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Activists, refugees await Suu Kyi’s visit

Originally appeared in Bangkok Post

June 2, 2012

Emotions and expectations are running high among exiled Myanmar activists and ethnic groups ahead of the visit of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to the Tak border district today.

They hope her visit to the Mae La refugee camp will raise international awareness of their plight – and they are keeping their fingers crossed for a return to their homeland.

Narumon Thabchumpon, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said Mrs Suu Kyi’s trip would give great impetus to the snail-paced peace negotiations between the Myanmar government and ethnic minority groups.

“Hopefully, a more concrete process can be forged and some hurdles be minimised with Suu Kyi’s hands-on information from inside and across the border,” said Ms Narumon, director of the university’s master’s degree programme in International Development Studies.

Thailand should also benefit from Mrs Suu Kyi’s visit as she will see the heavy burden the Thai government has been shouldering, not only in terms of expense but also issues relating to the decades-long presence of hundreds of thousands of displaced people in border camps, she said.

“She will get exposure to the real problems and she could make a plea for the international community not to accelerate funding cuts for food and health aid to the camps,” Ms Narumon said.

She referred to the closure of a camp for refugees from Indochina in Thailand in the early 1990s.

“It took five years to have a UN presence on the ground, from both the sending and recipient sides, and it also took another 20 years before the last refugee was sent back home. Now, the international community should help build up some prerequisite facilities on both sides first, not abruptly sever aid to indirectly force the camps to close,” said the political scientist.

She added that from her recent talk with Mrs Suu Kyi in Yangon, the Myanmar opposition leader realised that her country needed to achieve internal peace first before any resettlements could be expedited.

Cheery Zahay, a foreign affairs official at the Institute of Chin Affairs, said a clearer system for resettlement must be established before refugees and activists can return home, as invited by President Thein Sein. “For us, a secure environment for freedom of expression is important. But, so far, nothing is certain. I hope Aung San Suu Kyi will help highlight the issue in parliament and with the government,” said Ms Cheery.

She also echoed the delight of Myanmar people across the border that Mrs Suu Kyi was able to meet migrants and displaced people in Thailand.

“No leaders from Myanmar have visited the camps in the past two decades, so her visit will help raise the plight of displaced people for future decisions on necessary policies,” said Ms Cheery.

She noted though that ethnic reconciliation remains sketchy as conflicts continue and landmines are still littered around Myanmar.

Khin Ohmar, a Myanmar activist with the Burma Partnership, said she wanted Mrs Suu Kyi to call on the European Union to resume funding to refugees and cross-border aid to internally displaced persons in Kachin State.

She also called on neighbouring governments not to repatriate refugees until security for those people was assured by law and practical measures such as demining were carried out.

The Mae Sot-based activist also called on the Myanmar army to immediately stop military operations and Thein Sein’s government to engage in inclusive dialogue with ethnic groups.

“These are practical steps to stop war and the humanitarian crisis affecting ethnic people, and to end the human rights abuses. And we would very much like to express that to [Mrs Suu Kyi],” Khin Ohmar said.

Many minorities, including the Karen and the Shan, have reached peace agreements with the government, but the initial steps in the ceasefires were not fully implemented, most notably in the Kachin area.

Exiles in Bangkok said Myanmar officials involved in peace negotiations have no real power. The Myanmar military still holds the reins of power, especially in resources-rich states such as Kachin.

Karen National Union general secretary Naw Zipporah Sein said she welcomed Mrs Suu Kyi’s tour of the Mae La camp so the democracy icon could see for herself the complicated and chronic ethnic issues in mainstream Myanmar politics and come up with ways to resolve them.

“Reaching a stage of political settlement is far from reality, unless a guarantee for security and safety for the displaced can be arranged,” said the general secretary, who last month met Myanmar negotiators and Mrs Suu Kyi in Yangon.

View the original article here.

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