A couple nights ago I went to the Thailand Foreign Exchange Club in the penthouse of the Maneeya Building to sit at the bar along with all the foreign correspondents and reporters and see a documentary and listen to a panel of speakers about the repatriation (or not) of the 160,000 Burmese refugees in the camps in Thailand along the Burmese border.
As with everything else in the world, this issue is incredibly complicated too. Apparently the Burmese army didn’t get the memo about the cease-fire in a dirty war against the Shan, Karen and Mon minorities. There is no political stability or rule of law and many of the refugees either have no place to go back to because their land was confiscated and homes burned or they are petrified of violence perpetrated by the Army. With no transparency, rumors and tension abound. The UN is supposed to be coordinating this but they are kept in the dark too by the Burmese government who is calling the shots (so to speak) and no one seems to know what will happen…and killings and rapes go on with impunity.
In this information vacuum and continuing threat of violence, the minorities have issued some conditions: A nationwide ceasefire between the ethnic armed groups and the Army, rule of law and human rights improved, military bases withdrawn in the areas where they would return, landmines in areas cleared in areas where refugees would return, minority representatives must be at the table during planning and decision making and implementation. The repatriation process must conform with international principles of repatriation ensuring that refugees would return voluntarily and in safety and dignity and that those who do not wish to return to their original place can choose to live elsewhere. This last one will be particularly sticky with the Thai government. This will take years.
During the Q&A a guy stood at the microphone and started ranting loudly and vociferously about the lack of care and attention being given to the Rohingya Muslims who are native to Burma, but who are ethno-linguistically related to the Indo-Aryan peoples of India and Bangladesh (as opposed to the Sino-Tibetan people of Burma). The region of Rakhine (Arakan) was annexed and occupied by Burma in the 1700s thus bringing the Rohingya people under Burmese occupation.
As of 2012, 800,000 Rohingya live in Burma. According to the UN, they are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Many Rohingya have fled to ghettos and refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, and to areas along the Thai-Myanmar border.
This was all brewing of course 10 years ago (indeed for the last 30 years) when we visited Burma and found the people to be sweet and very friendly. They were hungry to talk to foreigners if they could speak some English…usually the people who had been English teachers before India left. (See my other blog entries re Burma) Now with the opening of Burma it’s all coming to a head.
In the Burma Couchsurfing group I think every backpacker in SE Asia will be there this winter…hopefully witnessing but avoiding harm if they are sensible enough to not try and sneak their way into the border areas.