Reforms Make Refugee Return More Likely: TBBC

By Saw Yan Naing 12 September 2012

Burmese political reforms have increased the likelihood of the return of 140,000 refugees who have been living in Thailand for more than two decades, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) said this week following a recent visit to Burma to assess the situation there.

Leaders of the TBBC, which provides aid to refugees displaced by conflict between Burmese government forces and ethnic armed groups, made their first visit to Burma in early September at the invitation of Aung Min, the government minister who has spearheaded efforts to end the fighting.

The TBBC delegation met with government advisers, Tin Oo of the opposition National League for Democracy and representatives of various civil society groups.

Although it cautioned that the peace process remains fragile, the group said in a statement on Monday that it would begin preparing for the eventual return of the refugees, adding that repatriation must be voluntary and should only take place when it can be done safely and with dignity.

Part of the group’s plan is to establish a presence inside Burma to coordinate between humanitarian agencies on both sides of the border and to support the flow of information between resident and displaced communities, the statement said.

However, this doesn’t mean that the TBBC will leave Thailand anytime soon, said Duncan McArthur, the group’s emergency response director and a member of the delegation that visited Burma last week.

“We will stay here to promote the rights of refugees for assistance and protection as long as they remain in Thailand,” said McArthur.

On the Burmese side, the government has pledged to facilitate the smooth return and reintegration of the refugees.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, Aung Min said the government would introduce programs to remove landmines, provide jobs and shelter and improve food security.

“For those who want to work as farmers, we will provide equipment. But we will also build industrial zones in border areas opposite Thailand’s Mae Sot, Mae Sai and Three Pagoda’s Pass for those who want to work in factories,” he said.

According to Aung Min, Burma has 446,000 internally displaced persons, as well as 350,000 refugees living abroad and around two million migrant workers residing in Thailand alone.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, several ethnic Karen community-based organizations in Thailand issued a joint statement expressing concern about recent talk of repatriating refugees, saying that such a move would be premature.

“The ceasefires are still fragile and do not yet include an enforceable code of conduct; the troops are still all around our former villages, along with land mines and other dangers,” Dah Eh Kler of the Karen Women’s Organization said in the statement.