No place to go: Burmese refugees can't find a home.
"When they came to my village, there was no warning," he says. "They just started shooting. We ran into the fields, but we could hear them killing and torturing our animals. They poked out the animals' eyes and let them walk around before they killed them. But the saddest thing is, one old women was not strong enough to carry her two orphaned grandchildren when we ran. She had to leave them behind. The soldiers tied them up--they were three and four years old--and threw them into the huts they had set on fire."
The man says he believes that thousands of Karen refugees are now scattered and hiding in the rainforest. "Many are sick with malaria, and food is hard to find," he says. "The people know the Burmese army is advancing, but they are afraid to cross over to Thailand--they have heard Thailand won't take them. Some have tried to cross the river but the Thai army started shooting at them. They had to go back."
Recently, Thai security forces along the border have started arbitrarily denying sanctuary to new asylum seekers from Burma.
For the refugees who have made it safely to Thailand and are now residing in the twenty camps to the north and south of Mae La, life is not good. Thai authorities often mistreat the refugees, move them around, and occasionally send them back to Burma against their will.
Almost all ethnic minorities in Burma are on the run from Burma's military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which used to be known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In the past few years, the junta has stepped up military offensives in Burma's ethnic regions in an effort to crush longstanding armed ethnic resistance.
According to human-rights groups, at least 50,000 Burmese peasants fled their villages for neighboring countries in 1997.
Unfortunately, they're running at the wrong time. Burma's neighbors are no longer interested in taking in the refugees They want to do business with the Burmese government.
In July, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the regional economic club, accepted the Burmese government as a member. Thailand and the Burmese government are working together--along with multinational oil companies, such as the French giant Total and the U.S.-based Unocal--to extract oil and natural gas in the region. (Last spring, the Clinton Administration imposed economic sanctions on Burma, but those sanctions did not apply to existing investments such as Unocal's.)
A worker for a nongovernmental organization examines a crinkled diagram of Thailand's refugee camps. She jabs at two tiny dots on the map. "It's ridiculous how much worse they are treated. It's obvious it's because of the pipeline!" She is talking about the two Karen refugee camps in Kanchanaburi that suffer the worst conditions--Tam Hin and Don Yang, camps of 7,400 and 1,500 refugees, respectively. These camps are located in the vicinity of a billion-dollar natural-gas pipeline, the project of Total, Unocal, and Thailand's state energy company, PTT. This consortium is trying to meet Thailand's energy needs by funneling natural gas from an offshore drilling site in Burma's waters. Ultimately, Thailand will consume the gas, but the pipeline crosses territory inhabited by ethnic Karen and Mon in Burma. In order to secure the pipeline and ensure a piece of the profits, the Burmese government is keeping a tight hold on this region and using forced labor to build supporting infrastructure.
The Karen refugees fleeing the pipeline region in the Tam Hin and Don Yang refugee camps are not permitted to build huts or establish schools. Sanitary conditions in the refugee camps are poor. The camps are overcrowded and have few latrines. Refugees live under flimsy plastic sheeting throughout the entire rainy season.
But anything is better than going back to Burma. When the Burmese government's army mounted attacks in Karen state, it used a sledgehammer strategy--taking whole villages in a day and shooting residents who ran.
The offensive happened so fast, Karen forces could fire back only as they retreated. With the speed of their attacks, the Burmese army managed to cut off most escape routes and trap many villagers inside Burma.
"The Burmese tried to run after us like a hunter tries to catch animals in the forest," says a sixty-year-old woman from Papun district. "Even after we had left, they were still looking for us. We couldn't even think of building a house--if we heard a gunshot we had to flee." At last count, government troops had destroyed ninety-three villages in her region.
The government's 350,000 troops are using brutal tactics to stamp out longstanding armed ethnic resistance in the Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon areas. "Torture, rape, arbitrary executions, forced labor, abuse of children, looting, extortion, land confiscation, religious persecution, and other abuses continue to increase as the army continues its expansion," the U.N. Special Rapporteur to Burma reported.
Tens of thousands of villagers in Burma's eastern border region are still dodging the Burmese government patrols. They are exhausted, sick, living on roots and leaves, and have nowhere to go.
The Karen Human Rights Group maintains that, although the Burmese government's stated objective is to defeat armed resistance forces, it systematically targets civilians as well. In the Papun district, "these villagers are not even being given orders to relocate," says a spokesperson for the group. "The Burmese government patrols simply move from one village to the next, shell each village with mortars without warning from an adjacent hilltop, then enter the village, shoot everything that moves and burn every house, shed, school, and church building without exception. Rice storage barns are carefully sought out and burned. Any villagers seen in the village or elsewhere are either captured or shot on sight without warning or interrogation. The government's aim in this case is obviously not to control the villagers or separate them from Karen forces, but simply to wipe them out; their apparent logic is that if there are no civilians, there can be no resistance."
The Burmese government has left little doubt in villagers' minds about its genocidal intentions. "The head of our village has to go to see the Burmese every day," says an elderly Karen man from the Dooplaya district. "He told us the Burmese said to him: `The Karen are like a tree. If you cut the trunk, branches will come up again. You have to dig out the roots so it will never grow again."'
Sometimes Burma's officials are even more blunt.
"One of our objectives is to make you become poor, flee, disappear, or die," said a Burmese light-infantry battalion commander in 1996 to a group of forcibly relocated villagers in Shan state, according to the Shan Independence, an independent Shan newspaper based in Thailand. "Because when you people in the country become poor, flee, disappear, or die, there will not be any rebels who can depend on you for their food, information, and guidance."
Some of the early refugees came to Thai soil in 1984 after a major Karen base camp fell to the SLORC. As Burma's dictatorship increased forays into ethnic territories, waves of refugees steadily increased, culminating in the exodus of more than 20,000 in February and March of 1997. By mid-year, there were well over twenty refugee camps in Thailand. These camps hold approximately 120,000 refugees from nearly every ethnic group in Burma, but are mainly populated by Karen, Mon, Karenni, and Burmese.
Now these refugees are no longer welcome. Thai officials carried out dozens of forced repatriations last year. Sometimes hundreds of women and children are repatriated, and sometimes only males over the age of fourteen are denied access, since Thailand considers them active resistance fighters. Groups of refugees have been pushed directly into war zones.
"I could hear the sounds of mortar shells and heavy weapons," a Karen boy said, according to the Human Rights Watch Asia report, "No Safety in Burma, No Sanctuary in Thailand." "The whole village left together and we fled.... When we arrived at the border, we saw that there were Thai officials waiting there. They pointed at some of the males trying to cross the border, including me, and said that we could not come across." The boy had no choice but to retreat to the closest village in Burma. But he had to flee again when mortar shells started landing there. He made a seven-day trek before he managed to find a place to cross again. After three months, he still had not reunited with his relatives.
One Thai truck driver assigned to haul men and boys back to Burma recalls, "It was so pitiful, they [the families] were hugging and crying before they were separated. I also cried with them."
General Chetta Thanajaro, the Thai army's commander-in-chief, has declared the latest influx of refugees "victims of fighting inside Burma and not victims of warfare." Calling the refugees victims of warfare could be a precondition for the involvement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which would mean "internationalizing" the problem and "complicating" Thailand's relationship with Burma, according to the Thai government. The Thai government would also have to consult with the United Nations before performing repatriations.
Currently, Thailand and the Burmese government are cooperating on everything from road-building to the exploitation of natural gas, timber, and fish. "The growing hostility of the Thai authorities toward refugees from Burma has grown in direct proportion to the increased economic cooperation between the Burmese and Thai governments," says the Human Rights Watch Asia report.
In the past, refugees in Thailand enjoyed a high level of autonomy. They provided for their own dietary needs by foraging in the forests, and ran their own camp administrations. These liberties have slowly disappeared. Thai authorities have restricted refugee mobility, sealing off some camps and rendering their inhabitants totally dependent on aid. For strategic reasons, the Thai army has consolidated or relocated some camps--particularly those housing Mon refugees. One community had to move five times in seven years.
Consolidation has led to overcrowding, meager food rations, decreased morale, and fear of infectious diseases. In some camps there have been reports of rape, robbery, and intimidation at the hands of Thai authorities.
Standing on the outskirts of the Mae La refugee camp, the Karen National Union agricultural director looks at the winding asphalt road that refugees are no longer permitted to use. "Things are much worse," he says. "It used to be that we could go out of the camp and get vegetables to eat, but now the Thai authorities are preventing anyone from leaving the camp." He says the refugees must rely on rice, salt, and fish paste provided by the Burma Border Consortium, a group of nongovernmental relief organizations. He says he has appealed to the Thai authorities to allow the refugees to use small scale plots to grow some vegetables, but he has never received a response.
The vast majority of refugee camps are situated precariously close to Burma, and the Burmese army now has troops along almost the entire length of the Burma Thai border. On several occasions, Burmese-backed troops armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles have crossed the border and set fire to refugee camps. Even after camps have sustained onslaughts, Thai authorities have been noticeably unwilling to move them to safer ground.
In January 1997 alone, the Burmese government attacked the four camps: Wangka, Don Pakiang, Sho Kloh, and Mae La. Nine hours before Wangka was burned to the ground, the Thai commando unit abandoned its post, taking all equipment along. Thai forces stationed to protect the refugees at Don Pakiang also evacuated well in advance of the raid.
After the attacks, more than 7,000 refugees were left homeless and without belongings. In July, according to Images Asia and ALTASEAN, two nongovernmental human-rights organizations based in Thailand, three refugee leaders met with the Thai army and the Burmese government. During the meeting, the Burmese government told them that the refugees should return to Burma, but that the country has "no program to feed and care for those who have fled outside to other countries and brought disgrace to Burma. Upon return, those who have fled must be punished."
Some refugees do not even have a camp to go to. Northern Thailand has absorbed as many as 60,000 Shan and other ethnic minorities. Approximately 200,000 people from 600 villages are now living in fifty squalid relocation sites inside Burma.
Refugees have reported the decapitated corpses of men, women, and children laid out in plain view along roadsides in Shan state as warnings to obey Burmese army commands.
Without access to established camps, the Shan refugees have little choice but to disperse into Thailand's vast illegal low paying labor market, usually at construction sites or sweatshops, as agricultural laborers, or as sex workers.
Shan women and girls (some as young as ten) are entering the sex trade out of economic hardship and are particularly vulnerable to contracting the HIV virus. According to one Thai government agency involved in the prevention of AIDS, rates of infection for Burmese sex workers are very high, up to 80 percent in some brothels.
On Burma's western border, things are no better. Constantly fleeing ethnic and religious persecution, many Muslim Rohingya refugees have already been repatriated against their will by Bangladesh.
Rohingya are of Bengali descent. The Burmese government denies many Rohingya citizenship rights. In 1991 and 1992, the SLORC regime carried out a massive crackdown on the Rohingya, conducting summary executions and pressing others into slave labor. At that time, 250,000 to 300,000 Rohingya refugees crossed into Bangladesh.
Since then, authorities in Bangladesh have tried again and again to repatriate the refugees. When the first repatriations began in 1993 under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, violence broke out and several people were killed. Bangladesh sent back about 200,000 Rohingya in the next three years. No mechanism exists inside Burma to assure safety for repatriated Rohingya. Many have disappeared.
Conditions at the Bangladeshi refugee camps barely meet minimum health and sanitary standards. "It was the closest thing to hell I've seen yet," says one worker for Images Asia. Recently, the United Nations High Commissioner called the repatriations unsuitable and recommended a government resettlement program.
Bangladesh's foreign ministry responded, "The refugees are predominantly economic migrants and any generous subsidies and campaigns about local settlement will work as a disincentive for refugees to return."
The Burmese government shows every sign of continuing to resist dialogue with Burma's legitimate leaders. In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi (who later won the Nobel Peace Prize) and the National League for Democracy won more than 80 percent of the vote in national elections. But the military junta has never allowed the party to take power. And the repressive government has been emboldened by its new membership in ASEAN. The other countries in the economic association advocate "constructive engagement" and "constructive intervention with Burma." But they are hesitant to engage with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.
"`Constructive engagement' has only helped the Burmese government indiscriminately exploit the country's resources in the same way it has attacked the peoples of Burma," Debbie Stothard, a spokesperson for ALTASEAN, testified to the United Nations. "It has helped in the creation of jobs which pay wages in the way of displacement, misery, death, and fear." Stothard said that "ethnic groups are increasingly making their support of the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi known."
Sao Seng Suk, a revolutionary ethnic Shan leader, hails the evolving cooperation among the National League for Democracy and ethnic leaders against Burmese government rule. "Politically we cannot give up. We are united in aspiration and deeds," he says.
In the end, Sao Seng Suk warns, "International recognition of an elected government is very important. If it is disregarded, the dictator lives on."
And the refugees will keep coming--with no safety in Burma, and no sanctuary elsewhere.
Jensine Larsen is a freelance writer specializing in Burmese issues. She recently returned from five months in Burma and Thailand, where she worked with human-rights nongovernmental organizations and visited refugee camps along the border. Her article "The invisible Shan Refugees" was published in September in the Thai English daily newspaper The Nation.