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 and accelerated an exodus to neighboring countries.

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.

After Cyclone Nargis struck in May 2008 Burmese streaming across the border into Thailand. See Weather

See Rohingya, Kachin, Karen, Shan

Refugees and Minorities Displaced by Conflict in Myanmar

Myanmar’s border regions have for decades been the scene of fighting between ethnic armies and the ruling military, conflicts that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. In 2011, according to the Washington Post, more than 100,000 ethnic minorities have been forced to leave their homes by brutal army tactics, including gang-rapes. [Source: Fred Hiatt, Washington Post, November 10, 2011]

Human Rights Watch in 2013 reported: “Internally displaced Kachin swelled to an estimated 90,000 in 2012, and the government continued to prevent international nongovernmental organizations and U.N. agencies access to IDP camps in KIA-held territory to provide humanitarian assistance. Kachin fleeing to China to escape violence and persecution were not welcome. Several thousand Kachin refugees temporarily in Yunnan province in southwest China lacked adequate aid and protection. In August, China forced back more than 4,000 Kachin to conflict zones in northern Burma. More than 550,000 people remain internally displaced in Burma, including 400,000 due to decades of conflict in eastern Burma. There are an additional 140,000 refugees in camps in Thailand and several million Burmese migrant workers and unrecognized asylum seekers who suffer due to inadequate and ad hoc Thai policies causing refugees to be exploited and unnecessarily detained and deported. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

Population pressures and land degradation have forced tens of tens of thousands of environmental refugees to migrate from Burma to Bangladesh. The Rohingyas began fleeing to Bangladesh in early 1992 from west Burma’s Muslim-majority Arakan province to escape what they said was military persecution.

There are many internally displaced refugees. Because getting into Thailand, India, China and Bangladesh is very difficult, many refuges have to stay in Myanmar. Between 500,000 and 900,000 people have been internally displaced (forced to leave their home and become refugees in their own country).

Many Myanmar refugees have fled to the Thai border area that includes Mae Sai, home at one time to about 150,000 Myanmar refugees. The town is located just across the border from the Myanmar town of Tachilek. Most of the refugees are members of persecuted ethnic groups. Some have fled for political reasons. In October 1999, hundred of Buddhist monks and nuns illegally sneaked into Thailand to get food because of food shortages in Myanmar.

See Rohingya, Kachin, Karen, Shan, Karen and Rohingya in Thailand; Refugee Crisis in China Prompted by Fighting in Myanmar, See Relations with China

Political Refugees from Myanmar

Reporting from Mae Sai, Thailand, several months after the Saffron Revolution protests, Norimasa Tahara wrote in Yomiuri Shimbun, “Desperate refugees who have fled the repression of Myanmar's junta, seeking shelter in this northern Thai border town, see little hope for democratic reform in Myanmar more than three months after the regime's crackdown on antigovernment protests in late September. "The military is horrible. Myanmar will never be able to change," said U Tin, a 58-year-old man who runs a stall selling curry. [Source: Norimasa Tahara, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 16, 2008]

Born in Yangon, U Tin and his family originally fled the country because he was persecuted for his Islamic faith. The family of five went on to live in various places, including India and Bangladesh. When the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won the 1990 general election, the family went back to Myanmar in the hope of living in a democratic country in which freedom of conscience was assured. But when they saw the junta cling to power by scrapping the result of the election that the NLD won by a landslide, the family again fled the country to India in disappointment.

The family came to Mae Sai five years ago. U Tin wants to return home as soon as the country changes. He was excited when he saw news reports showing the streets of Yangon filled with Buddhist monks protesting against the junta in September. U Tin says he wanted to help the protesters as he believes "democracy enables people from different religions to live together."

U Tin goes to the Thai immigration office once a week to renew his permit to stay. Working and settlement is basically illegal for Myanmar refugees. "The Thai authorities are tolerant and turn a blind eye to us," U Tin said. But he is constantly haunted by the fear of forced repatriation. Some accounts say more than 2,000 people from Myanmar have taken shelter in Thailand during the three months since the junta's crackdown.

See History, Fleeing the Saffron Revolution crackdown

Myanmar Refugees and Immigrants in Thailand

About two to three million migrants from Myanmar live scattered across Thailand, many working illegally in low-paid jobs. Many may qualify for refugee status, aid groups said.

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.

See Karen, Rohingya

Thai Refugee Camp Garbage Dump and Deadly Fire

Damir Sagolj of Reuters wrote: “The rubbish dump outside the Thai town of Mae Sot steams with rancid rotting fish and other debris, a squalid haven for hundreds of refugees from Myanmar Life amongst the rubbish beats what they had back home, they said. Some ethnic minorities have faced a military campaign marked by murder, forced labor, rape and the razing of villages. "I want to stay here and save some money because I can keep what I earn and no one harasses me, even if the job is hard and dirty," said Sen Sen, a 38-year-old ethnic Karen. [Source: Damir Sagolj, Reuters, January 7, 2010]

People run out of makeshift shacks and line up neatly whenever garbage trucks arrive, waiting to dig through the rubbish as it is unloaded in search of goods for recycling. Barefoot boys and girls sort through piles of trash, occasionally distracted by the broken toys and mud-caked dolls they uncover. Sen Sen earns about 100 baht ($3) a day selling plastic, which she said was enough to live on. In Myanmar she had to give almost all the money she managed to earn to military officers as "protection money" and taxes. "Things are bad there. They would rather live in Thailand on a rubbish dump than return," said Ashin Sopaka, a monk who raises money to help migrants at the border. "Sound sleep here, but not in Burma."

In March 2013, a fire at Ban Mae Surin refugee camp, near the Myanmar in Thailand, killed dozens. Associated Press reported: “The number of Myanmar refugees killed in a fire at a camp in northwestern Thailand has risen to 35, Thai officials said. The public health chief of Mae Hong Son province, Paisarn Thanyavanichkul, said police and rescue workers found 35 bodies after the fire at the Ban Mae Surin refugee camp. He said Saturday that another five people were seriously injured and 20 to 30 others slightly injured. One refugee was missing. Hundreds of thatched huts in two camp sector burned to the ground before the fire was put out, leaving about 2,300 refugees homeless, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement issued Saturday. UNHCR said the camp's clinic and food distribution center were also destroyed in the fire. [Source: Associated Press, March 23, 2013]

Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire, but initial reports suggest the blaze was sparked by a cooking accident. About 3,300 refugees, mostly from Myanmar's Karen minority, live at the Ban Mae Surin camp, which was set up in 1992 and is located in rough terrain 90 kilometers (55 miles) from Mae Hong Son town.

Burmese Refugees in the United States

Reporting from Mae Sot, Thailand, Jesse Wright wrote in USA TODAY: “The bus rumbled to life, and Hsar Say took one last look at the only home he'd known for the past 20 years. The lime green rice paddies, the banana trees, the bamboo huts he shared with the other refugees — they were all part of his past. In a few hours, Say would board a plane to America with his wife and two kids. Whether that was a good thing, he wasn't sure. "Basically I think (America) will be better than a refugee camp," he said. "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." [Source: Jesse Wright, USA TODAY, January 22, 2009 ]

“On the other hand, Say was a very important man — a teacher — among the other Burmese refugees at the Mae La camp in western Thailand. His wife taught adult literacy classes. He confessed to being "a little afraid" that in America, they'd end up like his wife's cousin, who moved to Kentucky and toils in a clothing store packing boxes. "Maybe in America, I can work at a job to help other people," he said hopefully. "I like social work."

“Such are the dilemmas facing Say and the 15,000 other refugees from Burma who have arrived in the USA since 2006, making them the biggest single group of refugees to enter the country during that time, according to the State Department. "We're afraid that if we go (to America) we will lose our culture," said Naw Janey, 46, a mother of four. She moved her family to Mae La this year after Cyclone Nargis destroyed their bamboo home on the Irrawaddy River delta. Despite her misgivings, she is applying for refugee status. "We don't want to go to America, but it would be a good chance for my children to study," she said.

“Adjusting to outside life is a particular challenge for many Burmese refugees. Many, including Say, have spent most of their adult lives in the camps, leaving them unprepared for life on their own. Those who are granted passage to America by U.S. immigration officials must first take part in classes on how to provide for their own basic nutrition, how to change a diaper and how to use the bathroom on an airplane. The fear of the outside world is so strong that about 60 percent of the refugees refuse to leave the camps, according to the International Organization of Migration (IOM), which is paid by the U.S. government to administer the classes. "They don't know what's going on in America," said Peter Salnikowski, the IOM's cultural orientation program coordinator. "They ask: 'What are the camps over there like?' "

“To get to the USA, camp residents first must be formally classified as refugees by the United Nations. Then they can apply to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a process that can take months. The ordeal gets no easier when they arrive in the USA. The Karen speak their own language and only sometimes speak Burmese, which means good translators are hard to find, according to Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, an organization that helps Karen settle in the USA. Local resettlement agencies are tasked with teaching the refugees English and helping them find a job once they arrive.Say was lucky: Among the three dozen passengers on the bus leaving the Mae La camp, he was the only one who spoke English. That will ease his transition to life in America.

According to the U.S. sources in 2008, roughly 30,000 Burmese have emigrated to the United States since 2005. The number has surged, officials said, since Congress undid what the officials termed a technicality in the law that penalized many prospective refugees because of an insurgency being mounted by some of the Karen inside Burma. 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.

Laura Bus Visits Burmese Refugees

Reporting from the Mae Lae refugee camp near Mae Sot, Thailand, Michael Abramowitz wrote in the Washington Post, “First lady Laura Bush sat down inside a small hut near the Thai border with Burma and invited a group of refugees who fled one of the world's most repressive governments to tell her what they "would like the people of the world to know" about their situation. "Our dream is to go home," said one refugee, Mahn Htun Htun. "But there is no peace and democracy in Burma — and it's impossible to go home." [Source: Michael Abramowitz, Washington Post, August 8, 2008]

Bush has made freedom in Burma a focus of her official duties as first lady. President Bush played a supporting role. He had lunch at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Bangkok with some Burmese dissidents and told them that the "American people care deeply about the people of Burma, and we pray for the day in which the people will be free." He also spoke about Burma in a radio interview heard inside that country. "Together, we seek an end to tyranny in Burma," the president said in a policy address in Bangkok. "The noble cause has many devoted champions, and I happen to be married to one of them." Laura Bush and daughter Barbara made a seven-hour swing to the rugged border region, to which about 140,000 Burmese refugees, many of them members of persecuted ethnic minorities, have fled.

There Laura Bush carried out some first-lady-like activities, sitting in on English and math lessons for students in the Mae La refugee camp. It's a virtual city of about 35,000 Burmese, most of them members of the Karen minority, living in ramshackle wood huts. She visited a clinic run by Cynthia Maung, described by many as the Mother Teresa of Burma, and learned how doctors there treat thousands of poor Burmese for cataracts, missing legs and other problems. "Twenty years have gone by — everything is still the same or maybe worse in Burma," Bush said. "We know that Burma is a very rich country, rich in natural resources. And the junta uses those resources to prop themselves up for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the people of Burma."

Hay Lary, an ethnic Karen who has taught in the camp, said she was pleased by Bush's presence because she might bring new resources for refugees. "We need more education for this camp and especially for the people here," Lary, 39, said. Lary, who has been living along the border for nearly 20 years, is leaving the camp shortly, bound for South Carolina along with her husband and five children, ages 7 through 13. Her family is part of an increasing flow of Burmese refugees to the United States, especially members of the Karen minority.

Burmese Trying to Flee Myanmar

In August 2008, the Washington Post reported: “For the crowds of young Burmese outside the Immigration and Customs Office here, the commodity of choice is a shiny, tomato-red, cardboard-stiff new passport. One recent morning, hundreds of men and women flooded in and out of the office, located on a rickshaw-crammed boulevard, or camped under umbrellas along the sidewalk to wait for their passport applications to be processed. Some scoured billboards that listed openings in garment factories, shipyards and other workplaces in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. [Source: Washington Post, August 16, 2008]

A pair of 22-year-olds took turns using each other's backs to fill out forms. Both said they hoped to go to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to find jobs as hotel waiters for a year, maybe two. "It's like the collapse of the Berlin Wall," said a passing 29-year-old man, meaning the pent-up outflow of people. Unemployed for three years, he has yet to hear back about a passport application he filed last year. The run on the passport office reflects a social crisis at the heart of an economy in free fall.

Burmese in Japan

About 10,000 Burmese, including hundreds of pro-democracy activists, live in Japan. Most of them live in Tokyo where there is enough of them to support a local Burmese-language newspapers and some shops that sell Burmese food. The number of Burmese in Japan is much far smaller than in Thailand, which has refugee camps, or in the United States, Australia and European nations that actively accept refugees. When Aung San Suu Kyi Suu Kyi visited Japan in 2013, she met about 2,000 Myanmar residents in Tokyo and told them they need to hang on to continue moving toward democracy.

Erika Toh wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “But when a rally calling for democracy in their motherland is held in Tokyo, it can attract up to 1,000 people, compared with 100 to 300 in the United States and elsewhere. Maung Maung, general secretary of the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), said the Burmese democracy movement in Japan was “much stronger than (in) other countries.” Some observers say, however, that it is an ironic reflection of the fact that the number of refugees recognized in Japan is far smaller than in other countries. In Japan, only several dozen people obtain official recognition as refugees each year. The difficulty has prompted those desperately wanting refugee status to come out in the open and engage in pro-democracy activities to show they are seeking asylum for political reasons, which pushes the number of rally participants up, they say. [Source: Erika Toh, Asahi Shimbun, January 5, 2010]

According to the Japan News: “There were 8,692 registered Myanmar residents in Japan as of the end of 2011, including many who came here to flee suppression. During the 30 years up to 2011, 4,215 Myanmar nationals applied for refugee status in Japan, and 307 were granted it. They account for more than 50 percent of all foreign nationals granted the status during the period. Although refugee status was not given to 1,558 Myanmar nationals, they were granted special residence permission as a result of humanitarian considerations. [Source: Japan News, April 18, 2013]

One Burmese living in Japan, Mai Kyaw Oo, 46, Mai Kyaw Oo, from Shan State in eastern Myanmar, was a soldier of Palaung tribe, an ethnic minority group suppressed by the military junta. He fled to Japan in 1999, fearing for his physical safety. Although life in Japan was not always easy for him, Mai Kyaw Oo smiled, saying, "It's nothing compared to the time when my life was threatened. "I came to like Japan very much." Still, he said he always feels like going home. In 2003, Mai Kyaw Oo established the Japan Council for Ethnic Minorities Burma, an organization comprising 11 Myanmar ethnic minorities, and continued to call for the democratization of his country.

Kyaw Kyaw Soe, 49, runs a restaurant in Takadanobaba, Tokyo, an area that is home to about 500 people from Myanmar and is called "Little Yangon." He came to Japan in 1991 to escape persecution and lived in a small apartment with 13 other Myanmar nationals who helped each other in their new country. He was an accountant back home but has held various jobs such as construction worker and electrician, and has learned many skills from his Japanese colleagues. In 1998, he was recognized by the Japanese government as a refugee. After his country shifted to civilian rule, refugees were gradually allowed to temporarily return. He wishes to visit his home country soon, but no rules have been established for refugees' complete return.

Htin Aung, 53, who lives in Nishi-Tokyo, Tokyo, escaped to Japan in 1991. Many of his friends who participated in antigovernment demonstrations were detained at the time of his escape. In 2000, he became a reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma, which provides uncensored information to people in Myanmar through radio and satellite television broadcasts. He also works long hours at a factory and another job to feed his wife and two children, but he cherishes his freedom. Htin Aung is wary of returning to Myanmar because he worries the country may regress to its former military rule. He is also concerned about family issues such as his children's education. He said: "I couldn't be with my father when he died. I also want my 85-year-old mother to meet my children."

Exiles Invited Back to Help Myanmar Rebuild

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Since 2011, Myanmar officials, concerned about the lack of qualified teachers, entrepreneurs and other professionals needed to rebuild the country, have invited back millions of exiles. That includes activists previously on government blacklists. Negotiations are also underway to repatriate about 140,000 Burmese languishing in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, November 21, 2012 ]

Even as Myanmar extends a hand to returnees, some wonder how willing it is to take advantage of their expertise. "A taxi driver in New York may have more exposure than many here," said Sein Win, chief editor of Mizzima news service, recently returned after 12 years abroad. "If the government is smart enough to use the capacity, it's there. But I'm not sure they'll listen." Sein Win said Myanmar's understanding of how the world works is weak after years of isolation, but it's often difficult to swallow pride. "My own experience, it's best not to express your own opinion," he said. "There's a bit of xenophobia."

Richard Sargent of AFP wrote: “Dramatic changes sweeping through Myanmar are luring back some of the country's millions-strong diaspora to help rebuild their impoverished homeland, in a reversal of a decades-long brain drain. Aung Naing Oo had not set foot in the country for almost a quarter century since escaping through malaria-infested jungle into Thailand after the army brutally crushed student protests in 1988. Emboldened by a surprising series of reforms and an invitation by the new government for exiles to return, he was one of a group of academics who recently made the previously unthinkable journey home. He told AFP after his arrival in Yangon that he hoped their return would herald "a new era" for exiles to join the peace-building process. "I also look at this trip as a personal reconciliation with my own country, my own whole life, trying to heal the wounds, the trauma that we have."[Source: Richard Sargent, AFP, February 14, 2012 ||]

“Richard Horsey, an independent Myanmar analyst, said the return of the Harvard-educated academics sent a signal to other exiles or economic migrants that they could go back, taking much-needed skills with them. "I think this is going to be really important because it is the capacity issue which is going to hold back the reforms," he said, noting that a lack of expertise means economic reforms have so far trailed political change. ||

“With an economy corrupted by cronyism and an education system weakened by chronic underinvestment and interference from a regime deeply suspicious of students, there has been little effort to build a skilled workforce. Repression and lack of opportunity has created a diaspora of several million people — a significant proportion of the roughly 60 million population. "You have this body of very well-trained young Myanmar people in Singapore, Malaysia, in Thailand and in the West who have been trained to a high standard in different areas. What does it take to get them back?" Horsey said. ||

“Aung Naing Oo, who has spent over half his lifetime campaigning for change from outside, described the recent reforms as "some kind of miracle". At last able to set foot on Myanmar soil without fearing arrest, even if only for a short visit this time, he plans to hold talks with government figures, activists and the private sector. Some of his colleagues at the Vahu Development Institute (VDI) — a Thailand-based think-tank on development, economic reform and governance — are now moving back to Myanmar for good. ||

“The government has sent some signals to the diaspora — ditching a 10 percent income tax for overseas workers and formalising a remittance system. But there has yet to be a comprehensive outreach effort. In Singapore, where Myanmar students can receive a partial grant in exchange for an undertaking to work in the country for several years after graduation, there are glimmers of optimism about returning.Business management student San May Thu, 21, who said young expatriates avidly followed changes at home on Facebook and other websites, hoped they would go back to serve the country. "I think there is a great future for Burma," she added. ||

“For the older generation it may be harder to return, with many married and permanently settled. There are also subtler questions of identity. Aung Naing Oo said he was not sure he would feel comfortable wearing the traditional longyi — a sort of sarong — after two decades in western clothes.Ahead of the trip he said he was preparing to confront a country made strange by a quarter century absence — but still home. "People have warned me already — as soon as you get out of the airport you find yourself in a strange world. You hear the voices that are so familiar and you realise you are Burmese to the core." ||

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 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,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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