Myanmar + 1 more

Refugees yearn to return to a free, democratic Burma

By Violet Cho/Mae La Camp, Mae Sot and Saw Yan Naing

Living in the refugee camp is like being a bird in a cage," said Lay Moo, o­ne of more than 2,000 people commemorating World Refugee Day o­n Wednesday at Mae La refugee camp, near Mae Sot, o­n Thailand's border with Burma.

The 21-year-old refugee, who has spent 17 years in the camp, added: "I used to think about studying in university to become a doctor. But I can't find any opportunity."

He and some young companions displayed a banner reading: "We Want Justice in Burma, We Want to Go Home."

"I feel frustrated when I think about my future," Lay Moo said. "I had expectations that I wanted to come true. But I've given them up."

Burmese refugees number more than 700,000, according to a 2006 survey by the US Committee for Refugees. Worldwide there are 35 million refugees. Burmese are the largest group in Southeast Asia.

Some 148,000 ethnic refugees from Burma are currently living in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border. Most fled to escape hostilities in their homeland. An estimated o­ne million internally displaced persons live under appalling conditions o­n the Burmese side of the border, according to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium.

Many young refugees turn to drugs because of the hopelessness of their situation, according to a leader of the Karen Student Network Group, Poe Eh, who is also a refugee. Lay Moo admitted that he had turned to drugs to alleviate his depression.

Poe Eh said restrictions o­n travel, limited educational possibilities and uncertainty about their future combined to make young refugees resort to taking drugs.

Si Si, another young refugee in Umpiem Mai camp, near Mae Sot, confirmed that conditions within the camps were not good. "The rules and regulations of the camp are restrictive, and we are not allowed to go out.

"Even though I have finished high school there's no work for me. I want to continue my studies but I can't find any opportunity. So I get mixed up and depressed."

An entire Karen generation has grown up in Thailand's border refugee camps in the past 20 years. Newcomers constantly arrive, fleeing the o­ngoing military offensives in Karen State. Around 27,000 Karen civilians have been displaced because of o­nslaughts by the Burmese army in Karen State since November last year, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

A report released in 2000 by the Shan Human Rights Foundation highlighted the plight of more than 100,000 ethnic Shan refugees in Thailand. Unlike the Karen and Karenni refugees from Burma, the ethnic Shan are not recognized as refugees and there are no camps for them o­n Thailand's border with Shan State. The Shan refugees have therefore been forced to survive as illegal migrant workers in Thailand.

The Burmese military regime is continuing to enforce its massive relocation program in central Shan State, displacing more than 300,000 people since 1996, and causing large numbers of Shan refugees to continue to flee to Thailand, the SHRF reported.

Many other Burmese people have left to seek work in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, despite official crackdowns o­n illegal migrant workers.

Lay Moo and many like him harbor a hope to return some day to a free and democratic Burma. "We want to go back to our home country when it has total freedom. Freedom to return, not o­nly for the Karen people, but for all Burmese refugees."