Simon Collins is the Herald’s education reporter.

Burmese refugees not rushing home yet

The Tham Hin camp houses 7000 residents, who share the bare essentials.  Photo / Simon Collins
The Tham Hin camp houses 7000 residents, who share the bare essentials. Photo / Simon Collins

For the first time in 20 years, refugees from Burma are starting to think they may soon have a realistic chance of returning home.

In primitive camps strung along Burma's border with Thailand, and probably also in two camps in Bangladesh, refugees like Tun Win, a committee member of the Tham Hin camp west of Bangkok, are saying: "We want to go home."

"The NGOs [non-government organisations] and the Thai authorities come and visit our camp. They say there will be no forced repatriation but we have to prepare ourselves because the situation is getting better," he said.

And in a dozen Western countries that have accepted 74,000 refugees from Burma for resettlement since 2005, people like Auckland Transport maintenance worker Soe Thein are watching cautiously.

"It's not realistic to go back soon, but I'm planning to think about it and see how the development of the election occurs," Soe Thein said.

"I will decide after that."

Burma, also known as Myanmar, has been under military rule since 1962.

Only one free election has been held since then, in 1990, when the military refused to recognise wins by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in 392 of the 492 seats.

Tomorrow, after spending most of the past 22 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi is finally expected to be allowed to enter Parliament through byelections for 48 seats made vacant by the appointment of ministers.

Over the past few months the regime has also released more than 650 political prisoners, legalised trade unions, relaxed media censorship and reached preliminary ceasefire agreements with most of the ethnic armies that have resisted its rule for decades.

"There are still so many questions," Soe Thein said.

The military still controls the vast majority of seats in Parliament, partly because the National League for Democracy boycotted the last election in 2010 when Suu Kyi and other leaders were still detained.

"Yes, it is a step," he said. "They have opened a small hole, given a small space."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees describes the plight of refugees from Burma as "one of the most protracted in the world".

Many of what it estimates as 163,700 refugees in Thailand, and 229,000 in Bangladesh, have been in camps for more than 20 years.

Children born in the camps have known no other life.

The Thailand-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which feeds 137,000 people in nine border camps, says 73,775 people have been resettled in Western countries since 2005, when Thailand stopped insisting on eventual return to Burma.

New Zealand has accepted 1928 refugees from Burma since 2000, including some who came via Malaysia, making Burma our biggest source of refugees in the past 12 years.

But new refugees have kept flowing into the camps.

Dae Nah, who turns 40 this year, arrived in Tham Hin with her three children and another relative three years ago after her husband was killed by the Burmese military when he was unable to tell them the whereabouts of ethnic Karen rebels.

Like the camp's 7000 other residents, her family sleeps on the floor in a one-room bamboo hut jammed next to hundreds of other huts.

Everyone shares a few outdoor water tanks and lines of toilets, constantly risking disease.

There is no electricity and everyone cooks on open fires. More than 500 huts in the Umpiem camp north of Tham Hin burned down last month in a fire sparked by cooking.

TBBC, funded by Western donors including Catholic aid agency Caritas and, up to 2010, NZ Aid, provides rationed food, cooking fuel and other essentials.

In Tham Hin a pilot scheme trains refugees in skills such as animal husbandry and candle-making.

"They will need skills when they go back because they are going to rebuild their new life," Tun Win said.

Other ethnic Karen refugees living outside the camps in Thailand have heard that the military regime may let them go back to land they fled from in their home villages in Burma.

A few are starting to go back to have a look.

Burmese President Thein Sein said last August: "Myanmar citizens, living abroad for some reasons, can return home if they have not committed any crime."

But in Auckland, Soe Thein said refugees who had applied for visas from the nearest Burmese embassy in Canberra were being asked lots of questions and few were actually getting visas.

Many may never be able to return to their villages because the military has destroyed them to cement its control over the rebel ethnic areas. TBBC says 3700 villages have been destroyed since 1996, displacing more than one million people.

The Karen National Union (KNU) has said that, in ceasefire talks due to resume next week, it will give priority to helping displaced people still inside Burma return to their homes.

Refugees outside the country will be a second priority because they are being fed.

But Daniel Zu, a Tham Hin camp founder and now a leader of the Karen community in Australia, has just returned to Sydney from a worldwide conference of Karen leaders near the Thai border and warns against expecting anyone to go home soon.

"Repatriation will not be in the near future. It will take three to five years," he said.

"Even this peace talk is likely to be difficult, with the ceasefire very fragile at this point. There have already been clashes breaking out again in Shan State against their signed agreement, and with the KNU also skirmishes can break out."

Zu's analysis is that the political changes in Burma so far are "more cosmetic than real" because the regime is still in ultimate control.

The military rulers have strong economic and political motives to loosen controls somewhat.

Sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, backed by other countries such as New Zealand, have restricted trade and investment and shut Burma out of the international banking system.

"I believe that they would like to get rid of the Western sanctions in particular, so they are making these cosmetic changes to get the sanctions lifted," Zu said.

The regime also has development projects such as hydro-electric dams, natural gas pipelines to China and a US$8 billion ($10 billion) plan for a new port and industrial estate at Dawei in southeast Burma, linked by a planned highway through Karen territory to Thailand, which all depend on settling the long-running ethnic conflicts.

Politically, the regime is seen as keen to re-establish links with the West as a counter-balance to economic dependence on China.

It also wants to host the Southeast Asian Games next year and take its turn to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014.

Western leaders have responded enthusiastically.

The US resumed full diplomatic relations after 22 years in January. EU development commissioner Andris Piebalgs unveiled an aid package of almost US$200 million last month and said that if tomorrow's byelections were free and fair "then everyone would expect the easing of sanctions to continue".

Foreign Minister Murray McCully also visited the new military capital of Naypyidaw this month and said he was "pleased to explore how New Zealand can support the continuation of [the reform] process".

Zu believes Western countries will move gradually, rather than removing all sanctions suddenly.

"They are not stupid, I believe. They are using carrots as well as sticks," he said.

"I would say the outlook is 50/50. The Karen community are very cautious, very watchful, alert."

In Auckland, Burmese refugees will raise the flag of the National League for Democracy over a food stall at an International Cultural Festival which runs from 10am to 5pm tomorrow in the Mt Roskill War Memorial Park near the end of Sandringham Rd.

"We will raise the NLD flag because that day is the election day, and we are selling Aung San Suu Kyi badges and T-shirts," said Soe Thein.

Proceeds will go to an educational institute set up by former political prisoners in Burma.

Simon Collins visited Tham Hin camp with his wife, who is Dae Nah's sister.

- NZ Herald

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