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Burmese Refugees Today, by Harn Yaw

Subject: Burmese Refugees Today, by Harn Yawnghwe

from FDL Quarterly, vol 2 No 1


By Harn Yawnghwe

The mandate of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is to provide
protection for refugees, and theoretically, the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights provides the minimum standard by which governments should treat
their citizens. Yet in conflict areas around the world, there seems to be an
increasing number of reports of extreme human rights violations against
refugees and a corresponding inability on the part of the international
community to either stop the violations or protect the victims. The problems
laced by those concerned with the protection of refugees, can be illustrated
by the case of Burmese refugees. 

According to the ruling military junta in Rangoon known as the State Law and
Order Restoration Council (SLORC), Burma does not have a refugee problem. As
stated by SLORC, "Myanmar has neither problems of war refugees nor problems
of separation of families caused by war." The key word here is 'war'.
According to SLORC's definition, Burma is not at war any nation. Therefore,
it has no refugees or problems caused by 'war'. The tact that at least a
million Burmese citizen have been uprooted from their homes, and forcibly
moved by a civil war to become refugees in their own country, does not
count. They are not 'war refugees'. 

Burmese refugees who fled to neighboring countries like Thailand are no
better off. They are technically not considered to be refugees for several
reasons. One is the absence of 'war'. Another is the fact that Thailand is
not a signatory to the international convention on refugees, which means
that the UNHCR does not have the right to operate in Thailand. It can be
said that the UNHCR has a presence in Thailand only because the Thai
government, for humanitarian reasons, has invited the UNHCR to be there.
Therefore, the UNHCR in Thailand cannot legally protect Burmese refugees. In
extreme cases, the UNHCR has issued papers designating certain Burmese as
'Persons of Concern' to the UNHCR which gives the person in question some
measure of protection. 

To complicate matters, the more than half a million Burmese in Thailand are
classified as 'ethnic refugees' and 'economic refugees'. Those classified as
'ethnic refugees' currently number about 95,000 and are confined to refugee
camps on the Thai-Burmese border. Most belong to the Mon, Karen, Karenni and
Shan ethnic groups who live on Thailand's border and are victims of the
civil war. For humanitarian reasons, Thailand allows international
non-government organizations (NGO) to clothe and feed the 'ethnic refugees'.
But it is understood that they will be repatriated to Burma when there is
'peace'. The key word here is 'peace'. According to SLORC and some Thai
officials, the fact that most ethnic groups have signed cease-fire agreement
means that there is "peace," however, the cease fire agreement are only a
temporary truce, and fighting could break out again at any time since no
attempts have been made to reach a political settlement. In addition, it has
been documented that since the cease-fire, human rights abuses by SLORC
troops have increased rather than diminished. This is reflected in the
number of 'ethnic refugees' in Thailand. Two years ago, there were only
70,000 refugees. 

To protect themselves against SLORC abuses, the refugees have requested
international monitoring inside Burma should a repatriation take place.
SLORC agreed to the UNHCR monitoring in the case of the 250,000 Burmese
Muslim refugees who fled to Bangladesh and were repatriated. But to date,
SLORC has resisted having an international presence in Burma on the Thai

The other 500,000 Burmese 'economic refugees' try to blend into Thai
society. They have no protection whatsoever and are exploited as cheap labor
under appalling conditions. Those in sex industry for example, are confined
in tiny cell-like rooms and do not have the freedom to leave the
establishment. All are under the constant threat of being reported to Thai
authorities. Those arrested are usually confined for an indeterminate period
in the overcrowded cells of the notorious Immigration Detention Center where
physical abuse is routine. Those with enough financial means can buy their
freedom. They are then transported to the border and released to make their
own way back into Thai society and continue the cycle. 

How can the problems of refugees be addressed? The root problem of course is
a political one. Unless the international community can find a way to
implement the principle that "the will of the people shall be the basis of
government," there will always be refugees. In the case of Burma the people
showed clearly in the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations and the 1990 general
elections that they do not want a military-dominated government. The
Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has chosen to ignore the
will of the Burmese. Such an attitude will not help resolve the refugee
problem in Burma and in the Asia-Pacific region at large. 

If the political will to resolve the refugee problem cannot be found, at
least, efforts to protect refugees should be strengthened. Governments and
humanitarian organizations should not hide behind technicalities as an
excuse to do nothing. Although technically, Burma may not have a 'war
refugee' problem, almost 2 million Burmese have been displaced since SLORC
came to power in 1988. The Thai Government has allowed the Burma Border
Consortium to assist the 'ethnic refugees' on the Thai Burmese border. Other
similar cross-border efforts to monitor and assist displaced persons inside
Burma independent of SLORC-control should be explored. Thailand and Burma's
other neighbors should also be encouraged to improve official treatment of
foreign nationals. The fact that they are illegally in the country should
not be interpreted as a license to exploit and abuse them. Legal or illegal,
all human beings should be afforded a modicum of dignity. 

Harn Yawnghwe has worked in Canada, Thailand and Hong Kong in various
consulting positions since leaving Burma. He has founded the "Associates to
Develop Democratic Burma" and is editor of the "Burma Alert." He is on the
FDL-AP Board of Directors