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Enhanced Role for UNHCR on the Thai

Burma Issues
April 1998


Following on several camps along the border in March 1998, Thailand's Prime
Minister Chuan Leekpai announced that the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) would be allowed to play a role in managing aid for
refugees and administering the camps. (1) A recent seminar, attended by
representatives from the Thai government and military and nongovenmnental
organizations (NGOs), was held in Bangkok to discuss the future of the
refugee camps, as well as the UNHCR's potential role on the borders Though
plans have not yet been finalized, the seminar made clear that significant
changes are imminent in the administration of the border camps.

To date, Thailand has allowed the UNHCR only limited access to the Burmese
refugee camps and has been asked to help on a case-by-case basis. Thailand
has been concerned that the presence of the UNHCR would attract more asylum
seekers across the border, and the refugee camps would become more
permanent. However, the Royal Thai Army has faced increasing criticism for
its inability to protect the 116,000 refugees in camps from cross-border
attacks. This year has already seen repeated attacks on Huay Kaloke (aka
Wangka), Bae Klaw (aka Mae La) and Mawker camps, and other camps are
currently on alert fearing further attache. The Thai government now hopes a
UNHCR presence will provide more protection for the refugees, and help
deflect criticism for inadequate security when the camps are threatened or

At the seminar, possibilities were discussed for the relocation of the
refugee camps to more secure sites within Thailand. Lt. Gen. Sanan
Kajornklam, Special Adviser for the Thai Office of the Supreme Command,
suggested consolidating all the existing camps into a single camp, as
occurred in the Cambodian situation. The camp would be located as much as
fifty kilometers inside Thailand, in order to ensure better protection. This
necessarily depends on border security - how easy it is to move inside
Thailand from the border.

UNHCR's assistance in establishing a single Burmese refugee camp would
entail a different administration structure than is currently used. The
existing camps are small replicas of villages and are mainly located close
to the area of Burma where the refugees originally fled from. They are
administered by a camp committee composed of local members. It is a
cost-effective administration structure in this context, and arguably better
than administration from managed completely from the outside as it allows
for local involvement in running the camps. In addition, there could be an
increase in social problems and tensions if people from different locations
and with different affiliations are all grouped together. A new camp run by
the UNHCR will make refugees more aid dependent than they already are, as
the administration of the camps could become outside of their control, and
the increased dependency may foster a reluctance to return to Burma.

Gen. Sanan welcomed the role the UNHCR could play in financing such a camp
and mediating to draw financial support from other countries. This comment
brought a response from the Burmese Border Consortium (BBC) representative,
as the BBC has been coordinating humanitarian assistance to the camps for
the last decade. Around eleven countries provide aid assistance to the
existing camps through the BBC, and the programs permitted have been
determined by Thai policy. Careful thought should be given to replacing the
existing structure with something bigger until the parameters of Thai policy
are known. Finance is not the real issue. The NGOs working along the border
have only been able to provide the assistance permitted under a very
restrictive Thai policy.

The UNHCR would be responsible for a refugee registration process, which
would entail identifying ethnic group, political or other memberships or
affiliations, and needs prior to repatriation. Screening is a contentious
issue in this context. A number of the refugees are family members of people
belonging to various political and insurgent organizations, and there exist
significant hostilities and rivalries between groups. This suggests
potential security problems in the camp due to these tensions, but NGOs will
protest if people are refused protection.

After the camps burned in March, army chief Gen. Chettha Thanajaro announced
that "only women, children and old people would remain at the refugee camps,
while adult males would be removed and repatriated."3 Last year in March at
Bong Ti, male children as young as 14 were classified as "able-bodied men"
and repatriated to Burma on a similar rationale. Such a policy of selective
protection is a clear violation of humanitarian principles. Gen. Chettha's
statement has not been repeated, and it seems clear that such an simplistic
solution is unlikely to become policy. However, such statements emphasize
the need for the UNHCR's screening process to be managed both impartially
and independently.

The Thai government is concerned that allowing the UNHCR an enhanced role
along the border may upset Rangoon. Although the UNHCR's work is considered
humanitarian and nonpolitical, the Burmese government views the agency as
representatives of the western community which it repeatedly criticizes.
Thailand is no doubt concerned that by upsetting its volatile neighbor,
existing and potential economic agreements could be threatened. However,
Thailand also wants to solve the expensive and often embarrassing refugee
problem, and realizes that it will only be safe and acceptable to send
refugees back when the civil war ends.

Gen. Sanan acknowledged that the root of the problem is the Burmese
government's aim to abolish the ethnic minorities who do not support the
government. Until there is a political resolution in ethnic minority areas,
refugees will continue crossing the border. Thailand must do what it can to
encourage a political resolution to this crisis. Within ASEAN (Association
of Southeast Asian Nations), constructive engagement with the military
government may be the best option. However, it was noted that up to this
point, the Burmese have been very self-contained and difficult to budge;
they listen but do not respond to suggestions.

Gen. Sanan emphasized that a time frame must be established for the UNHCR's
involvement, and proposed that their involvement be structured to last
between three and five years, with the shortest time frame preferred.
However, he acknowledged that much depends on the internal situation in
Burma. He pointed out within the next five years Burma's new constitution,
currently being drafted under management of the SPDC, is due to be finished
and promised elections held. It is too early to predict exactly when the
ill-famed constitution will be finished and preparations for an election
would begin, or whether such elections would be UN-supervised. It will
nevertheless be important that the refugees are able to participate in such
a process.

The UNHCR's role on the Thai-Burma border will be clarified over the next
few months. The main question is what is the appropriate role for the UNHCR,
and how will Thai policy change regarding programs and activities permitted
inside the camps. The proposed time frame for the UNHCR's involvement starts
with protection and necessarily ends with a successful repatriation program.
Such a plan can not be cast in stone by the UNHCR and the Thai government.
The attitude of the Burmese junta towards the ethnic minorities will
ultimately determine the time frame for repatriation and the nature of the
UNHCR's participation. Thailand's refugee situation will not end without a
political resolution agreed upon and adhered to by all concerned. The
international community needs to carefully monitor the progress on this
issue, and demand accountability and transparency from the actors.

--V. Coakley

Endnotes,  'UNHCR'

1 The UNHCR can only assist in refugee situations upon invitation from the
refugee host country. To be involved in a repatriation program, the UNHCR
must be invited to assist by the country of origin and the host country.

2 The seminar, entitled Burmese Refugees Status and Solution,,' was held on
April ', 1998, hosted by ForumAsia and the Asian Research Centre for
Migration, at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok
3 ``Karen men in refuge sites to be repatriated,,' Bangkok Post, 26 Mar