‘I’ve Been Running Most of My Life’

By Nyein Nyein 31 July 2019

YANGON—“We were displaced several times before 2010 … and we do not have any more lands to flee,” said ethnic Karen elder Mahn Tun Myint Aung, who has been fleeing conflict since he was a child.

Mahn Tun Myint Aung, 62, was born in Hlaingbwe Township of Karen State, but has ended up living in Sone Si Myaing village tract in Waw Lay (previously Wallei) Township, near the border with Thailand. For the past half century he has been fleeing fighting between Myanmar Army and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) troops in Karen state. Most of the residents of Waw Lay, which is about an hour’s drive from Karen State’s Myawaddy Township, have at one time or another lived as refugees in Thailand’s Umpiem Mai refugee camp.

Like many thousands of villagers currently living in Waw Lay and Myawaddy townships, which were once firmly under the control of the KNLA’s Brigade 6, Mahn Tun Myint Aung was displaced by the fighting that took place between ethnic Karen rebels and the Myanmar military from the 1980s to 2010. Many of the displaced still make their homes in refugee camps on the Thai side or shelter at temporary IDP camps in the area.

Mahn Tun Myint Aung still has trouble sleeping, as he is plagued by memories of being displaced by war and continuing security concerns. He told The Irrawaddy of his “hopes for the civil war to end” after more than 70 years of inter-ethnic fighting in Myanmar.

He lived in IDP camps in the 1990s and for eight years lived in Umpiem, which was recognized as a refugee camp in the late ’90s. He and a few others returned to their villages but in November 2010 they once again had to seek shelter as IDPs along the border, this time for three months, when a splinter group of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) refused to serve as a Border Guard Force under the military’s command.

“I fled the fighting for at least the third time; I have been running most of my life. Our villages were burned, so we fled to take shelter at KNU [Karen National Union] camps, as we are Karen. And then the military attacked the KNU camps and we had to flee again to the border. We returned, but in 2010, with fighting breaking out between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the government, we had to run to find temporary shelter again. So I want the current ceasefires to last,” Mahn Tun Myint Aung said.

“Currently, it is just at the ceasefire stage,” he said, referring to the bilateral and nationwide ceasefire agreements that the Karen National Union—the political wing of the KNLA—and the DKBA signed with the government in 2012.

“Peace is not yet achieved. We stay alert, as fighting could erupt at any time. If they clash again, we have no place to run to,” he said. Despite the ongoing security concerns, he acknowledged that the period since 2010 has been “the most peaceful” of his life.

Returning without support

Since the 2012 signing of bilateral ceasefires between the previous government and the Karen ethnic armed organizations, including the KNU, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and the KNLA Peace Council, the repatriation of some 100,000 refugees who fled their homes in eastern Myanmar has been on the agenda (as one provision of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, or NCA). But little progress has been made on implementation.

Some of the refugees have returned to Myanmar—a few of them through an official reintegration program run by the UN. But others are being resettled in Myanmar without any assistance.

In June, The Irrawaddy met with a couple of dozen villagers in KNU and DKBA-controlled areas who were once refugees or IDPs and who had returned to their villages. They were provided homes built with the support of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, as well as homes provided by the ethnic armed organizations. They expressed a desire for peace and job opportunities.

Children walk in a community where houses were built for IDPs and repatriated refugees in Sone Si Myaing, in a DKBA (Democratic Karen Benevolent Army)-controlled area of Karen State. / Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy

U Pha Sa La, 56, stayed in the Umpiem camp for 19 years and came back to live in Sone Si Myaing in June. “There is not enough food for us,” he said, referring to the reduction of support for refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border since 2012. The Irrawaddy also talked to few other fresh returnees (they came back a week before we interviewed them) and learned that they returned after being told there were houses available for them.

Ma Sandar, 44, lived in the Umpiem refugee camp for eight years starting in 2010. She returned to live in Kaw Hse, a village in Waw Lay, in 2018. She was originally from Htee Law Thi village in Myawaddy Township, where she was also an IDP, but no longer has a home there. She currently works as a day laborer on a bean plantation and barely earns enough to support her family.

U Leh Paw, 57, who returned to live in the village of Thala Waw in Waw Lay Township in 2012 from Umpiem refugee camp said he can now make a living on his own. He was originally from a village in Kawkareik Township and was forced to work as a porter by the military during fighting between the government, DKBA and KNU/KNLA troops in 1994-95.

Almost all of the villagers in Kaw Hse, Thala Waw and Sone Si Myaing villages are currently under the control of the DKBA. They fled war to seek refuge on the border. They have slowly returned since 2012 to try to survive by farming.

“If there is no war, we, all ethnic people, could enjoy peace. As for the residents from border areas, we have nothing in terms of economic development. We cultivate plantations: grow corn and beans, nothing else. If we cannot make a living, we will suffer more,” the Karen elder Mahn Tun Myint Aung said of his fellow villagers.

Some roads have been built in the area, but The Irrawaddy observed that these villages are outside of the national electricity grid and lack telecommunications connectivity, despite being very close to the Thai border.

Homes of refugees who returned from the Umpiem Mai refugee camp to Kaw Hse village in a Democratic Karen Benevolent Army-controlled area / Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy

A new city for refugees, repatriates

The KNU and the government initiated refugee repatriation and rehabilitation programs in 2014 and a year later began developing the Lay Kay Kaw new city, some 12 miles south of Myawaddy, the border trade town adjacent to Mae Sot in Thailand. Opened to settlement in March 2016, Lay Kay Kaw is now home to over 3,000 former refugees and IDPs, as well as KNU members and migrants.

The government cleared 750 acres of the Mae Ka Nel forest sanctuary, in which both the KNU and the government army had operated in the past, to use for the development in 2014. It is managed by the KNU; the government cooperates by providing legal identity documents for the resettled inhabitants.

Its first aim was to support the resettlement of IDPs and KNU members. However, according to Saw Htay Myint Aung, the secretary of the Lay Kay Kaw city management committee, as many people cannot be put solely in one category, the committee must accept many kinds of people who come to seek shelter, be they IDPs, refugees from the camps or IDPs-turned-migrants.

Saw Htay Myint Aung, secretary of the management committee of Lay Kay Kaw, a ‘new city’ for refugees, IDPs and repatriates in Myawaddy Township, Karen State / Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy

The urban development area (Lay Kay Kaw new city) was part of a KNU Brigade 6-controlled area in Palu region until the 1980s. The local residents fled fighting between the government and KNU starting in 1984. Their houses were burned and whole villages destroyed during the government army’s operations against the KNU. By 1986, villagers in Palu, Thae Baw Boe and Mae Htaw Tha Lay were displaced between Myawaddy and Waw Lay townships. They sought temporary shelter at the Maw Ke and Hway Galote IDP camps near the border (which were later combined into the Umpiem Mai camp in Thailand) after Palu came under the full control of the military in December 1990.

There are 17 designated places in eastern Myanmar for resettling the refugees residing in the camps along the Myanmar-Thailand border, according to Saw Htay Myint Aung, but Lay Kay Kaw is the most visible and successful so far, with housing for 780 households and some 3,000 people. In 2016, the project recieved hundreds more houses built by the Nippon Foundation.

In June 2018 there were a total of 3,199 people living in Lay Kaw Kaw, 40 percent of whom were internally displaced within Palu region; 25 percent refugees repatriated from Umpiem, Nu Po and Mae La camps in Thailand; 20 percent family members of KNU personnel; and 15 percent migrant workers resettled from Mae Sot and Phophra in Thailand.

Some people arrive in Lay Kay Kaw via the UN and government-led refugee resettlement programs, but many others just cross the border to seek help directly from the KNU.

Job scarcity still a challenge

Nan Thida, 20, stayed in the Mae La refugee camp for 10 years from the time she was 8 years old and moved to Lay Kay Kaw in 2017. She arrived with her family through the UN program after a wait of about seven months.

Women work at the Golden Comet garment factory in Lay Kay Kaw ‘new city’ in Myawaddy Township, Karen State. / Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy

She currently works at a small garment factory in Lay Kay Kaw, which was opened in August last year by a company called Shwe Kyel Takhon (Golden Comet Factory) and produces tailor-made uniforms for ethnic armed groups.

Almost all of the some two dozen workers in the small factory are women who once stayed either in Mae La and Nu Po refugee camps. It is the only factory in the community of more than 3,000 people.

For refugees taking part in the official reintegration program, it can take at least six months to two years to enter the process, according to returnees whom The Irrawaddy talked to. But they receive support in the form of basic household items and some money to start a family business from the UN and from Thai and Myanmar authorities.

While official identity documents can be obtained within a month of their official return, those who return unofficially have to clear a verification process to be able to prove they are local residents who had to leave their homes due to the fighting in past decades.

“If they come through the official program, we can help them obtain household registration, and ID, as well as proper housing and support for their livelihoods,” said U Thant Zin Aung, a state lawmaker from the National League for Democracy representing Myawaddy Constituency 2.

While the help with accommodation is welcome, the returnees voiced concern at the lack of job opportunities outside of agriculture.

The Karen State government admits it is struggling to meet the demand for jobs, not only for IDPs and repatriated refugees, but also for the state’s long-term residents.

“I have been asked many times how the state government will help create jobs for the repatriates. We have insufficient job opportunities currently for all the residents. But we are trying our best to help all of you,” said Karen State Chief Minister Daw Nan Khin Htwe Myint.

She urged the refugees to try and come back to their former homes. “You know well the difference between staying in your own country and outside [as a refugee].”

With regard to jobs, the chief minister told The Irrawaddy, “If you are not choosy, it is not difficult to find a job, but for those who are picky, we cannot do anything.”

Saw Htay Myint Aung, the city management committee secretary, said, “Eventually we all have to come back to our own country, as there are facilities like [Lay Kay Kaw]; it is a good thing. It gives us strength that they can live in houses made ready for them, but the lack of job opportunities is still a challenge.”