Decades of sporadic government campaigns have driven hundreds of thousands of Karen and other refugees into neighboring Thailand, where at least 150,000 live in official camps and an estimated 1.5 million dwell illegally. The violence, largely ignored by the international community, has also spawned an estimated 1 million internal refugees, many of them Karen.
Tens of thousands of refugees from Myanmar live in Thailand near the Myanmar border. Most are members of ethnic minorities—namely Karen, Shan and Muslim Rohingyas—that have been persecuted and/or have battled for independence from the Myanmar government. Over the years they have also included some students and pro-democracy activists.
Most of the Myanmar refugees in Thailand are Karens who began arriving in 1984 when the Burmese military launched an offensive against the separatist group, the Karen National Union. In the early 2000s, many of them had malaria and lacked adequate food and shelter and Thai authorities wanted them to leave. Thai troops have forced Karen refugees to return to Myanmar.
Vast numbers of villagers in Karen state been forced to flee their villages, and tens of thousands of these refugees live in camps across the border in Thailand. Rights groups say the government's counter-insurgency campaigns over the years have deliberately targeted civilians, driving them from their homes, destroying villages and forcing them to work for the army.
As of 2000, there were 100,000 Karen refugees living in 11 camps of bamboo huts spread along the Thai border and the number was growing at the rate of 500 a month. There are thousands more living internally displaced in Myanmar. Many have fled the fighting. Some have gone to Thailand for employment opportunities because there are no jobs for them, only hardships, in Myanmar . In July 2003, the United Nations agreed to a Thai plan to build a border camp for 1,500 Burmese deemed unable to return home to Myanmar because they had been threatened with violence. In February 2004, Thailand began deporting Burmese refugees to Myanmar in an effort to create “a favorable environment” for Thai business according to a U.S. human group, which worried that the refugees would be persecuted if the returned.
Mae Sot lies at the center of a kind-of Wild Wast place near the Myanmar border. Karen insurgents are still active in Myanmar and around Mae Sot are a number Karen refugee camps. Sometimes it seems like the main industries are illegal logging and drug smuggling. Many ethnic minorities live in the region. Lawlessness prevails. Some places are regarded as very dangerous.
The U.S. government had closed its doors to most Karen refugees after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, after which it classified the Karen National Union — a group that includes guerrilla fighters as well as politicians— as a terrorist organization. The ban was lifted by the State Department in 2006, although former guerrillas are still denied entry.
Horrors Experienced by Karen Refugees in Myanmar
Reporting from Camp Eituta in Myanmar, Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post, “In a burgeoning encampment here on Burma's eastern frontier, Hay Nay Tha, a 30-year-old mother of three, awakens in the darkness most nights to the sound of her children's screams. "They keep having nightmares about our journey here," she said. That journey, Hay recalled, began when she was four months pregnant and government soldiers torched her village and forced local farmers off their land. It ended four weeks later, after her husband died of malaria en route to this camp. She and her children arrived here this summer dehydrated and exhausted. Hay soon went into early labor with a stillborn son. "To be honest," the copper-skinned woman said, shyly gazing down at her hands, "I am having nightmares, too." [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post November 17, 2006 ^]
“Nightmares of all kinds are rife in this camp, where new clusters of villagers arrive almost daily, a consequence of Burma's largest military offensive against its own people in more than a decade, according to aid groups and Western diplomats. The offensive has targeted minorities such as Hay, a member of the restive Karen ethnic group, which has long maintained a measure of autonomy. According to estimates by relief groups, Burmese forces have burned down more than 200 civilian villages here in Karen state, destroyed crops and placed land mines along key jungle passages to prevent refugees from returning to their home villages. Dozens of people have died, and at least 20,000 civilians have been displaced over the past eight to 10 months. ^
"What is now going on in Burma are crimes against humanity," said Sunai Phasuk, head Burma consultant for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "The military government has significantly stepped up their systemic policy of violence against the ethnic Karen with this offensive. We're talking about a mounting disaster." On a recent day at the camp, a foreign journalist with a video camera approached an ethnic Karen man and a smiling 2-year-old girl sitting on straw mats in their hut. Suddenly, the girl began screaming uncontrollably. "She thinks it's a gun," said her father, Saw Say Nay, pointing to the video camera. ^
“Saw, a farmer, fled here with his family of four. Like many displaced Karen, they had been living in hiding in the jungle since the summer, when Burmese troops began constructing a base near their village of Sayztaing Gyi, about 40 miles from the new capital. "They were going village by village, forcing men and women into labor," he said. "Then they started burning villages, so we packed what we could and escaped into the jungle. From the trees, we saw them set our homes on fire. They burned our crops. They left us with nothing." Thin and languid from malaria, Saw said he found out there was no going back after one villager tried to return, only to lose his leg when he stepped on a freshly laid land mine. "We don't know what to do," he said. "My heart wants to go back, but I know it is not safe for my family. I don't know if we can go to Thailand. I don't know if they will accept us. So we are here. We have nowhere else to go." ^
Karen Refugee Camp in Myanmar
Reporting from Camp Eituta in Myanmar, Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post, “An increasing number of Karen civilians fleeing the violence have made their way here to Eituta, an emergency camp perched on a muddy hilltop overlooking Burma's border with Thailand. The rows of primitive bamboo huts are protected by a battalion of armed Karen soldiers. With Eituta's population topping 1,500, and growing at a rate of about 10 percent a month, Karen authorities here are making plans for a second camp nearby. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post November 17, 2006 ^]
Although the Thai government has adopted a more lenient policy on Burmese refugees in recent years, aid groups say the bureaucratic process of admitting new arrivals has been slowed by the sudden uptick in the number of Karen seeking asylum. With the new military offensive, the number of arrivals at the already over-crowded official Karen refugee camps in Thailand has jumped 60 percent, to almost 900 a month, according to the TBBC. The situation has effectively created a precarious limbo for the displaced people at Eituta, located only two hours by foot from the nearest Burmese military outpost. Almost two-thirds of the refugees here are children younger than 12, many of whom are sick with malaria and dysentery.
Karen Refugee Camp in Thailand
Describing the Mae La Camp area, 60 kilometers north of the Thai town of Mae Sot, Jesse Wright of USA TODAY wrote: “Spread over a dense green range of jagged low mountains, the Mae La camp is one of the largest camps in Thailand. Tall, barbed-wire fences separate the 40,000 residents from the rest of the world. Huts have been built with bamboo and teak hacked out of the jungle. Some residents carry water from a nearby well; others cook curry over wooden fires. Many are members of the Karen ethnic group, whose half-century struggle for independence within Burma has made them particular targets of the military. The Karen Human Rights Group, a local aid agency, says the military attacks Karen villages, burns homes and uses civilians as human minesweepers. [Source: Jesse Wright, USA TODAY, January 22, 2009]
David Challenger of CNN wrote: “Nine refugee camps stretch along western Thailand's border with Myanmar, but Mae La, with a population of 43,000, is by far the largest. Wooden houses dot the hills at Mae La. There are 43,000 people living in the camp. "I came to the camp 10 years ago after the army burned our village and took our rice," one young mother told me. Most of the camp's residents arrived after being forced to flee their homes due to the violence in Myanmar, as documented by the United Nations.The refugees' stories were often identical: Direct military attacks by the Myanmar army, forced labor, destruction of homes and food crops, and enslavement. [Source: David Challenger, CNN, June 23, 2008 \\\]
“The camps are overseen and run by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a union of 11 international non-governmental organizations that provide food, shelter and non food items to refugees and displaced people from Myanmar, Mae Sot is a Thai border town known for its cross-border trade in gems and teak, and more recently, as the home to the Sylvester Stallone movie character, John Rambo. \\\
“The first view of the camp is spectacular -- hundreds of wooden houses with roofs made from leaves dot the lush, hilly landscape, as limestone cliffs rise steeply in the background. There were no guards and little fuss while entering the camp, which somewhat reflects the plight of these displaced people.
“The camp's population is mainly made up of families of farmers and low-income workers, while religious lines are more or less evenly divided between Buddhists and Christians. Some of the violence has followed them, such as when the Myanmar army attacked Mae La in 1997. Since then, it's been peaceful, though according to TBBC, tensions rise every dry season -- the preferred time of activity by the Myanmar army. \\\
“But while refugees have escaped direct violence, other problems exist. There's little or no employment, education for children is minimal, and boredom is rife. Camp dwellers not only have to deal with the horrors of their past, but the grim outlook of their future. Despite this, the people at the camp appeared stoic, and carried with them a sense of humor and pride. They welcomed strangers into their homes, openly told their stories and for the most part, seemed resilient. The young mother told me. "But if the situation in Burma changes, I hope to go back to my country." \\\
On life in the camp, one Karen refugee told USA Today: "In a refugee camp, you have no rights. You are put in a cage. It's illegal to travel outside the camp, so it's very different from being a human." At the camp, however, he is regarded a very important man — a teacher — among the other Burmese refugees at the Mae La camp in western Thailand.
Karen Refugees in Thailand Pushed Back to Myanmar
In December 2010, AFP reported: Thailand must stop treating refugees fleeing conflict in eastern Myanmar as "human ping pong balls" who are returned to their home country prematurely, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned. Since fighting erupted in November 2010 more than 20,000 people have escaped across the border to Thailand. HRW deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said, "People fleeing conflict in Burma are being treated like human ping pong balls — reluctantly allowed into Thailand when fighting flares, but then returned to Burma (Myanmar) at the first sign of quiet...Thailand should not return refugees until the risk to them in Burma truly ends, but should allow them to stay in safe areas away from the border with access to protection services and assistance from humanitarian agencies." [Source: AFP, December 5, 2010]
In May 2006, demonstrators burned images of Myanmar’s junta leader outside the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok to protest attacks by the Myanmar Army
Karen Refugees in Japan
In August 2011, Mayumi Oshige wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Language barriers and unfamiliar work in a much different environment are making life in Japan very stressful for ethnic Karen refugees from Myanmar who were transferred from a refugee camp in Thailand to Japan. These refugees have been accepted on a third-country resettlement program sponsored by the central government on a test basis. Among them, a husband and wife undergoing work training at a farm in Yachimata, Chiba Prefecture, said they doubt coming to Japan was the right decision. [Source: Mayumi Oshige, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 6, 2011 ::]
“The couple was among five families of 27 Karen who lived in a refugee camp in Mera, northwestern Thailand, and the first batch of refugees who came to Japan on the program. They took a six-month language training program and then moved to Yachimata, or Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, in March, which are their designated settlement places. Two men and their wives who work at a farm in Yachimata had been absent from work for a month from July 2 and just returned to work Monday. One of the men, 37, had been a rice and corn farmer in Myanmar while the other man, 46, was a carpenter. ::
“After living in the refugee camp for about a decade, they are now assigned to do farmwork from early morning to evening using a mechanical cultivator. They complained that they could not bear the work conditions with only one day off each week. They agreed to return to work after the conditions were improved by increasing the number of days off from one to two each week and also reducing work hours. ::
“The 37-year-old man's four children, who go to primary or middle schools, said they could not keep up with their classes. Although they are given extra tutoring after school, the children struggle. His 29-year-old wife sometimes shouts at a mountain behind their house to get rid of the enormous mental stress caused by raising children while doing farmwork. The farm's 68-year-old operator, who accepted the two families, criticized the central government for leaving these refugees who speak such poor Japanese at the farm. The operator also stated that the six-month training program is too short to acquire agricultural know-how in machinery operation and developing marketing channels. ::
“Providing support to these refugees is necessary to help them live independently. However, as the Foreign Ministry has not made information about the refugees public, citing safety, the private sector has yet to offer assistance to them. Under the third-country settlement program, third countries accept refugees who would be persecuted in their home countries and cannot settle in countries they have fled to. ::
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014