‘Reforms’ in Burma Offer Little Hope to Refugees
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‘Reforms’ in Burma Offer Little Hope to Refugees

By SAW YAN NAING / THE IRRAWADDY Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Refugees at the Mae La camp on the Thai-Burmese border. (Photo: Moe Kyaw / The Irrawaddy)

MAE HONG SON, Thailand — Burma has showcased a series of “reforms” to the international community, but homecoming remains a distant dream for the thousands of war refugees living in neighbouring Thailand.

“Progress can be seen only in big cities, not in our hometown,” says 61-year-old Saw Raw, sitting on the balcony of his house at the Mae La Oon refugee camp in Mae Sariang District in northern Thailand. It’s a cold winter morning and the native of Karen State in eastern Burma is listening to his Chinese-made radio tuned to Washington, D.C.-based Radio Free Asia in Burmese, his one and only source of news from his home country.

“I think the day is still far away when we will get to go back home,” Saw Raw adds, shaking his head in the hopelessness that characterizes the mood among the over 40,000 refugees that have called this isolated camp home for more than three decades. Raw fled his hometown in the early 1980s after the Burma army launched a military offensive that destroyed his village. What he thought at the time would be a “temporary” shelter remains his “home” nearly three decades later.

Raw is one of the roughly 140,000 Burmese refugees living in nine camps on Thai-Burmese border since 1984. Armed ethnic minority groups, like the Karen National Union (KNU), have been fighting for autonomy since 1948, but the government remains unwilling to discuss devolution.

Htun Htun, chairman of the Mae La refugee camp, agrees that the recent signs of change in Burma are limited to the country's urban areas, in the region that was known as Burma Proper during the era of British colonial rule and was administered separately without including the ethnic states.

“I think refugee repatriation is still far away,” he says. “It will be possible only when peace and stability prevail in the ethnic homelands.”

Despite persistent tensions in Burma’s ethnic states, Thailand has repeatedly voiced its intention to repatriate the refugees. These calls intensified when a new Burmese government led by President Thein Sein, an ex-military general, was sworn in last year.

Sally Thompson, the deputy director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, says that refugees are eager to return home but the armed conflicts in Burma, especially in Kachin State, are growing despite the recent reforms. There are about 500,000 internally displaced ethnic civilians in the east, north and south of Burma due to armed conflicts, she points out.

“We always hope that the refugees are able to return home sometime,” Thompson says. She added, however, that she can’t predict when this will be possible.

About 70,000 Burmese refugees have been resettled in third countries, but many have not opted for that in hope of returning home, says Thompson.

The 54-year-old Paw Mu Nan, a refugee woman and the secretary of the Mae La Oon camp who left Burma 25 years ago, said, “Of course, we will return home if there is peace.”

“If there were no Burmese troops in their hometowns, many people would have returned home,” Nan says. She fled Karen State after the military seized a numbers of Karen rebel bases and occupied civilian villages including Nan’s village Pan Het in Papun District between 1984 and 1997.

Religious faith is strong among many ethnic Karen. Every Sunday, they pray at their churches for the realization of their dream of returning home. On Jan. 12, many Christian Karen people across the world—in countries as far flung as Japan, Thailand, the United States, England and other EU countries—held prayers for peace in Karen State while the leaders of the KNU held peace talk with the government.

The result of those talks was an 11-point ceasefire agreement reached on the same day. Under the deal, the KNU is allowed to open liaison offices, and the government undertakes to end forced labor, arbitrary taxation and extortion. Despite the agreement, however, the war refugees are still uncertain when they will have a chance to safely return home. While some express optimism, few believe that it will be possible to return home in the near future.

Meanwhile, the relative calm in Karen State contrasts starkly with the deadly war that has been waged in Kachin State since last June, when the government ended a truce that had lasted 17 years. La Nan, the spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Organization, the 10,000-strong armed group that is battling Burmese army forces, says the government has been using helicopters not only to carry out injured soldiers, but also to send ammunition and troops to the combat zone since Nov. 25.

Local sources say the war in Kachin State has already displaced more than 45,000 Kachin civilians, and it's impossible to say when they will be able to return to their homes.

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Hawikom Wrote:
Not only have this reforms offer little hope for Burmese refugees abroad to come home but the entire civilians in Burma have no tangible hope by this ongoing hit and run reforms as there are clearly two camps in Burmese government. The other camp is trying to cement military role by using this nominally civilian-parliament while the other camp is walking seemingly on the way to reform.

I think military controlled parliament now needs one-way agreement between the two camps before they can make genuine approach to the same goal, democracy. The people in Burma now see that there is still a loophole in this reform as full change could bring back some thieves from old regime back who are now seriously not only in fear of losing all their illegal wealth but could further fall themselves down into jail if justice is finally unloaded.

KML Wrote:
President U Thein Sein should recognise the existence of Two Diplomatic Fronts, FORMAL and INFORMAL. The Formal front is MOF & diplomatic missions across the world, working just like machines and traditionally hopeless in public relation. The Informal front is overseas Burmese dominated by refugee population and associated NGOs. As our country produces significant number of refugees, the voice of informal diplomatic front is quite strong. The successive military junta failed to ignore this factor. If The President wants to promote his nation building progress (take it optimistic view), he needs to win the heart of informal front. The president needs an Independent & Honest Commission to tackle refugee issues and extensive public relation drive is necessary. While peace talks are underway in the Eastern Front of the country will hopefully reverse the refugees, abolishing discriminatory, shameful Ne Win’s 1982 Citizenship Law is compulsory to solve refugee issue in the Western Front.

khar Wrote:
Without ethnic people, there is no burma as we know now; no independence, no burmese government, no jade, no rubies, no irrawaddy, no Tatmataw. Without ethnic people, burma will be a buddhist, backward, deserted, hot, dry super poor in terms of natural resources and everything else place. It is the ethnic people who made independence and everything else that comes with it possible. we, ethnic people were never ruled by no one, not by foreign occupiers; we till the land we love, we were the masters of the land we inherited until this evil, buddhist burmese colonizers and occupiers come along.

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