The Nation-Feb 6

Thailand has hosted refugee camps along its border for more than three decades, and no one is moving out

While the refugee crisis on Myanmar’s western border commands the more urgent attention, the international community cannot ignore its sister situation to the east, on the Thai frontier.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar and Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry have in recent days – in statement and counter-statement – demonstrated that something is seriously wrong in the remote border area.

The rapporteur, Professor Yanghee Lee, said in her mission statement last week that ethnic groups displaced from their homes in Myanmar and encamped on the Thai border have expressed concern that they might be “left behind” with the world’s attention riveted to the Rohingya crisis far to the west. Armed conflict – including potential war crimes – continues in Shan and Kachin states. The much-vaunted peace process undertaken as part of the 21st Century Panglong Conference is unlikely to end the trouble and bring about reconciliation.

There has indeed been much going on recently along the Thailand-Myanmar frontier that has escaped the notice of the international community. This has entailed violent clashes between Myanmar troops and ethnic armed groups that have claimed the lives of many civilians and displaced thousands of people from their homes. One attack late last month involved deadly military air strikes that effectively cut Kachin communities off from the outside world.

Conflict between the Myanmar military and ethnic minorities has been going on ever since Burma gained its independence in the mid-20th century. These clashes drove tens of thousands of people across the border into Thailand.

Thailand, though not a party to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, currently hosts 111,000 displaced persons in nine “temporary” shelters in provinces abutting Myanmar. Thousands of people have been born in the camps, only to grow into adulthood with no viable hope for the future.

Life in the camps is dreadful, and these people have been there for more than three decades.

While Myanmar authorities and government troops have never been able to defeat the armed ethnic insurgents, neither are truces easy to achieve or maintain.

The current peace process was to have been the subject of a third meeting in January, but that was postponed, and no one has said whether they’ll try again this month.

The Myanmar government claimed the postponement was due to technical problems, but the reality is that Aung San Suu Kyi and the army have failed to earn the ethnic groups’ trust. The official approach is to talk about peace while the fighting continues, and of course it’s doomed to fail. The minorities see only an absence of honest commitment on Suu Kyi’s part and an ideological rift between her government and the military.

Meanwhile, the repatriation arrangement Myanmar had forged with Thailand is being affected. With no peace at hand and the sound of gunfire still heard, no Myanmar residents have been sent home since October 2016, when an initial batch of 71 refugees “voluntarily” moved out. No formal repatriation took place last year, but the Foreign Ministry has shown its eagerness for the process to resume.

One would hope that Thailand’s ruling generals would have enough affinity with their counterparts in Myanmar that a resolution would be swift. Unfortunately, men in uniform tend to have little regard for rights and freedoms.

Given the current situation, there can be no guarantee that the refugees could return safely.

(First published in The Nation –