Replacing the Displaced

By Charlie Campbell 12 June 2012

“They call us displaced people; but praise God, we are not misplaced,” begins a poem by Karen community leader Pastor Simon. His poignant words are included in a new short film exploring the repatriation of Burmese refugees to describe the yearning for stability felt by those who have lived in makeshift camps by the Thai border for more than two decades.

Right to Return: Karen and Shan Refugees was shot by journalists Preethi Nallu and Kim Jolliffee to delve into the contentious subject of displaced civilians going home. There are around 150,000 Burmese refugees living in nine camps along Thailand’s western frontier and, in the wake of tentative democratic reforms by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, preparations are being made for their eventual repatriation.

“The films are very much focused on the endurance of these communities and shed light on the positive side of how they have adapted to changing conditions,” explains Nallu.

The Norwegian government has already begun a controversial multi-million-dollar pilot resettlement scheme for internally displaced persons inside Burma, and should this be deemed successful a similar process will likely be enacted for refugees.

“Although the Burmese government implicitly endorses the right to return for civilian refugees, this does not mean that they are anywhere close to charting the course of return, the means of return or that they even have a clue about where these refugees are going to return,” said Nallu.

“The refugee community is understandably skeptical and suspicious of a government that has waged a deliberate displacement campaign against them for decades. What we see in these camps is the evolution of a microcosm—a state within a state with its own leadership.”

While not delving too deeply into the intensely complicated issues surrounding repatriation, Right to Return, commissioned by the Netherlands-based VJ Movement, paints a stark portrait of daily life for refugees. Young boys play football on dusty pitches, thanaka-smeared girls help with the family washing while old men hack up trees to build more shelters.

One section is shot at Mae La camp, the biggest Burmese refugee camp in Thailand which houses around 45,000 mainly ethnic Karen people, by the border town of Mae Sot in Tak Province. The filmmakers interviewed a variety of characters about their hopes for the future, providing a real sense of the resilience of the inhabitants and their long-felt isolation from events both at home and in Thailand proper—a large proportion were born in the camp and have known no other life.

“Our going back would depend on the changes taking place in the country,” Mae La leader Saw Tun Tun says on film. “If these changes include equality for all ethnicities and if the government changes into the type of government that grants us rights and allows us autonomy and provides us with the right to self-determination under a system of democratic rule, then of course we will want to go back.”

The issue of returning refugees has become more significant after the Thein Sein administration began an ambitious program of reform including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi being elected to Parliament.

This transformation has led the majority of Western nations to ease sanctions against the military-dominated nation while international donors have cut aid for border camps to fund projects inside the country instead.

And the extra hardship experienced due to funding cuts is something that the filmmakers were made acutely aware of during their visits. Many camp inhabitants suffer from immense trauma after being subjected to forced labor, sexual violence and other severe forms of abuse.

“The dearth of this aid is being felt intensely now in the camps and I cannot emphasize this enough,” said Nallu. “We try to explore through the films the invaluable role that grassroots initiatives and small NGOs have played in striving to fill the void.”

This trend is emphasized at Khung Jor camp, north of Chiang Mai, where the installation of solar panels is shown with the help of New Zealand-based charity The Branch Foundation. Children of all 148 families in the camp are now able to study at night without the added danger of naked candles, and this also makes Khung Jor the world’s first refugee camp powered exclusively by solar power.

But despite international donors refocusing their energies on repatriation workshops, many camp inhabitants remain dubious about the future. “We are waiting to see those changes. We would like to go back with dignity and only once the government is prepared to include us and has a concrete plan,” said Saw Tun Tun. “Only then can we return.”