Burmese Refugees in Thailand Are Running out of Options

By Thein Lei Win 22 February 2014

BANGKOK — Win Myint and his two younger sisters fled Burma in June 2011, after months of harassment by plainclothes officers because of a documentary about the Burmese army featuring their exiled younger brother, a former soldier who later spent 15 years in jail for his pro-democracy activism.

The officers accused them of distributing the film and warned them they could be jailed. “They told us not to go anywhere overnight. They also followed me to places I gave tuition. They accused our younger brother of trying to break the unity of the armed forces,” said Win Myint, speaking by phone from Umpiem Mai refugee camp in northern Thailand. “We didn’t feel safe,” said Myint, a 63-year-old former teacher and a Muslim.

He and his sisters, both in their 50s, fled to Thailand, hoping to be recognized as refugees and reunited with their mother and three other siblings who are now in the United States.

But, like some 40,000 of the 120,000 people in the nine refugee camps straddling the Thai-Burma border, they arrived too late to be eligible for resettlement.

Thailand stopped screening and registering new refugees in 2007, and in January this year the United States, the largest recipient of Burmese refugees from Thailand having taken more than 70,000, announced it was ending its group resettlement program.

“The United States will continue to consider for resettlement individual referrals received from the UNHCR,” said the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, but it did not elaborate further on the criteria for these cases.

The Thai government did not immediately respond to emails and calls seeking comment.

As former pariah Burma garners praise for its gradual democratic reforms, and financial support to the camps dwindles, so talk of repatriating the remaining refugees has grown—creating uncertainty and fear among the thousands of refugees who have a real fear of persecution if they return to Burma.

Critics point to the arrest of journalists and activists, continuing offensives against armed ethnic groups in the north, and persistent  violence against the Rohingya in particular and Muslims in general as signs that Burma’s reforms have not gone far enough. New asylum seekers are still arriving in Thailand, underlying the patchiness of the reforms.

Life in Thailand, which has never ratified the U.N. Refugee Convention, is not rosy either. Refugees who go outside the camps are subject to arrest, detention and deportation.

“We can’t go forward or backward. We’re stuck,” said Win Myint.

Houses Raided

His brother Myo Myint lost an arm and a leg to an enemy mortar round while serving as a soldier in the Burmese army. He later became a pro-democracy activist, for which he spent 15 years in jail, where, Win Myint says, he was tortured.

He later fled to Thailand and the United States, where he now works as a translator and interpreter for newly arrived refugees. His story was told in Burma Soldier, an Emmy-nominated 2010 HBO documentary in which he spoke of the army’s routine abuse of civilians.

“If they go back they could be arrested at any time because I was involved in what the government considers to be an illegal film,” Myo Myint said in a phone interview from Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he has lived for the past five years.

Soon after the Democratic Voice of Burma, a news outlet, broadcast Burma Soldier in Burma in November 2010, plainclothes officers, who Win Myint believes were from military intelligence, started turning up at their house in the former capital, Rangoon, subtly threatening them with repercussions.

Coming from a politically active family – besides Myo Myint, another brother had been a student leader and a sister had helped political prisoners – Win Myint was no stranger to harassment.

But a raid on their family home one night in April 2011 by police and military intelligence officers armed with automatic weapons, left his two sisters badly shaken – especially as this happened only a few weeks after a reformist government led by President Thein Sein had taken power, ending half a century of brutal military rule.

The officers were looking for evidence that the family had been distributing the documentary and left empty-handed after a 90-minute search. But they kept returning, Win Myint said.

He and his sisters left Burma quietly without informing anyone, even their youngest sister whose visits had become less frequent as the authorities’ attentions became more intrusive. They decided to go to Umpiem Mai, where Myo Myint had lived before being resettled in the United States. Here they could sleep easier but their troubles were far from over.

Individual Resettlement, No Forced Return

The United Nations refugee agency, in a statement announcing the end of the group resettlement program, said that resettlement on an individual basis was continuing.

“UNHCR is still identifying vulnerable refugees for submission to resettlement countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan,” UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan told Thomson Reuters Foundation. About 19,000 Burmese refugees have resettled in these countries.

Both the UNHCR and The Border Consortium (TBC), a non-governmental organization that has been working in the camps since the 1980s, also say conditions in Burma are not yet conducive for Burmese to return and no timeline for such action has been set. Still, people in the camps are worried.

“There are so many people in the same boat as us. Everyone in the camp is worried because our future is uncertain and there are a lot of rumours going around,” said Win Myint, now a volunteer teacher at the camp.

“We hear future resettlement will be to reunite families but only for those under 18,” he said. “We would like to request that people who a third country would agree to accept should be allowed to go. It would lessen the burden on the Thai government too.”

But Thai government policy remains that unregistered refugees cannot be resettled, with a few exceptions, assessed on a case-by-case basis, where immediate family members are or could be separated as a result of resettlement, said the UNHCR’s Tan.

“We feel hopeless and helpless,” Myo Myint, who blames his family’s troubles on his political activities, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.