Blending In
covering burma and southeast asia
Thursday, June 01, 2023


Blending In



Most ethnic minorities fleeing from eastern Burma are recognized as refugees in Thailand, but the Shan are afforded no such status

Occupying Burma’s largest state and with a population of about 5 million, the Shan, or Tai Yai, share a close cultural and historical identity with their Thai neighbors—the languages are similar and many Shan are able to assimilate easily within Thailand. In fact, many Shan people do not, or refuse to, speak Burmese.

One million Shan currently live in Thailand, mostly in Chiang Mai Province and the northern region, where they have a reputation for being independent and hard working.

After a drunk government soldier murdered her husband, Par Yuan and her childern fed to Thailand. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

The Thai authorities’ official explanation as to why the Shan are not granted refugee status is that they have not fled war and persecution as entire communities. However, many observers say the real reason is to avoid opening the floodgates to an influx of Shan.

If it were simply a matter of proving persecution, the people of Shan State would surely have a strong case. With various ethnic armies either fighting each other or the Burmese regime, and a network of drug trafficking in the region, the Shan well know the harsh realities of conflict and discrimination.

Take the case of Par Yuan, whose eyes welled up as she recalled the day in 2002 when a drunken government soldier shot her husband.

“We lived peacefully in a small village as farmers,” she said. “We had three children, the youngest just 1 year old.

“One day, while my husband was preparing dinner, a drunk Tatmadaw soldier from a nearby base stumbled past. He told my husband he wanted 200 baht (US $6). He pointed his rifle at my husband, who quickly dug out 20 baht, the only money he had.

“The soldier snatched the money and shouted at him. My husband begged the soldier and held his hands up, but the soldier shot him through his hand. Then he shot him again and again.

Shan children on their way to school from Kuang Gor camp in northern Thailand. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

“I was terrified,” she said. “I ran with my baby and my second son to a UWSA [United Wa State Army] camp. I begged the commander to help. The captain sent a driver to the Tatmadaw base to complain about the incident, but nothing came from it.

“The Wa captain told me I should walk back to my village and check if my husband was alive. When I got home, government soldiers surrounded my house. They told me my husband was dead and that I was to say he had been killed by a mortar shell, otherwise they would arrest me and throw me in jail.”

Par Yuan and her children fled to Thailand. They now stay at Kuang Gor, the only Shan camp supported by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which supplies basic food rations to 600 people because they have no fields to grow crops.

The local Thai authorities oversee the Shan camp and the residents are permitted to work, usually as laborers in nearby fields, while the children attend a Thai school.

“Given the choice, most of the people in this camp would not want to resettle in a third country,” said camp leader Sai Leng. “They want to go home. Shan people are farmers and naturally hard workers.”

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