CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Karen rebels have teamed up with the Burmese government to build a new “model village” for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in southeastern Karen State, The Irrawaddy has confirmed.
The village, built from scratch and named Lay Kay Kaw, is located in Kawkareik Township near the Thai—Burma border, according to Maj. Saw Zorro, a liaison officer for the Karen National Union (KNU) who is based in Myawaddy. The new settlement is under the authority of the KNU’s 6th Brigade.
“As far as I know, [the village] is intended to house wives and children of KNU members who have been living in displacement camps in the jungle. The village is for IDPs and is like a low-cost housing project,” Maj. Saw Zorro told The Irrawaddy by phone.
News of the project surfaced on Tuesday after local media erroneously reported that the government and the KNU were building model villages to house refugees returning from Thailand, where some 130,000 people live in nine officially recognized camps along the border. The official confirmed that the village is currently under construction but clarified that it is designed to accommodate IDPs closely associated with Karen rebels.
An estimated 500,000 IDPs live in remote settlements within southeastern Burma, displaced by decades of conflict between the Burma Army and various ethnic armed groups, including the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
A similar model village was built by the KNU last year in rebel territories under the 7th Brigade. Family members of KNLA soldiers have already occupied the settlements in Mae Taree and Maw Poe Kay and receive support from the KNU, Maj. Saw Zorro said.
The official’s comments dispelled any connection between the new village and the possible repatriation of refugees residing in Thailand, but sources on both sides of the border predicted that return could be forthcoming. The United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, will soon begin a verification process in collaboration with the Thai government which aid workers view as a preparatory step for any future voluntary returns.
Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Asia, confirmed that the model village is not related to forthcoming verification projects and that the agency has not been informed of the IDP resettlement. She emphasized that the development “is not linked to the upcoming verification exercise in the nine refugee camps in Thailand.”
Refugee verification could be a precursor to repatriation, however, according to Duncan McArthur, partnership director of The Border Consortium (TBC), an aid coordination agency that has assisted refugees along the Thai-Burma border for more than 20 years.
McArthur said that the verification program “seems primarily related to monitoring and assisting refugees if they leave the camps and return to Burma,” adding that “it seems to be the case” that the process is linked to eventual repatriation.
The process itself will consist of identifying those refugees aged 11 years old and older who are registered with the UNHCR. Those who have been registered by agency will receive “smart cards” containing personal data that will help the UNHCR and other aid workers to identify them and provide continued support if they return to Burma.
Refugees have expressed concern that many people will soon be denied support if they are not registered, which poses problems for those who have not been processed for various reasons.
In July 2014, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha signaled a growing inclination to repatriate Burma’s refugees when he met with the Commander-in-Chief of Burma’s Armed Forces Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in Bangkok. The two reportedly discussed plans for the eventual return of refugees in Thailand’s temporary shelters.