Refugees from Myanmar per out of a wooden shelter in Mae La refugee camp near the Thai-Myanmar border in this file image taken on June 2, 2012. (Photo by Arturo Rodriguez/AFP)
Thousands of ethnic minority refugees from Myanmar’s Shan State who have been languishing in camps for internally displaced people in Thailand for over two decades continue to face hardships and threats to their lives, say Shan rights activists.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Shan, Akha, Lahu and Wa villagers fled their homes around Shan State between 1996 and 2001 when clashes between the Myanmar military and the Shan State Army insurgent group led to the widespread displacement of civilians caught in the crossfire.
Many of them sought refuge in makeshift camps near the Thai-Myanmar border, where as many as 6,200 ethnic Shan, Akha and Lahu villagers remain to this day in six underfunded camps in a rural area of northwest Thailand where many of them lack even basic necessities.
They are not recognized as refugees in Thailand, which sees all Shan people entering Thailand as economic migrants. Yet they are unable to return home because their villagers have been destroyed or taken over, says Charm Tong, a prominent Shan rights activist.
“Entire villages have been emptied,” she says. “Their lives are in danger on both sides of the border where they lead a precarious existence. They are at the mercy of donors, but food aid has been drying up and they have no land where they could grow their own food.”
Several camps for Shan refugees are on hardscrabble land on rocky hillsides with no freshwater sources. Support and humanitarian aid for them by a charity were gradually reduced for lack of funds until they were cut entirely in October 2017, Charm Tong says.
Several smaller civil society organizations have since been supporting the camps’ residents by seeking donations.
A pilot project for resettling long-term refugees by relocating them to Shan State has failed because many are reluctant to return to Myanmar.
“Many areas are very heavily militarized and aren’t safe for us,” says Sai Leng, chairman of the Shan State Refugee Committee on the Thai border. “People are afraid to return.”
In February, the Myanmar army fired artillery shells at two camps for Shan refugees. Although no one was injured, the attacks have set nerves further on edge.
In March last year, soldiers from a locally based unit shot and killed two Shan villagers riding a motorcycle near a village in the Kyaukme township of northern Shan State. The troops did so for no apparent reason, according to the Shan Human Rights Foundation.
The military also continue to monitor several Shan refugee camps with surveillance drones, which has added to residents’ disquiet. “They are living in fear. They are building makeshift bunkers,” Charm Tong says, showing a picture of a hole in the ground that some panicked locals have dug.
“They are feeling very vulnerable,” she adds. “They are ready to flee at a moment’s notice.”
Shelter at Catholic orphanage
Charm Tong speaks from experience about the ongoing plight of Shan refugees. Born in 1981, she became a refugee aged 6 when her family fled their home in Shan State to escape fierce fighting between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) and Shan forces. She found shelter at a Catholic orphanage in a refugee camp on the Thai border.
A vocal advocate for minority rights in Myanmar, Charm Tong has been a human rights activist since age 16. By interviewing fellow refugee women, she helped shed light on the military’s use of systematic rape as a punitive measure against ethnic groups seeking autonomy or independence.
Back home in Shan State, the situation remains volatile, she says. Large parts of the state are dotted by army camps, with several having been set up within eyeshot of refugee camps on the Thai border. Meanwhile, land grabs by Myanmar’s central government for development projects are causing the dispossession of thousands more Shan villagers.
These projects include planned new hydroelectric dams on the Salween River, which flows through the state. Building reservoirs for these dams will require flooding large areas, which will cause many villagers to lose their homes. Electricity from the dam will be exported to China, which has been financing several similar projects in northern Myanmar.
“The ongoing occupation and militarization of the area are making life more precarious for IDPs (internally displaced persons),” Charm Tong says.
A parallel insurgency by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which seeks to gain independence for ethnic Wa in parts of Shan State, has seen Shan villagers harassed or chased from their homes, activists say.
“The UWSA destroyed a sacred Shan shrine last December,” Charm Tong says. “It’s also been encroaching on Shan farmland. There’s growing anger [at the Wa] and that’s worsening [interethnic] tensions. It’s part of the government’s old tactic of divide and rule.”
Many of the recently displaced Shan villagers have fled across the border to Thailand, where they routinely make do on lowly wages as day laborers for hire. “They are forced to be migrant workers,” Charm Tong says. “They are doing manual labor without proper rights or documentation.”
Yet despite the trials and tribulations of Shan refugees, activists like Sai Leng feel their people’s plight has gone unnoticed.
“We’ve suffered a lot, but few people in the outside world know about it,” he says. “We can’t return and even if we want to return we don’t have a place to return to.”