Burma Partnership, Strengthening Cooperation for a Free Burma
Signup Now!
Join our mailing list for latest news and information about Burma.

Potential Camp Closures in Thailand Put Refugees from Burma at Risk

By Burma Partnership  •  April 25, 2011

In early April 2011, authorities in Thailand announced their intention to close nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, which would send more than 140,000 refugees back to Burma. That includes 100,000 refugees from Burma who have been officially registered and an estimated 53,000 who have not. This decision has received heavy criticism from local and international human rights groups. The Thai authorities have not indicated when they intend to repatriate the refugees.

The announcement of camp closures comes only 6 months after the fraudulent elections in Burma and the formation of a new parliament composed predominantly of former military officers and those sympathetic to the regime. Since the elections, there has been no opening of political space, conflict in Eastern Burma has intensified and human rights abuses continue throughout the country. Any suggestion that refugees and asylum seekers along the Thai-Burma border could be safely returned to their country in the near future is a complete unreality.

Although Thailand is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention 1951, and therefore has no formal, legal obligation to provide protection and assistance to refugees, it has been a major destination country for asylum seekers and refugees from Burma for over forty years. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), repatriation should be voluntary, based on durable solutions and conducted in “safety and dignity”. Implicit in the notion of voluntary return is the principle of free, prior and informed consent. That is, without any coercion and with sufficient, objective information, a refugee may decide to return to his/her country of origin. It is still unclear whether Thai authorities will use force to close camps and send the refugees back to Burma or whether they will honour and implement the principle of voluntary repatriation. No further action should be taken by the Thai Government until the situation in Burma is stable and there has been a comprehensive consultation with affected populations and civil society. UNHCR officials have also stated that the return of refugees should involve international monitoring and the clearance of landmines, neither of which have been addressed by Thai authorities at this time.

Internal conflict in Burma has been intense and protracted both before and after the elections. Over recent decades, severe and systematic human rights violations have been well documented by local and international non-government organisations and a number of United Nations bodies. By 2009, the military regime had reportedly destroyed over 3,500 ethnic villages, leading to massive displacement of ethnic communities. Ongoing conflict and human rights violations have significantly affected the size and demography of displaced populations from Burma, both inside and outside of camps in Thailand. Rights groups argue that conditions inside Burma remain unsafe and the situation has even worsened in Karen and Shan States in the post election period. The Karen Human Rights Group reported that armed conflict since 7 November 2010 “has caused the largest single exodus of refugees fleeing to Thailand in more than 12 years.” Many refugees experience tremendous anxiety when confronted with the possibility of a forced return.

Returned refugees face a bleak, volatile and unsafe future in Burma. The question remains, what exactly will they be returning to? The current civilian government is a dictatorship in a faint disguise. It is the working model of this government, not its rhetoric that needs to be carefully gauged. The United Nations Development Program Human Development Index ranks Burma as 132 out of 169 countries based on the quality of health services, education and income in Burma. Refugees cannot be resettled successfully in situations where there is chronic poverty. The Landmine Monitor identifies that antipersonnel mines are a major threat in some areas of Eastern Burma. In addition, the camps house known political activists and their families, whose return could likely result in arrest, arbitrary detention, torture or death. Some refugees have spent a generation in camp and have no home, land or livelihood to return to. Until Burma’s regime has established itself as a credible authority that is genuinely committed to democracy and human rights, it should not be trusted with the protection of returned refugees.

The lack of political and personal security in Burma is a powerful example of why repatriation should never be forced and should always occur within a broader context of a genuine transition from conflict to peace and democracy. While there are several economic and political factors at play in Thailand’s relationship with Burma, these interests should not override the humanitarian responsibility to protect refugees. It is certain that forced returns will not be successful, but rather create another generation of crisis in the border region.

Thailand, and other ASEAN member states must engage with Burma’s authorities to genuinely evaluate its performance, not superficial attempts to cloak the military regime with a civilian guise. Promptly following the formation of the nominally civilian government, new President and former General Thein Sein submitted a bid to chair ASEAN in 2014. The new government has yet to produce any signs of genuine reform, and has time and time again failed to pay heed to ASEAN’s concerns and recommendations. Granting Burma the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014 and forcibly repatriating refugees from Burma without any sustainable and durable efforts towards peace, reform and national reconciliation is sure to undermine the credibility of the regional body, and moreover, the efforts of those striving for real change in Burma.

Tags: , , , , , ,

This post is in: Blog

Related Posts
Burma Army Displays Blatant Disregard for 21st Century Panglong Peace Process
On Union Day, Reappraisal of the Peace Process is Needed
ရွမ္းျပည္တိုိးတက္ေရးပါတီ၊ ရွမ္းျပည္တပ္မေတာ္ SSPP/SSA ထုတ္ျပန္ေၾကညာခ်က္
Time for the Government to Accept the Reality of Human Rights Problems, Take Effective Measures and Move Forward
Kachin Region: War Torn Displaced Village Profiles