Reprieve for Shan Refugees amid Return Fears

By Charlie Campbell 27 September 2012

Ethnic Shan refugees living by the mountainous Burmese border in northern Thailand have expressed relief that a controversial Norwegian-backed repatriation proposal has been shelved.

Sprawling Koung Jor camp is home to 136 families in northeast Chiang Mai Province and was earmarked for a pilot return project orchestrated by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). But a group of Shan community-based organizations (CBOs) issued a joint statement on Aug. 27 complaining about a house-to-house survey and the scheme was suspended.

However, many vulnerable people in the camps remain confused as officials have since insisted that the Norwegian-backed Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), run in conjunction with the NRC, never intended to do any work with refugees.

Katja Christina Nordgaard, the Norwegian ambassador to Thailand, Cambodia and Burma, told The Irrawaddy last week that the idea of refugee repatriation was not even under consideration.

“The repatriation of refugees is absolutely not on the agenda,” she said. “It is a difficult issue that has to be handled in quite a different context and with other actors, of course. But that was not about refugees at all. MPSI is not about the returning of refugees. This is very important as that would be a misunderstanding.”

However, Chris Bleers, Burma country director for the NRC, confirmed to The Irrawaddy via email that the planned survey of the refugee population in Koung Jor was postponed last month but declined to provide any further details—still denying that a return of refugees was on the cards.

“NRC is currently in a very early stage of a process that eventually will lead to a decision as to whether or not we are going to start up program activities among Shan IDP communities who live within the sovereign boundaries of Myanmar,” he said.

“However, further to the idea of a survey of the displaced population residing in Koung Jor camp mentioned in your questions, it was postponed as of the Aug. 24 in a communication to the camp leader, Sai Leng, and has not been conducted.”

Despite the repeated denials, Shan sources insist that they had to strongly object to any survey of refugees and repatriation was being suggested.

Sai Leng, the head of Koung Jor, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that he tried to discourage a scheme to return 80 refugee families with relatives linked to the ethnic rebel Shan State Army-South (SSA-South) to Mong Hta, an almost deserted village around 20 km across the border.

“[The NRC] came one time in June or July and I explained that we couldn’t go in this type of situation to Shan State in Burma,” said the 60-year-old. “[Chris Bleers] said he would want to start a pilot project with some of the families from the Shan State Army-South as he is friendly with [SSA-South chief] General Yawd Serk.

“But I gave him some of my experience about finding a market for their products because every family grows rice. And so if they can’t sell then maybe these people will grow opium around the mountains and after some years they might start to use opium themselves.

“I explained why people in Shan State like to grow opium for [ease of] transportation—in some cases there are no roads and so it’s easier for them to grow opium. And when there is fighting they can carry the opium very easily and a small amount can mean a lot of money—for food, cooking oil or medicine.”

Mong Hta was apparently designated as a resettlement site during peace negotiations between the SSA-South and Burmese government. Yet there have been ongoing skirmishes, including in Mong Hta, between rebel and government troops since an initial ceasefire was signed last December.

Aung Min, a minister in the President’s Office and Naypyidaw’s chief peace negotiator, promised the sub-townships of Ho Mong and Mong Hta, bordering Thailand’s Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai provinces, to the SSA-S during peace talks but more than 40 Burmese military camps remain in these areas, according to Shan sources.

Ongoing human rights abuses, a lack of sustainable crop alternatives to the poppy and a proliferation of landmines also make the situation on the ground perilous.

“The refugees must not be used as guinea-pigs to test out the peace process,” said Sai Khur Hseng, of the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization. “Instead of putting pressure on the refugees, international donors should pressure the Burmese government to negotiate a just and lasting peace.”

The ethnic Shan occupy a legal grey area as they cannot be granted refugee status in Thailand, contrasting with more than 100,000 ethnic Karen farther south who are eligible to be refugees. This means Koung Jor residents must instead apply for migrant worker status to officially remain in the country, find illegal employment as day laborers or rely on internal manufacturing projects set up by NGOs such as The Branch Foundation.

A statement on the Norwegian Embassy’s website published on Sept. 2 following a meeting of the MPSI, NRC, SSA-South and Shan Relief and Development Committee in Chiang Mai responded to the concerns of local CBOs by denying that refugees were ever targeted for resettlement.

Ashley South, a Burma analyst working as a consultant for the MPSI, spends around a third of his time inside Burma working with a variety of groups.

“To make it very, very clear we have absolutely no intention in doing anything with refugees,” he told The Irrawaddy. “It is very clearly not the right time for refugees to be repatriated. There are not the right conditions for refugees to return to Burma in safety and dignity and it’s not our business—MPSI is working inside the country with IDPs and other agents.”

The MPSI aims to facilitate talks between the government and armed ethnic groups through funding for consultations with local communities, needs assessments and the establishment of liaison offices near conflict zones.

“We have a number of projects now up and running in different ethnic centers of Burma,” added South. We are doing three different types of projects—the first one is support for the liaison offices which are set up under agreements with the government and the non-state armed groups; the second is community-based monitoring of the peace process and also consultations between the different armed groups and ethnic communities; and the third is needs assessments which are implemented by local organizations.”

Initial criticism of the initiative was sparked by perceptions that funds would be diverted from aid groups that assist vulnerable populations inside Thailand—an allegation strongly denied by Norwegian officials.

“There’s a lot of misinformation around but it’s important to try and actually look at what’s going on and it’s never been about kicking anyone out and we are still supporting the camps and everything,” said Ambassador Nordgaard.