Suu Kyi Meets Refugees

By Saw Yan Naing 2 June 2012

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Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived at Mae La refugee camp in western Thailand at 10:30 on Saturday morning where she began a tour of camp facilities, including a school and a hospital. A crowd of 2,000, dressed mostly in traditional ethnic Karen costume, turned out at a football park to welcome her.

Dressed immaculately in white with a garland in her hair, she arrived at Mae Sot Airport an hour earlier where she was greeted by some 5,000 adoring supporters.

With a population of 40,000 mainly ethnic Karens, Mae La is the largest of nine refugee camps dotted along the length of the mountainous Thai-Burmese border.

The refugees had been active since dawn, decorating the camp, and hanging pictures of Suu Kyi and her father, independence hero, Gen. Aung San, in front of their bamboo and wooden thatched huts.

“I am very happy that Daw Suu has decided to visit us,” said Naw Day Day Poe, the coordinator of social welfare at Mae La. “I hope she can help us return home with dignity and in safety.”

Suu Kyi’s visit to the camp is a historic moment, not least because in 1993 seven of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Costa Rican resident Oscar Arias, visited refugees at the border to express concern and show support for Suu Kyi who was, at the time, under house arrest.

In total, some 145,000 refugees are currently sheltered at the camps, the vast majority of whom fled their villages due to intense conflict in eastern Burma over the past decades between Burmese government forces and rebel groups like the Karen National Union.

The refugees at the camps are provided food and basic supplies by NGOs such as the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which is an umbrella group of international agencies. However, some 40 percent of the international aid that was previously supplied to TBBC has been cut, with the result that fewer refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) can be supplied.

But while Thailand-based NGOs and exiled groups face drastic cuts in funding, more and more development aid is being poured into organizations based in Rangoon.

Earlier in the week, Norway’s Deputy Foreign Secretary Torgeir Larsen defended his government’s plan to channel aid into conflict zones through Rangoon at a time when a fragile ceasefire is in place.

“Moving from ceasefire to real peace is what we are aiming at,” said Larsen. “It’s a delicate and long-term process and this is the first phase.”

NGOs and ethnic groups criticized the plan, however, saying that the initiative would coerce refugees into returning home when their safety cannot be guaranteed.

Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, have not yet announced their support or opposition to the plan to repatriate refugees.