Karen children at Mae La refugee camp in Mae Sot near the Thai-Myanmar border on Jan. 29, 2012. More than 140,000 refugees have been living in Thai refugee camps after the minority ethnic group fled their country in 1995 following a major offensive by the Myanmar government army against the Karen National Union. (Photo by AFP)
Thousands of Myanmar refugees in Thailand might get to return home now that the new civilian-led government has taken office after more than 50 years of military rule.
Around 110,000 refugees, mostly from the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, live in nine camps in Thailand. The majority fled their homeland to escape civil wars that have raged on and off for six decades.
There was excitement among the refugees when Myanmar's state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi visited Thailand in June. She had planned to meet with refugees in Than Him camp in Rachanaburi province but bad weather canceled her trip.
"Suu Kyi's visit would have provided an opportunity for refugees to explain what currently prevents them from returning home to Myanmar," said Sally Thompson, executive director of the Border Consortium, one of the largest NGOs working in the camps.
But during her three-day visit to Thailand, the Thai and Myanmar governments agreed to cooperate in repatriating Myanmar refugees. Suu Kyi reportedly said that she would take all of the refugees home "when the time is right."
On June 30, Myanmar's Foreign Affairs Ministry released a statement saying that 196 refugees who expressed willingness to return will be repatriated. The ministry plans to send a delegation to verify their citizenship.
Thompson was concerned. "Their return should be voluntary, safe and with dignity … [But] conditions are not yet in place for a [large-scale] voluntary return."
Myanmar is transitioning from military to civilian rule following a landslide victory by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in last November's elections. The new government, however, has limited power as the military retains 25 percent of the seats in parliament.
Real change on the ground
The Karen Women's Organization, a Thailand-based NGO working in the refugee camps, has welcomed the positive changes taking place in Myanmar but says not much has changed for ethnic people.
"It has not yet translated into similar levels of positive change in Karen and other ethnic states," it said in a statement on June 20.
"Even though there has been a preliminary ceasefire in Karen areas since 2012, and a civilian government came to power this year, the military still has enormous independent power," said the organization.
"We feel it is still premature for a safe and dignified return," it said.
Shay Ray Shu Maung, a Catholic and Upper House NLD lawmaker for Kayah State, said that a guarantee needs to be made for those who fled their homes because of war. They need to know they will be safe upon any return, he said.
"We don't want people to face that nightmare again," said Shay Ray Shu Maung.
For the refugees to go home, Thomson said there needs to be a ceasefire agreement followed by troop withdrawal, landmine clearance, allocation of land and political dialogue.
"Repatriation depends on many factors," she said.
On July 6, Myanmar's Ministry of Border Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) hosted a consultation workshop in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, on a plan for the voluntary repatriation of Myanmar refugees, according to the country's state media.
The report added that the ministry is planning to ink another memorandum of understanding regarding the provision of education, health services, clean water, infrastructure and vocational training.
Refugees in Thailand are already suffering from a fall in international donations.
"Refugees receive less food rations, and basic health and education services are being cut," Karen Women's Organization said in its June 20 statement. "If this continues then life in camps will no longer be sustainable."
Adults in the camps were eligible for 15 kilograms of rice per month each but, due to cuts, they now get only 9 kilograms. Thompson said that the burgeoning refugee crises elsewhere in the world is increasing demand on the international community for humanitarian assistance.
There are 65.3 million people displaced worldwide, of whom 21.3 million are refugees. Myanmar is the second-largest source of refugees and internally displaced people in Asia (451,800 and 451,000 respectively) according to the UNHCR's most recent annual report.