Burmese Agonies, Overlooked: an Analyst's Sojourn

As the media picks and chooses the humanitarian crisis du jour, Burma’s forgotten refugees languish in Thailand.

MAE SOT, Thailand-Primitive bamboo huts carpet undulating hills near this small, rural Thai town. Thousands of ethnic Karen refugees have fled their homes across the Moie River in Burma (also known as Myanmar). The camps offer a modicum of security, but little hope.  And the Thai government would like to close them down, even if that means returning the victims to the tender mercies of Rangoon's reigning junta.

Burma's government has been a target of international opprobrium ever since it voided the 1990 election that would have brought Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi to power. But the depredations of the so-called State Peace and Development Council reach far beyond Rangoon. The government has been battling ethnic groups seeking autonomy since the nation won its independence from Great Britain after World War II.

Conflict has long waxed and waned, and some groups have made a peace of sorts. However, throughout eastern Burma combat continues with the Karenni and Karen. Observes the humanitarian organization Christian Aid:  "In fighting the ethnic guerrilla groups along the Thai-Burmese border, the Burmese army has launched an all-out counter-insurgency war in which civilians are the deliberate targets and terror is a weapon of war."  The result is hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Burma, a million or more illegal migrants in Thailand, and an estimated 160,000 refugees in nine Thai refugee camps, about 120,000 of whom are Karen.

The economic and social burden on Thailand is obvious. Equally significant, though, may be the desire of Thai businessmen, including the recently ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, to take advantage of economic opportunities in Burma. Thus, Thai officials in the recent past have cracked down on Burmese human rights activists, pressed urban refugees back into the border camps, stepped up deportations into Burma, and pursued efforts to move the refugees back in Thailand or resettle them overseas. How Thaksin's forced, ignominious exit could affect those policies remains to be seen.

Of course, there's a reason so many people have fled their homeland: pervasive brutality, arbitrary arrest, property theft, impressment as porters, forced relocation, physical abuse, rape, and murder.  Warns Christian Aid, those forced back "could face serious reprisals from the Burmese authorities." Although the Karen and SPDC have had an informal ceasefire since 2004, in February the Burmese junta resumed military operations, displacing thousands.

Thus, a return to Burma is no option without peace, and genuine peace is unlikely so long as the SPDC remains in power. In the latter's view, disarmament of rebel groups is the precondition for any agreement, but disarmament would leave any agreement unenforceable.
The West has few good options.  Removing the SPDC would be desirable, but sanctions have failed.  Christian Aid recommends that Rangoon reform its policies-essentially that the brutal dictatorship stop being a brutal dictatorship.  That would be wonderful but is, shall we say, a bit unlikely.

More realistic would be for Thailand to reverse its hard-line towards Burmese escapees.  Bangkok should ratify the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.  It also should loosen restrictions on Burmese escapees and cooperate with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees in assessing asylum-seekers.

In turn, Western states should better assist Thailand in caring for refugees and, equally important, welcome those seeking refuge.  Of particular concern, notes the group Refugees International, is the status of former child soldiers:  "With the exception of New Zealand, no country has expressed interest in this very vulnerable population."

Moreover, by favoring educated refugees for resettlement, Western governments have diminished services within the camps. Refugees International suggests increased "funding for the training of refugee workers to replace those who are resettled."

Washington needs to lead by example in accepting more Burmese.  The numbers are not huge:  the United States currently sets a limit of 80,000 refugees worldwide for resettlement, but rarely hits the annual limit.

One stumbling block to U.S. resettlement efforts has been the Patriot Act's ban on accepting anyone who provides "material support" for armed rebellion.  Perversely, that provision has been applied to supporters of the Karen National Union and All Burma Students' Democratic Front in opposing a regime under sanction by the U.S. government.  Common villagers have been ruled ineligible for simply feeding or sheltering a Karen soldier.

Under pressure, the Department of State recently waived this requirement for several thousand Karen refugees.  That's a good start, but Congress should not leave the issue up to bureaucratic discretion.  Instead, legislators should limit the provision's application to real terrorists.

Moreover, as proposed by the group Christian Freedom International, the United States also could accept a small group of orphans, refugee children currently adrift in refugee camps who most desperately need a stable home.  CFI has roughly 1000 of them under its care, but they are presently caught in bureaucratic limbo, since they lack official Burmese papers but are not Thai nationals.  In turn, the children are not certified by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a problem exacerbated by Washington's bureaucratic hesitations.

Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration affairs, recently visited Southeast Asia, including Thailand, to "examine refugee programs and policy," explained the State Department.  There is much to examine.