MAE HONG SON, Thailand—As support groups increasingly donate money to the democratic movement inside Burma, funds are drying up for Karenni refugee camps over the border in Thailand.
Ten months have passed since the Burmese government signed a ceasefire with the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP). But as a civil war in Kachin State escalates, most Karenni refugees in Thailand say they still don’t feel safe to return home.
“We want to go back to our motherland, but we don’t trust the government,” said Elizabeth Mimar, coordinator of the Karenni Community College at Ban Mai Nai Soi, the biggest Karenni refugee camp in Thailand.
“Based on our experiences and the reality of the present situation, we have very low expectations [for the government].”
Nearly a year after the ceasefire, refugees are still waiting for a more permanent peace agreement.
“At this point we still haven’t started peace talks with the government; we’ve only had ceasefire talks,” KNPP secretary Khu Oo Reh told The Irrawaddy last Wednesday, adding that a detailed peace agreement “will take years.”
Until then, as the world turns its attention to reforms in Naypyidaw, refugees in Thailand worry their lives will become more difficult.
“Donors are more interested in giving money to projects inside Burma now,” said Mar Saw, chairman of the Karenni Refugee Community. “And we can’t slow down that problem directly.”
At Ban Mai Nai Soi, life has changed little since the second ceasefire last year.
“People come and go,” said 18-year-old Come Zee, who lives in the camp, in the northwestern Thai province of Mae Hong Son. “We’re constantly getting new neighbors.”
Admission to refugee camps in Thailand is governed by the country’s Provincial Admissions Board (PAB) mechanism.
But as clashes continue to break out sporadically in southeastern Burma, the unregistered population in camps has grown to an estimated 54,000 people, with a steady flow of new entrants, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
Come Zee was born in 1994, one year before the Karenni ethnic armed group and the government signed their first ceasefire, which dissolved within three months.
“After the first ceasefire agreement broke down, it [life for Karenni people] became even worse,” said Mimar, Come Zee’s teacher at Karenni Community College. “That’s why people are afraid to go back to Burma. They’re not sure if the ceasefire will break again.”
Both Come Zee and Mimar have lived for years in Ban Mai Nai Soi, where it is common for up to 10 family members to stay together in a single one-storey hut, measuring about 150 square feet.
The population of Burmese refugees in Thailand reached 90,790 this month, according to UNHCR.
And while that number is hardly decreasing, the food supply is. The Karenni Refugee Community says donors started focusing on projects inside Burma after President Thein Sein came to power in March 2011 and embarked on a platform of reform that drew attention from the international community.
“Before 2011 we had 15 kilograms of rice per person per month, but now we only have 12 kilograms,” said Mi Reh, a 20-year-old Karenni who was born in Ban Mai Nai Soi.
Doctors are also in short supply.
“The clinics are always crowded,” she said. There are only two clinics in the camp for 9,000 people.
Priority is given to expecting mothers and children.
“For pregnant women and newborns, we give vaccinations and provide eggs, yellow beans and oil,” said Mar Saw, the refugee community’s chairman.
Facing tough conditions inside the camp, more Karennis are sneaking out and searching for work in nearby towns.
Mark, a 27-year-old Karenni who came to the camp when he was 19, went looking for a day job five years ago in Dot Kit Ta village, about an hour and half’s walk from Ban Mai Nai Soi. He found a long-term position and now lives there, illegally.
Refugees living outside the camps are regarded as illegal migrants under Thailand’s immigration law and are subject to arrest, detention and deportation.
“It is very easy [to sneak out],” Mark said. “The hard part is maybe the work itself, since many of the jobs require long hours and are indeed hard work.”
Mark remembers waking up at 3 am to start his 6 am shift in the village.
“Working about 10 hours a day, you can get about 120 to 150 Thai baht [US $4-5],” he said.
Because he was born in Burma, Mark would have an easier time returning to the country as a Burmese citizen. But he says he doesn’t want to go back.
“Even though [Karenni refugees in the camps] are starting to talk about the peace agreement, almost nobody is actually moving back to Burma,” Mar Saw said. “Especially when they hear from their relatives or listen to news on the radio about Kachin State.”
The conflict between ethnic Kachin armed groups and the government has escalated recently after the government army began using air strikes late last month.
Far from peace talks
On March 7 last year, the KNPP signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in the presence of international observers from the UNHCR, the British Council and the US Embassy. They started rounds of negotiations with the government in Loikaw, the capital of Karenni State.
However, Khu Oo Reh, one of the party secretaries, said both sides were still far from a peace agreement. “Until we stop the fighting, we can’t move ahead to peace talks or start talking about politics,” he said.
The secretary said it was challenging to reach a peace agreement because it was difficult to understand the true colors of Burma’s government. “There are two different factions within the government,” he said. “We feel the entire government hasn’t been included in the talks.”
The widely condemned 2008 Constitution, which guarantees 25 percent of Parliament seats for the military, also concerns him.
“The 2008 Constitution gave so much power to the military, which really isn’t going to agree on military matters with the ethnic armed groups,” he said. “Whenever we talk about the position of the army and the movement of troops, they can’t easily agree with us.”
On Jan. 5, the President’s Office said on its website that Thein Sein was “committed to bringing about lasting peace during his term” after a meeting with the new Karen National Union (KNU) leadership.
“He has said things like this many times before, be he never keeps true to his promises,” said Khu Oo Reh. “He’s just trying to save face.”
Thaw Reh, a spokesperson for the Karenni Civil Societies Network, said the government had failed to keep various agreements it signed with the network in March and June last year, including promises to inform the KNPP of its troop movement through Karenni territory.
The government, Thaw Reh said, has pushed forward with the construction of a controversial military training ground in Pruso Township, while blocking civil society from monitoring mega-development projects in the state.
“If the government isn’t even keeping its initial agreements in Karenni State, how can we trust them to build lasting peace in Burma?” said Thaw Reh.
In a recent meeting with the rebel KNPP leaders in Mae Hong Son, the government’s leading peace negotiator, Minister Aung Min of the President’s Office, said Naypyidaw wanted to begin the resettlement of Karenni refugees by the rainy season this year, presumably in June.
Come Zee said she had not made up her mind about returning. “The government should at least clear up all the landmines around the border, so we are safe to go home,” she said.
According to the nonprofit Karenni Development and Research Group, there are more than 100,000 landmines in Karenni State, a number equal to one-third of the state’s population.
“I’m still waiting,” Come Zee said.
“As I told you before, I don’t have a definite plan for the future, but I want to go to where people need me.”