Three days ago, more than two hundred Karen refugees sheltering at a temple on the Thai-Burma border were forcibly driven back across the border into Burma by units of the Thai Army. Like thousands of refugees, they came to Thailand to escape the Burmese junta’s recent campaign of violence and displacement in the Karen state and other ethnic areas. Many Karen villages were destroyed in fighting between Burmese troops and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) about thirty miles south of the Mae Sot—Myawaddy border crossing.
Speaking about the refugees, Blooming Night Zan, joint secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization said: “They are afraid of the Thai army and were forced back even though they dare not return to their villages.” She continued, “So many people illegally staying at the homes of their kin may cause problems in the longer term, but the refugees do not want to return as long as fighting frequently takes place near their villages.” Others remain in hiding in small enclaves on both sides of the Moei River, which marks the border.
There has been a historical antipathy between Thailand and Burma, but the present circumstances are complex. Thailand has more than 1,200,000 displaced Burmese of all ethnicities. At least 100,000 are housed in large camps strung along the border. But Thailand has never ratified the 1951 U.N. refugee convention, so the Burmese who come seeking asylum lack even the minimal legal protection of refugee status.
Many more displaced Burmese are living a shadowy life of illegal residence and labor in Thailand’s cities, with a large portion working in the hundreds of prison-like factory compounds around Mae Sot, many of these workers women and children. Thailand depends on their labor in manufacture, agriculture, and construction. Burmese refugees will do work that many Thai’s do not wish to do, for lower wages. This parallels the situation of illegal migrants in the U.S.
At the same time, the Thai government is also dependent on trade relations with Burma’s junta. They will do the junta’s bidding in order to protect Thailand’s access to oil and natural gas, timber from Burma’s vanishing forests, precious stones, and other commodities.
As is often the case, the most vulnerable, the refugees, are caught in the middle. They have no defenses, and little opportunity to speak for themselves.
I write this, first of all, to share a story that most of us don’t know about… Then, what shall we do? I spent nearly an hour this afternoon looking for actions we might take in response to Thailand’s shameful actions. As individuals we can, of course, write to the U.S. State Department, the UNHCR, the Thai Government. We can make donations to aid refugees along the border. (My recommendation is the Foundation for the People of Burma < https://secure.groundspring.org/dn/index.php?aid=24039>).
But as yet I’ve seen no campaign or concerted actions against these forced repatriations. There needs to be one. If you know about a campaign, please let us know. And as I think about this, I’ll keep you in the loop.
— Alan Senauke
For excellent news and analysis, see Burma Partnership’s website: http://www.burmapartnership.org/blog/