By Tanvi Pate
Only just in mid April, Thailand announced that it would close down nine refugee camps on its 1400 kilometres long eastern border with Myanmar. It’s important to consider as to why Thailand wants to end its twenty years humanitarian policy of assisting refugees? What kind of prospects might be faced by the refugees once they are back in Myanmar? What are the views of the Nongovernmental Organisations (NGOs) and what other options are in pipeline for the refugees that might enable them to escape this bleak scenario? This article considers these various questions and suggests some policy options for Thailand at the end.
Before moving forward onto other analysis it’s necessary to ponder upon the history and nature of the Burmese refugee problem that forced several hundred thousand Burmese into the Thai sanctuaries. Myanmar is home to around a hundred ethnic groups of which a sizable number are combating for independent homelands. The most prominent ones are the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon, Chin and Rohingya who have been victims of religious persecution, forced relocation, destruction of food crops, conscription, minesweeping, slavery and rape at the hands of the Burmese army which has been trying to integrate the dissident groups into the army as border forces. The civil war against the military junta is decades old and over this period thousands of ethnic groups have fled across the border or sought refuge within the hilly jungle areas of Myanmar and Thailand to escape cruelty and suffering. Thailand has played a host to refugees from the countries like Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia but the steady increase in refugees from Myanmar has not abated. There are an estimated 140,000 refugees in the camps and nearly 2 to 3 million Burmese illegal migrants scattered across the whole of Thailand. The camps are supported by international NGOs, the key being the Thai-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) which is a coalition of twelve humanitarian organisations that provide for the basic needs of refugees.
There are three crucial developments that might have led Thailand to reassess its policies on refugees. The first very clear indication given by Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya is that the conditions back in Burma have stabilised due to the elections in November 2010, when the military junta was officially disbanded and instead a civilian government was established under the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The conditions politically are now more conducive and therefore this was the opportune time for the refugees to return safely. Another logical reason might be that it is increasingly becoming difficult for Thailand economically to shoulder the responsibility of so many refugees especially under current global economic environment which has forced many Southeast Asian countries to adopt austerity policies. Tawin Pleansri, the head of Thai National Security Council, commented that ‘they (refugees) have been in Thailand for more than twenty years and it became our burden to take care of them’, basically alluding to the fact that Thailand was incapable of supporting them any longer. Even the TBBC announced that higher exchange rates and increased prices of foodstuff had forced them to cut rations by 20 percent. The third reason for Thai government’s harder line on refugees could be purely a politico-economic one. Thailand is one of the largest sources of foreign direct investment in Myanmar and has an interest in exploiting the natural resources that its neighbour has to offer. A multi billion dollar Thai investment in Myanmar along with intentions to benefit from the hydro-electricity plants already planned in the east of Myanmar, are cited as the main instigators of the current Thai decision on refugees.
Thailand overall is struggling between the two extremes. On one hand it wants to manage an international image of a morally responsible country whereas on the other it wishes to foster better economic ties with the neighbour that is bestowed with abundant natural resources. It’s easy to pin point various policies adopted by Thailand periodically over the years to please the authoritarian leaders of Myanmar and make the utmost of economic opportunities available. Thailand was the leading country in promoting Myanmar’s membership in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) despite many drawbacks of the military junta. Additionally, during 1990’s many a times the border was closed for the new arrivals and pleas were refused to relocate the camps outside the reach of Burmese army on the border, in order to avoid a derailment of political relations with Myanmar. However, there are indications that Thailand’s decision to repatriate the refugees might not rake substantial benefits in longer term.
According to many international organisations sending the refugees back presently will amount to nothing else but a disaster. With opposition parties not allowed to compete in the elections, the Myanmar elections were termed as a sham by many western countries. Most termed it as a continuation of a junta rule albeit under the guise of a civilian democracy. If the refugees were sent back then they would face similar troubles and repressive tactics leading them to escape yet again as illegal migrants thus bringing back the situation to square one. There are no indications that Myanmar’s policy on refugees has changed as refugees within the camps are still considered dissidents by the government to be dealt with severity. Moreover, over the years the number of forces on the border has swelled leading to the flight of an ever growing number of refugees indicating that the situation instead of improving has in fact steadily worsened. All NGOs agree that refugees should return but only when the conditions are safe enough for them to do so. Involuntary repatriation will put many lives in danger and will create a dent in the international image of Thailand.
With the implementation of few proper mechanisms the quality of life that the refugees lead within the camps could improve and also lessen the burden on the Thai government. For instance, there are no proper screening facilities in Thailand leaving most of the refugees unregistered. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has access only to around 100,000 refugees who are registered, leaving the organisation incapable of assisting other unregistered refugees whose future remains desolate. Proper access to all the refugees will allow the UNHCR to effectively perform its voluntary relocation policy that has successfully relocated almost 65000 Burmese refugees to countries like United States, Canada and Australia. Adequate education facilities and temporary legal working permits within Thailand would enable these refugees to support themselves. Right now due to restricted access to education and without work permit most of the refugees are completely dependent upon NGO handouts and have limited employment in what Thai Freedom House terms as 3D jobs, those jobs which are rejected by Thai citizens as dirty, difficult and dangerous. Thailand also hasn’t signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, leading to an obscurity on the legal rights for refugees and migrants. Often refugees are confused with migrants creating animosity within Thai society towards them. Once signed, there will be a clear transparency between migrants and refugees, creating proper legal rights for the latter.
International community also has to play a greater supportive role. Despite the longest running refugee problem and one of the poorest countries in the world, Myanmar on an average receives $4 international assistance per person as opposed to other poorest nations in the world where the average is $42. International community has to establish sustainable mechanisms for dealing with this problem through larger reallocation of aid.
Thailand’s humanitarian policy has supported Burmese refugees for nearly two decades. One needs to appreciate the fact that Thailand might be facing an economic ‘’burden’’ so cannot shoulder the responsibility of refugees for long. Also the issue about harbouring the refugees does lead an otherwise good Thai-Myanmar relationship to sometimes splinter, however with foresight it can be easily discerned that sending the refugees back during such uncertain times will only lead them to flee once again. At present, it is imperative that Thai government works in coordination with international organisations and take advantage of all the assistance available as only this in future might lead to an overall betterment of all the parties involved.