to ‘Living in My Village without Any Fear’
Mae La refugee camp is not a fun place during the rainy season. This
fact of life became obvious as I cumbersomely tried to negotiate its
muddy hills and gullies with my fancy hiking shoes ‘specifically
designed’ for this environment. I was full of admiration for the elderly
women in sandals or Wellington boots with huge heavy loads perched on
their heads, serenely gliding through the bamboo huts and over the
terrain that proved a veritable soggy obstacle course to me and my small
laptop bag. It seemed as if this topography was their natural terrain,
that they had been born to effortlessly grace the paths made muddy and
dangerous by the estimated 50,000 pairs of displaced feet in residence.
Yet this is not their natural terrain. The refugees fled here out of
necessity and desperately want to return to their homes in Burma—mostly
in Karen State across the border.
I was on my way to interview Saw De (a pseudonym), a farmer and father
of two who sought refuge in Mae La in 1997 after atrocities were
committed by the Burmese army in his village in Hpa-An District in Karen
State. I wanted to find out his views and those of his fellow refugees
on possible repatriation and whether they thought the time was right to
realize their dream of returning home.
What is the general view of repatriation among the refugees in the
“If they repatriate the refugees suddenly, the refugees worry that it
won’t be easy as they won’t have had enough time to plan properly.”
Do you trust the Burmese government?
“Me and my friends don’t trust the Burmese government. The ceasefire
is still very uncertain.”
In many ways, Mae La has become your home. What would you miss about
it if you were repatriated?
“I cannot say. It’ll be hard to go back, but I won’t really miss
anything about Mae La.”
What would you look forward to if you were repatriated?
“When I lived in my village, we always feared the Burmese army coming
to take military porters. Here it is more stable when it comes to being
attacked; but if the army stopped doing this, then I would look forward
to living in my village without any fear.”
Do you have any fears about being repatriated?
“First, one worry is that there is no real plan. We do not understand
the process. Secondly, I cannot trust the Burmese government. At the
moment, even though we live here, we’ve heard many times from people
inside Karen State that the government is sending more troops to Brigade
5. They are also sending more rations and fortifying their military
bases. It is not a real ceasefire. For me, if the government really
wants peace, they have to withdraw their troops. Because they haven’t,
we look at the circumstances and realize that we cannot trust them.”
As well as a troop withdrawal, what would have to happen before you
felt safe enough to return?
“The refugees’ security has to be guaranteed as does our freedom to
travel and work. These things cannot be controlled by the Burmese
government. The first step has to be that the international community
must recognize and sign an agreement to take care of the refugees, not
just the Burmese and Thai governments. Our Karen leaders also have to
become involved in the process. I worry very much that, if it’s just
left up to the Thai and Burmese governments, there will be no
opportunity for the returning refugees to flee again if the hostilities
resume. The first time we had to flee was difficult, but the second time
would be even harder, especially if the camps were closed. We would just
How would you provide for your family if you were repatriated?
“I worry a lot as I’ve heard that it’s already very difficult to find
food, even before the refugees are sent back. In my area, there is
hardly any jungle left to find wood for houses or animals to hunt, and
there aren’t enough paddy fields to support the returning refugees.”
Considering this situation, would you still prefer to be repatriated
to a rural area or to an urban area where there are more facilities?
“Rural, not urban—we are Karen! We don’t want to live in an urban
setting; we wouldn’t survive. There would be no jobs for us.”
Do you think you’ll have a choice?
“I don’t know as we’ve had absolutely no information. It’s too early
to answer this as we don’t understand anything about the process.”
The voluntary repatriation process might require you to give your
personal information to the authorities, including the Burmese and Thai
governments. Would you feel secure doing this?
“The first thing I would ask would be for a guarantee for my family’s
safety. If they cannot guarantee this, or I don’t believe them, I will
not give them any information.”
Do you feel prepared for repatriation?
Do you think the Thai government wants to get rid of you?
“Yes, they have wanted to send us back for a long time. We’ve known
this for a long time, but I trust the international community to stand
up for our rights. Because of this, they cannot force us to return even
if they want to.”
Why do you think the Burmese government wants the repatriation
process to happen?
“It’s part of the Burmese government’s strategy. Previously, they
oppressed us to make us leave Burma and flee to Thailand. Now they want
us back so they can destroy the Karen people. It is ethnic cleansing.”
In your opinion, what is the best way to carry out the repatriation
“First, we have to have our security guaranteed, both personal
security and food security, so the international community, donors and
organizations, such as the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, need to
protect us and look after us for at least two to three years. We also
need the right to decide our own future. We cannot just be sent back to
the Burmese government and have our futures decided by them.”
Is there anything else you would like to add?
“What I would like to say is this: the refugees themselves must have
the right to decide when it happens. We don’t want to stay here forever,
but we need to be sure that the situation is stable enough for us to
return. Then we must be granted personal security and given donations of
food until we can become self-reliant. We fear that, if we are sent back
now, we will be under the direct control of the Burmese government. We
need to be granted the freedom to work and travel. I cannot trust the
Burmese government as they are not truthful and are always lying. We
have all experienced their dishonesty and have heard that it is still
continuing. It’s far too early to repatriate. If they force
repatriation, I will not be part of it. I will flee to somewhere else in
Thailand—along the border or deeper inside. We hope that our leaders and
the international community are considering our hopes and fears in their
plans. If our leaders don’t agree with the process, we will not be part
of it. Even though our Karen leaders are having ceasefire talks, we
worry that they are being tricked by the Burmese government. We worry
that they are being friendly now but that they will attack us again once
the refugees are home and we will be in danger again with nowhere to
flee to. The Burmese military is still attacking ethnic people in Burma,
and the ceasefire is just along the Thai-Burmese border where the
refugees are. They are trying to trick us. We trust the international
community but not the Thai and Burmese governments. We need
self-determination so we can rely on our own leaders. We cannot be
controlled by the Burmese government.”
To illustrate Saw De’s point about the perceived untrustworthy nature of
the Burmese government, one of his friends adds, “In Myawaddy, a lot of
foreign NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are arriving and setting
up offices. They are surveying the area for the repatriation of
refugees. Then the government is confiscating people’s land to
accommodate their plans so they look good in front of the international
community. The government is also buying electricity from Thailand and
has built cables to take it directly to the planned industrial zone.
It’s bypassing the local people. They are not gaining anything from the
government or the NGOs’ presence.”
Over the course of my interviews, Saw De’s assertion that the Burmese
government’s intentions are not to be trusted was made time and time
again, and his questions about what exactly will happen to the
repatriated and how they will have their needs catered for were also
running themes. The ceasefire negotiations alone have thrown up so many
unanswered questions that the complexities of a repatriation process
would be just too much to deal with at this confusing time, especially
considering Burma’s, and particularly Karen State’s, fragile
infrastructure. To many people, the lack of a Burmese troop withdrawal
seems to be the first major hurdle to be crossed and is causing much
anxiety in the camps. There is little wonder about this attitude
considering their record of barbaric atrocities. They are, after all,
the main reason why people like Saw De became displaced and stuck in the
refugee camps in Thailand in the first place. It would seem that it is
too early to repatriate Burmese refugees of any ethnicity, and the
scramble to do so could cause a humanitarian catastrophe. It must be
remembered that the refugees on the Thai-Burmese border are desperate to
leave the muddy and crowded camps and return home and would do so at the
first true opportunity. However, as Burmese troops remain in strategic
offensive positions in their homeland, the present time is not it.
* This article appeared in the July-August 2012 issue of the
publication produced by Burma Issues in Bangkok, Thailand.