CHIANG MAI, Thailand — While more than 33 million voters across Burma will be eligible to cast their ballots on Sunday, many of the 110,000 refugees on the other side of the Thai border are barely aware of the election at all.
Few show any interest in the poll, and fewer still believe the result will have any positive bearing on their lives. Four out of every five people living in western Thailand’s 10 refugee camps are ethnic Karen, who took refugee from the long-running conflict between the Burma Armed Forces and insurgent groups including the Karen National Union (KNU). Some have been in the camps for three decades; their children were born there and have known no other home.
The vast majority are stateless and have no legal right to participate in the election. For those in the camps, the true worth of the election is assessed in terms of whether it will allow their safe return to the villages they abandoned years earlier. Asked if they believe it will, they are highly doubtful.
“I don’t believe the election will bring any hope for refugee return,” said Naw Moo Nan, a 59-year-old refugee in the Mae La Oon, a camp southwest of Mae Sariang now home to 10,000 people. “I don’t think I can go back and live in my hometown again in this lifetime. Even if I die and am reborn once or twice, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
“For us, the election is less important than a ceasefire in our hometown. We don’t believe there will be a lasting ceasefire between the Burmese government and the KNU…Our village is still being occupied by the Burma Army. There are landmines around the village. So how can we go home? Who can guarantee our safety?”
Saw Honest is the head of the Mae La settlement in Tak province. Home to 40,000 people, it is Thailand’s largest refugee camp. He told The Irrawaddy that most people were focused on their daily needs and awareness of Sunday’s poll was low, while expectations among those following the campaign were lower.
“We are still watching the peace process while we are preparing to get ready to live independently when returning home,” he said. “But at this moment, it is not the right time to return home.”
Border Aid on the Decline
The Border Consortium (TBC), a collection of humanitarian agencies facilitating aid for the refugees, has been forced to make cutbacks as a result of a drop in funding. The consortium’s operating budget for 2015 is predicted to be US$22.9 million, down more than $2 million from the previous year, and the true scale of the decline in funding grants is hidden by the recent depreciation of the Thai currency.
As a result of the decline, TBC was forced to once again reduce its allocation of rice and cooking charcoal rations, along with other program and staffing cuts.
Speaking with The Irrawaddy by phone, Saw Tu Tu, the head of the Mae Sariang branch office of the Karen Refugee Committee, said that foreign aid and support was drying up as donors shifted their spending elsewhere.
“There aren’t so many donors left to keep supporting [the refugees],” he said. “They also think our return is approaching. So, we have to live independently, which is why they are providing us with vocational training.”
Speculation is rife among refugees, aid workers and observers that the Thai government is planning to accelerate the process of refugee repatriation after the election on Sunday.
Burma military chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, visited Thailand in July last year, shortly after Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha ousted the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra seized power. The pair reportedly discussed a timetable for returning the refugees to their homeland.
Soon after their meeting, the Thai authorities began a verification program, counting populations in nine refugee camps to verify the nationality and ages of residents, and to ensure that everyone in the camps was registered as a refugee.
Despite these developments, Saw Tu Tu said that the continued heavy presence of Burma Army soldiers on the other side of the border, particularly in northern Karen State, would make a prompt return unlikely for many.
Militarization in Karen State
Much of northern Karen State is controlled by the 2nd and 5th brigades of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU. Both brigades did not support the KNU’s participation in the government’s “nationwide” ceasefire agreement, which was signed by eight non-state armed groups in Naypyidaw on Oct. 15.
The Free Burma Rangers relief organization, which supports internally displaced persons in ethnic regions including Karen State, reported on Oct. 30 that the Burma Army’s 202nd Light Infantry Brigade had increased its presence in the northern Karen township of Papun, along with stockpiling 120mm mortars and ammunition in the area.
The report added that clashes between the KNLA and the military near Kwee Nei and Meh Ka Naw villages on Sept. 30, two weeks before the ceasefire was signed, resulted in injuries and deaths on both sides.
Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, the KNLA’s vice chief-of-staff and an influential figure in northern Karen State, said that recent developments showed that the area would remain too unstable for refugees to safely return until the terms of the ceasefire were properly implemented at the local level.
“They [the Burma Army] keep transporting supplies to their frontline bases in our areas. They patrol to clean up and consolidate their control in the area, even though they haven’t launched a major operation,” he told The Irrawaddy by phone. “It is not the right time for a refugee return yet…We are concerned about their safety and how they will live and survive.”
New Military Offensive Produces More Refugees
The week before the signing ceremony of the government’s ceasefire accord, the Burma Army launched a sustained assault on locations under the control of the Shan State Army-North, one of the groups that declined to participate, in Burma’s northeast.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that more than 6,000 people have been displaced by the month-long conflict, many of whom are taking shelter in nearby villages or hiding in the jungle for their safety.
Last month, dozens of civil society organizations called on President Thein Sein to immediately halt the Shan State conflict.
“As this fighting goes on amid the signing of a nationwide ceasefire, we doubt the sincerity of the government on the peace process,” said Ying Harn Fah, a spokesperson for the Shan Human Rights Foundation. “Questions linger among us about whether the government really wants peace or if they just want to project a good image to the international community.”
Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) announced on Oct. 12 that the election are canceled in more than 400 village tracts in Kachin, Karen, Shan and Mon States, along with 41 village tracts in Pegu Division. Two weeks later, polling was canceled in a further 50 village tracts in Shan State that had seen fighting between the Burma Army and the SSA-N. The number of disenfranchised voters living in these areas likely numbers in the millions.
UN Refugee Agency Promise for A Safe Return
Iain Hall, a senior field coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, told The Irrawaddy that the outcome of the elections would likely not have a big impact in the decision-making process of Burmese refugees.
He added that the refugee camps will not be shut down after the election while there is no a set timeframe for refugee repatriation and the majority of refugees still don’t feel confident to return home.
“It is the nationwide ceasefire agreement that may be seen as a more important issue for the refugees than the elections,” he said.
He also said that there is a growing interest in returning home within the refugee community, and refugee leaders have recently been engaged in discussions at the camp level on preparedness for return. The UNHCR, for its part, was helping to provide information on the situation on the other side of the border and remained committed to assisting with third-country resettlement for refugees.
Hall told The Irrawaddy that the UNHCR was working to ensure that those considering a return home were not subjected to outside pressure and were able to make a choice based on free and informed consent.
“UNHCR will put in place a process to ensure that refugee’ decisions to return home are truly voluntary,” he said.