Date: Thu, 17 Sep 98 08:53:37 CDT
From: email@example.com (Rich Winkel)
Subject: THAILAND-BURMA: For Karen Refugees, Life is Permanent Limbo
/** ips.english: 515.0 **/
** Topic: THAILAND-BURMA: For Karen Refugees, Life is Permanent Limbo **
** Written 3:36 PM Sep 16, 1998 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **
Copyright 1998 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.
For Karen Refugees, Life is Permanent Limbo
By Prangtip Daorueng
13 September 1998
BANGKOK, Sep 13 (IPS) - With the onset of the rainy season and the
possibility of new attacks on their camps, Karen refugees from
Burma living in northern Thailand have performed their annual
ritual - packed up and left.
There seems to be no end in sight for this routine, since the
Huay Kalok camp, which lies about five km from the Thai-Burmese
border, is prone to attacks by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army
(DKBA), a group loyal to the Burmese junta.
A total of 8,186 Karen refugees have been staying since 1977 in
the Huay Kalok camp, located in Mae Sot district in Thailand's Tak
Every refugee there knows only too well how terrifying can be
an attack across the border from Burma. Several deaths and scores
of injuries among the refugees occurred after DKBA attacks in
January 1997 and March this year.
Like the more than 110,000 Burmese refugees in 19 camps along
Thailand's northern border, Huay Kalok refugees find that life is
nothing but continued uncertainty. This is due to the
unpredictable political situation in Burma, as well as the
unsettled policy on refugees of the Thai government.
For Thai officials, the attacks on Karen refugee camps in
Thailand is another security threat. In the past, the fighting
came so deep into the Thai border that refugees had to flee and
settle in temporary camps along the main highways deep inside the
Aid workers providing services to the refugees say that many
still wish to go back to Burma when that is possible.
"From my experience, many refugees in the camps want to visit
relatives and friends in their homeland if the situation in Burma
becomes settled," Dr Aziz Kumardas, medical coordinator of
Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), said an interview.
MSF has been working in Burmese refugee camps since 1984 and
receives funds from the Brussels-based European Community
Humanitarian Office (ECHO) to provide refugees with health care
and aid. "What we see in terms of the number of refugees on the
Thai side is the result of the fighting inside Burma. If there are
new areas of fighting there, there will be more refugees coming
in, but it difficult to foresee it from here," said Aziz.
Most of the refugees in Thailand are Karen belonging to the
Karen National Union (KNU), which is the last among Burma's many
minority groups that continues to resist the Rangoon regime. The
KNU has long fought for independence from Rangoon.
Burma's attempt to stamp out long simmering hostility and armed
action by restless minorities is the root of the Burmese refugee
problem in Thailand.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR), the number of the Burmese refugees in the country
increased last year as a result of the continued fighting inside
Burma, forced labour and other forms of abuse, and an economic
While the Karen are allowed to stay on in the camps and get
help from international NGOs, they have not been given refugee
status by the Thai government but are considered only under the
more narrow category of displaced persons.
Life in the camps is sometimes no different from a war zone.
NGO workers say sudden armed attacks make their work difficult.
"An urgent notice to move notice doesn't give us enough time to
prepare, which means we won't be able to provide immediate help to
those who need it," Dr Aziz said.
NGOs have tried to develop contigency plans. "Before one such
moving the last time, we were able to discuss with the Thai
authorities to have our health care staff moved earlier. It worked
very well," he recalled.
Despite the fact that attacks from across the border continue,
Dr Aziz said health indicators such as mortality rates in several
camps improved last year.
Officials with MSF, which works on basic health care and water
sanitation, say they try to give equal level of services to every
camp they cover but the provision of basic needs is only part of
the bigger problem the Karen face - Thailand's policy toward
Thailand has yet to find a more permanent solution to the
refugee problem beyond housing them in camps. Yet such a solution
might not be possible without the involvement of the region, and
After being criticised by international community for the lack
of transparency in dealing with Burmese refugees, Thailand agreed
in May to establish a mechanism with UNHCR to better deal with the
refugees on its border.
According the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the new system would
involve providing refugees coming in with immediate assistance,
with UNHCR help. New arrivals would be given the option of
returning to their homeland or staying in the relocated new camps
in Tak planned by the interior ministry. Some camps in Mae La and
Hua Kalok districts of Tak province have been torched by pro-
Rangoon Karen forces.
The aim of ongoing discussions between Thai authorities and
UNHCR is to have mechanisms that allow voluntary repatriation in
the long run and the camps' relocation away from the border.
In 1997, UNHCR proposed the inclusion of representatives of
Thailand, the Burmese regime and Burmese refugees in efforts to
resolve the plight of refugees. But UNHCR's attempts to talk with
Rangoon have failed, as in the past.
Last year, UNHCR regional representative Amelia Bonifacio said
that solving the refugee problem depended ultimately on the
outcome of talks between Rangoon's junta and its political
opponents, including the National League for Democracy led by Aung
San Suu Kyi and the KNU.
"We never lack international support on the question of Burma,
but bilateral and regional initiatives need to be put together to
unblock the situation," she said.
The UNHCR believes that a real end to refugee problems can come
only with political settlements to conflict, apart from
humanitarian aid. Critics in Thailand have also urged South-east
Asian nations to take a more active role in negotiations with
Burma over the refugees, who remain in limbo.
But in the eyes of an exiled Karen like Paul Sainwa, who lives
in Chiang Mai, a brighter future is impossible to picture.
"To return home for a peaceful life for us is something we can
hardly hope for, no matter how much we want it. The only way to
get it is through democracy in Burma, and we really don't know
when it will come true," he said. (END/IPS/ap-pr/pd/js/98)
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