Is Refugee Return Already Underway?
By SAW YAN NAING / THE IRRAWADDY
Representatives from refugee support agencies and international nongovernmental organizations are engaged in meetings with Burmese officials in Naypyidaw to discuss plans for the resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and war refugees in eastern Burma.
Included in the talks are the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Burma’s Minister for Border Affairs. Several meetings have been held in recent weeks, but no group has been willing to disclose detail of the negotiations.
On April 25, Johannes Gerhard Ten Feld, the resident representative of the UNHCR, met with Burmese Minister for Border Affairs Lt-Gen Thein Htay in the capital to discuss ways to enhance cooperation between both parties in matters relating to the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the resettlement of displaced families, according to The New Light of Myanmar.
On May 15, the same newspaper reported that the Bangkok-based UNHCR office’s Southeast Asian Coordinator, James Lynch, had met with Lt-Gen Thein Htay and Deputy Minister for Border Affairs Maj-Gen Zaw Win in Naypyidaw where they “spoke frankly” about those same issues.
The level of talks is seen by many Burmese observers as a preparatory step for the repatriation of Burmese war refugees and the closure of nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. There are more than 1 million IDPs in eastern Burma and 150,000 Burmese refugees at camps along the border.
NGOs working at the Thai-Burmese border have been quick to surmise that both the Thai and Burmese governments are engaging with international organizations because they are paving the way for the repatriation of the refugees.
NGO sources said that three camps are being built in Myawaddy District in southern Karen State to house repatriated Burmese from two refugee camps in Thailand’s Tak Province, most likely Nu Po and Umpieng camps.
According to Thai military sources, a group of eight Burmese officials from Karenni State held a meeting with Thai authorities from bordering Mae Hong Son Province on May 17 in the northern Thai town of Mae Sariang.
The Burmese officials reportedly called on the Thai authorities to shut down refugee camps in Mae Hong Son and to repatriate Karenni refugees, as well as long-neck ethnic Padaung people who are currently housed in temporary camps in Mae Hong Son.
In a recent meeting with the rebel Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in Mae Hong Son, the leading Burmese government peace negotiator, Aung Min, stated that Naypyidaw wants to begin the resettlement of Karenni refugees by the rainy season this year, presumably in June.
Recently, local Thai authorities have been informally surveying refugees from three camps along the Thai-Burmese border about their opinions and their intentions for the near future, said Sally Thompson, the deputy director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, the main humanitarian agency providing aid to the 150,000 refugees.
Thai authorities have reportedly been conducting the informal survey in Mae La camp, the largest refugee center in Tak Province, and two Karenni refugee camps in Mae Hong Son, northern Thailand, since mid-March.
“We have to prepare for the return of refugees, but there is still no timeframe for it,” said Thompson.
Some NGO sources said that any possibility of Burmese refugee repatriation must be conducted voluntarily and not until the peace process between the government and rebel Karen National Union (KNU) is guaranteed.
Since peace negotiations have begun, several refugees have returned to their abandoned villages in Karen State and other parts of eastern Burma to assess the damage, the safety, and the feasibility of returning.
And few refugee families in Ban Don Yang camp in Kanchanaburi Province were reportedly repatriated recently by Thai authorities, but voluntarily, said the sources.
Naw Dee, a housewife in Mae La Oon refugee camp in Mae Hong Son Province said that she has recently visited her hometown in Papun District in northern Karen State to observe the conditions on the ground.
She said that local villagers in Papun District are now rushing to buy (or seize) more land and marking their territories as the potential of a relative economic boom takers root in anticipation of a successful peace agreement.
Naw Dee, also a landowner in Papun District, said that she and other landowners now have to pay a local land tax to respective village heads.
Other refugees have been reported visiting their hometowns across Karen State. While leaving their wives and children at the camps, many men are returning to begin rebuilding their homes and planting crops.
Meanwhile, Norwegian Initiative, a pilot project which is believed to have received some US $5 million in funding from the Norwegian government, is consulting with local communities and conducting assessments among local villagers in IDP zones, as well as in Kyaukkyi District in Pegu Division.
Based on the findings of the needs assessments, the Norwegian Initiative said it will continue to work with ethnic armed groups, the government, international and national NGOs, and communities to support projects which provide peace dividends for people living in areas affected by armed conflict, a source said.
Kitty McKinsey, the regional spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Asia, said, “We know Myanmar is changing very quickly and we want to be prepared. But the return [of refugees] has to be voluntary.”