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‘Reforms’ in Burma Offer Little Hope to Refugees

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MAE HONG SON, Thailand — Burma has showcased a series of “reforms” to the international community, but homecoming remains a distant dream for the thousands of war refugees living in neighbouring Thailand.

“Progress can be seen only in big cities, not in our hometown,” says 61-year-old Saw Raw, sitting on the balcony of his house at the Mae La Oon refugee camp in Mae Sariang District in northern Thailand. It’s a cold winter morning and the native of Karen State in eastern Burma is listening to his Chinese-made radio tuned to Washington, D.C.-based Radio Free Asia in Burmese, his one and only source of news from his home country.

“I think the day is still far away when we will get to go back home,” Saw Raw adds, shaking his head in the hopelessness that characterizes the mood among the over 40,000 refugees that have called this isolated camp home for more than three decades. Raw fled his hometown in the early 1980s after the Burma army launched a military offensive that destroyed his village. What he thought at the time would be a “temporary” shelter remains his “home” nearly three decades later.

Raw is one of the roughly 140,000 Burmese refugees living in nine camps on Thai-Burmese border since 1984. Armed ethnic minority groups, like the Karen National Union (KNU), have been fighting for autonomy since 1948, but the government remains unwilling to discuss devolution.

Htun Htun, chairman of the Mae La refugee camp, agrees that the recent signs of change in Burma are limited to the country's urban areas, in the region that was known as Burma Proper during the era of British colonial rule and was administered separately without including the ethnic states.

“I think refugee repatriation is still far away,” he says. “It will be possible only when peace and stability prevail in the ethnic homelands.”

Despite persistent tensions in Burma’s ethnic states, Thailand has repeatedly voiced its intention to repatriate the refugees. These calls intensified when a new Burmese government led by President Thein Sein, an ex-military general, was sworn in last year.

Sally Thompson, the deputy director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, says that refugees are eager to return home but the armed conflicts in Burma, especially in Kachin State, are growing despite the recent reforms. There are about 500,000 internally displaced ethnic civilians in the east, north and south of Burma due to armed conflicts, she points out.

“We always hope that the refugees are able to return home sometime,” Thompson says. She added, however, that she can’t predict when this will be possible.

About 70,000 Burmese refugees have been resettled in third countries, but many have not opted for that in hope of returning home, says Thompson.

The 54-year-old Paw Mu Nan, a refugee woman and the secretary of the Mae La Oon camp who left Burma 25 years ago, said, “Of course, we will return home if there is peace.”

“If there were no Burmese troops in their hometowns, many people would have returned home,” Nan says. She fled Karen State after the military seized a numbers of Karen rebel bases and occupied civilian villages including Nan’s village Pan Het in Papun District between 1984 and 1997.

Religious faith is strong among many ethnic Karen. Every Sunday, they pray at their churches for the realization of their dream of returning home. On Jan. 12, many Christian Karen people across the world—in countries as far flung as Japan, Thailand, the United States, England and other EU countries—held prayers for peace in Karen State while the leaders of the KNU held peace talk with the government.

The result of those talks was an 11-point ceasefire agreement reached on the same day. Under the deal, the KNU is allowed to open liaison offices, and the government undertakes to end forced labor, arbitrary taxation and extortion. Despite the agreement, however, the war refugees are still uncertain when they will have a chance to safely return home. While some express optimism, few believe that it will be possible to return home in the near future.

Meanwhile, the relative calm in Karen State contrasts starkly with the deadly war that has been waged in Kachin State since last June, when the government ended a truce that had lasted 17 years. La Nan, the spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Organization, the 10,000-strong armed group that is battling Burmese army forces, says the government has been using helicopters not only to carry out injured soldiers, but also to send ammunition and troops to the combat zone since Nov. 25.

Local sources say the war in Kachin State has already displaced more than 45,000 Kachin civilians, and it's impossible to say when they will be able to return to their homes.

“The civil war will go on for a long time if the government doesn’t make real peace with ethnic minorities,” warns La Nan.

Last November, Physicians for Human Rights conducted an investigation into allegations of rights abuses and atrocities by the Burmese military in Kachin State and found that between June and September 2011, the army looted food from civilians, fired indiscriminately at villagers, threatened them with attacks, and forcibly used them as porters and minesweepers.

According to the Thailand-based Kachin News Group, on Nov. 30—the same day that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Burma for a landmark visit—government troops killed civilians and burned their houses in Kachin State.

Ashley South, a Burma watcher, says that the international community should encourage reforms by the government of President Thein Sein, but serious and widespread human rights abuses, particularly in areas affected by on-going armed conflicts, must not be ignored. Without addressing the aspirations and grievances of ethnic minorities, social and political problems cannot be solved, South adds.

Meanwhile, refugees living in Thailand and elsewhere continue to pray for the day when they can return to their homeland, but also doubt that they will see that day anytime soon.

Maw Lu, a 28-year-old refugee who has spent most of his life in a refugee camp, says he doesn't want to be foolhardy and attempt to return too soon. Going to a third country is a better option, he says, not only for himself but also for the “following generations”. Yet he still hopes to see the land of his ancestors again someday, when and if peace arrives. “But I might be an old man by then,” he says, laughing.