Refugees in Mae La camp in northern Thailand fear forced repatriation as aid cuts continue.
“We do not dare go back to Burma [Myanmar]," said Maw Keh, a former Karen soldier and Myanmar refugee. "You see, the military do not provide anything for civilians,” he told ucanews.com.
He was speaking in an interview at the Mae Tao Clinic in northern Thailand where he operates a prosthetic unit that he founded in 2000.
Maw, who lost his own left leg during ethnic clashes in 1986, described a heightened anxiety amongst refugees about a prospective return to Myanmar.
Despite political reforms that have led to the release of political prisoners, easing of Western sanctions and a recent ceasefire agreement with ethnic armies, the refugees still do not trust the Myanmar military.
“Maybe they will shoot us or maybe they will do something bad. This is why we dare not go back,” Maw said.
The 62-year-old, who has lived in the camps since losing his leg, is in the process of resettling to Australia to join his adult children. But more than 129,000 other Myanmar refugees face a far more uncertain future as aid to the camps is reduced and transferred to projects within Myanmar.
Many refugees say they fear the aid cuts are a way to pressure their return to Myanmar.
However, aid agencies and rights activists agree that Myanmar lacks the capacity to accept the return or guarantee the safety of its refugees and that a return en masse is a long way away.
Beginning December 1, food rations for camp dwellers were reduced by 33 percent, the result of funding cuts. Aid agencies serving the refugees said they also have been forced to scale back programming as the pinch in aid has been felt across the board.
Jesuit Refugee Service reported a 10 percent reduction in programming due to a funding shortfall and a transfer of programming, said Junita Calder, regional advocacy officer.
The agency said it had applied for NGO status in Myanmar as it prepares to widen its services to displaced persons within the country and refugees who eventually return.
A best-case scenario would be for international donors to offer parallel support for the work of NGOs on both sides of the border, said Samantha Carter, program analyst for the Burma Children Medical Fund, which provides funding for Myanmar citizens for medical care unavailable at local clinics and hospitals.
“The kind of infrastructure that needs to be in place … it’s going to take Myanmar decades to provide the service that we’re already providing,” she said.
Refugees began arriving in northern Thailand in 1984. Many of the border refugees are ethnic Karen, who fled a decades-long civil war. The camps are home to thousands who have never set foot in their homeland. The lastest report released by the Border Consortium, released in July, estimates 129,787 refugees reside in the 10 camps along the Thai border.
While aid cuts to the camps have accelerated in the past two years, there is no intent to force refugees to return to Myanmar, said David Mathieson, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“The conditions are not yet right for an en masse return. If a return was not handled properly it could fuel instability, conflict and violence within Myanmar,” he said, citing a lack of hospitals, schools, roads and services to accommodate returning refugees.
Land rights remain a major stumbling block to repatriation, Mathieson added. The land in the ethnic states is rich in natural resources and provides a wide range of economic possibilities from mining and agriculture to beachfront tourist areas.
Who controls these areas and the financial windfall that comes with it is a question that remains unanswered.
“Massive land grab in ethnic areas,” Mathieson said, “points to the dark underbelly to all these reforms.”
In the Mae La camp in Thailand’s Tak province, the largest of 10 camps with around 47,000 residents, refugees cited safety concerns as their top reason for resisting repatriation.
“Most of us want to go back to our country, but we don’t believe it will be safe. If there is genuine peace, of course I want to go back to my homeland,” said Sheir Paw, 49, the health director for Mae La’s Zone C encampment.
Paw, who has lived in the camps for 17 years, said that after decades away, most refugees have no home or land in Myanmar.
“When people ask me if I want to go back, I say, ‘To what place?’ We don’t have land to work, a house to live. Where do we go? What do we do for money?” she asked.
Mumu Paw, 63, who fled fighting in Karen State five years ago, said that even with minimal food rations she prefers to remain in Thailand.
“I have lived through many ceasefires, but the Burmese will do whatever they want. I do not believe the Burmese anymore,” she said.
Paw said Burmese soldiers killed her husband and brother, while destroying her village.
“My daughter was seven days old when they killed my husband. I have nothing to return to,” she told ucanews.com.
The Rev Simon Saw, a Karen Baptist minister who has lived in the Mae La since 1990, said he has witnessed several failed ceasefire agreements over the past two decades, which has eroded trust in the Myanmar military.
“The foreigners think that now there is a ceasefire, the refugees can go back. This is not the case,” Saw said. “If there are no guarantees for our security, we cannot go back.”
“We are refugees because they destroyed our villages; they shoot and kill us on sight. We pray that the ceasefire is sincere and genuine, but ...” he said, his voice trailing off.