Conflict & Justice

Will Burma's refugees be forced back into a war zone?


This picture taken on November 4, 2010 shows a Myanmar woman walking inside the Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border. Myanmar, also known as Burma, voted on November 7, 2010 in its first election in 20 years with complaints of intimidation adding to fears the poll is a sham to create a facade of democracy after decades of iron-fisted military rule.



“You can’t send these people back over the border. To do what, just sit on the riverbank? … Many in the camp, the ones born there, have never had to survive in the woods before ...They’d die like flies.”

That depressing forecast is courtesy of Tim Heinemann, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel-turned-Burma specialist. He was speculating on the fate of Burmese refugees potentially forced home from the safety of Thailand's border camps.

Before Burma's election in November, widely considered a sham transition from military rule, there was palpable fear among refugees and exiles.

If war-torn Burma was perceived as increasingly safe and democratic, they wondered, might Thailand start closing its camps teeming with 150,000 refugees? And might they suffer vindictive treatment from the military they've fled?

Those fears are slowly coming to fruition. Now that Burma is transitioning into a democracy, the camps will have to close, said chief of Thailand's National Security Council, according to the Bangkok Post. Even though new arrivals flee conflict and seek shelter in the camps each week.

This move was hardly unexpected. It's the reason why our pre-election piece was called "Last Call for the Resistance."

Late last year, Thailand's foreign minister backpedaled after mentioning a plan to return "the people in the camps, the displaced persons, the intellectuals that run around the streets." From the largest camp, just beyond the river border from Burma, he reassured refugees that there would be no repatriations until conflict ceased. 

That's unlikely to happen anytime soon. How would they fare if pushed back across the border?

This was my assessment in November after I visited the largest camp, filled mostly with the Karen ethnic tribe.

First established in the mid-1980s, the camps are now populated with the original escapees, their children and even their grandchildren. Many have never stepped outside the perimeter. “The camps weaken the bloodline,” Heinemann said. “They basically lose their basic instincts of self-protection.”

Mindful of camp complacency, Karen leaders instruct all refugees in the Karen National Union’s resistance oath. It begins with “For us, surrender is out of the question” and leads to a vow to “retain our arms.”

This oath is posted outside a schoolhouse attended by Saw Royal ZuZuu, a 23-year-old refugee at Mae La camp. But ZuZuu is weary of struggle. He barely escaped troops rounding up boys for forced labor on supply lines. And he recoils at the thought of joining his tribe’s guerrilla army.

“Oh, no! I am a student!” he said. “I will never, never become soldier.”