his organization does not advocate an early return for the refugees. In the meantime, however, he said that the TBBC hoped to establish a presence inside the country to help coordinate efforts between humanitarian agencies on both sides of the border.
Saw Robert Htway, the chairman of the Karen Refugees Committee (KRC), was even more skeptical about the wisdom of sending the refugees back before they were ready, calling such a move “impossible” until landmines had been removed from the conflict zone.
Despite expressions of concern, however, preparations to send the refugees back are already underway, said Karen observers and relief workers on the border. Most said that the actual move would take place in the next couple of years.
To aid with the process, the government has been working with leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU) and NGOs from Norway to issue ID cards to IDPs, while Dan Church Aid, a major Danish humanitarian and development NGO, has been providing mine risk education training. The number of international aid groups has mushroomed in the area in recent months, say observers.
For some Karen already living inside Burma, the mood is one of optimism. Villagers in mixed-administration zones—areas controlled by both the government army and the KNU—can now travel freely to urban areas. They say their greatest worry is a breakdown of the ceasefire between the government and the KNU.
“Some villagers say this is the chance of a lifetime. They don’t want to lose it,” said Saw Htoo Klei, the secretary of the Karen Office of Relief and Development (KORD), which provides assistance to the IDPs.
Some, however, complain that the government, some KNU leaders and the NGOs are too enthusiastic about their newfound opportunities. One problem, they say, is that some programs—especially the issuing of new ID cards—are being carried out without transparency.
There are also concerns about some of the resettlement sites being considered for returning refugees. One, located just opposite a Thai village called Ban Tha Ta Fang in Mae Hong Son Province, still has a very heavy Burmese army presence, according to local sources.
As long as such problems exist, many refugees in Thailand say they won’t return unless they’re forced to, and even then, not without a protest.