The Refugee Crisis in Myanmar (Burma)
Current Burmese Regime
The Burmese government continues to exploit its people through forced labor and conscription, excessive taxation, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on political and economic freedom. The military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is extracting the country’s natural resources and using the proceeds for excessive military and security programs, expensive capitol projects and corruption, while decreasing support to health, education and food production.
Ultimately, without change in Burma, the thousands who have fled cannot return. Because of increased security, the use of technology to track down the opposition, and the regime’s control of much of the border, refugee flows may become smaller, but the vulnerability of the Burmese people will remain high.
In reaction to international condemnation of the brutal attack on demonstrators and the threats of new sanctions on the regime, the SPDC has accepted visits of the UN special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, and the return of the Human Rights Commission envoy, Paulo Pinheiro. But to convince the aging leadership in Burma that the international community is serious about the need for a timely political settlement and national reconciliation, the United States, ASEAN members, and other governments need to increase pressure on the current government by enacting smart sanctions that target the generals and not the suffering people of Burma. Examples of smart sanctions include: banning the import of all gem stones; barring additional international financing and insurance of new major construction projects in Burma until there is a change in government; freezing the bank accounts of SPDC leaders and denying them and their families travel visas are a few recommendations that have been made to the International Community.
Refugees in Thailand
Thailand has played host to Burmese refugees for nearly two decades. Gross human rights abuses by the Burmese government have prompted the outflows and created grave problems for its neighbor. The Thai Government has pursued a humanitarian policy through which refugees fleeing conflict are afforded temporary asylum until the conflict in the area from which they fled ends. The refugee population in the camps has expanded from little more than 20,000 in the mid-1980s to nearly 300,000 or more (the number is hard to track) and continues to grow.
Human Rights Watch, however, has often expressed concern about the quality of protection in Thailand. Forced returns (after which is immediate arrest), rejection at the frontier, and attacks on refugee camps have frequently occurred.
Thai policy is constantly changing in its regard to the Burmese in Thailand who fall into one of two groups: border refugees in camps and urban refugees. Though members of both groups are refugees deserving of international protection, Thai policy toward each has differed.
The first group consists mainly of ethnic minority Karen and Karenni who have fled to Thailand as a result of conflict between the government and insurgent groups and gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese army in its counter-insurgency campaign. Such abuses have included forced labor, (slavery) arbitrary executions, destruction of food crops, and forced relocation of villages. The majority of these refugees have fled from fighting or other gross violations of human rights in areas where the Burmese army and ethnic minority insurgent groups are engaged in conflict. Each of these is fighting for some degree of regional autonomy or independence from Burma. The Thai government has permitted refugees fleeing conflict to stay in the camps and receive basic humanitarian assistance delivered by private relief agencies. In 1998, UNHCR established three permanent field offices on the border to provide international protection to the refugees, but it has no role in providing humanitarian assistance to the camps. (There are also some 100,000 Shan refugees in the border region who do not have access to international protection or the camps).
The second group of refugees, urban refugees, consists principally of Burmese political dissidents who fled the Burmese government’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988 but also includes some ethnic minority refugees who no longer feel safe at the border. Over the past decade, many of the dissidents have made their way to Bangkok or other big cities like Chiang Mai to become urban refugees.
Living Conditions of Refugees in Thailand
Once the refugees escape the conditions under the oppressive Burmese Regime they come to Thailand where they are faced with discrimination, poor wages and living conditions and no basic human rights protections from the Thai Gov. They usually end up working in construction camps where no safety measures are taken and they must live on the site where they are working. They live in make shift aluminum and plastic housing with dirt floors and limited or no electricity and access to running water. They are expected to work about 10 hours a day for about $3USD. The entire families live together, children from age 15 up starting work with the adults. The younger children look after the babies at their homes.