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Reforms offer scant hope to refugees

Burma | Human Rights

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 the hilly border town of Mae Sariang 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 hopelessness that characterises 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 early 1980 after the Burma army launched a military offensive in his village. What he then thought would be a “temporary” shelter remains his “home.”

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

Htun Htun, chairman of Mae La refugee camp, agrees that the little change in Burma is limited to “big cities”, the region which was known as Burma Proper during British 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 hometowns.”

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 this year.

Sally Thompson
, the deputy director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, says that refugees are also 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, adding that she, however, can’t predict when this hope comes true.

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.

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