Karen children next to a barbed wire fence at Mae La refugee camp in Mae Sot near the Thai-Myanmar border. At least 87,000 people remain in the camps which were set up in 1984. Photo: AFP/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul
Karen children next to a barbed wire fence at Mae La refugee camp in Mae Sot near the Thai-Myanmar border. At least 87,000 people remain in the camps which were set up in 1984. Photo: AFP/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

Conflict and displacement have been a feature of life in Myanmar’s ethnic areas for decades. For the past 15 months, the exodus of 700,000 Rohingya from western Rakhine state has grabbed global attention, but many other areas have been plagued by protracted fighting and gross abuses by the country’s notorious military.

A large number of people remain internally displaced in southeastern Myanmar and recent field research has shown areas close to the border of Thailand still struggle with food security.

The latest assessments found 162,000 people displaced in areas affected by conflict in the southeast, and that one in six children in these communities were acutely malnourished.

This information comes from The Border Consortium, a major non-government organization based in Thailand that has supported refugees in the border camps since 1984. TBC has documented displacement, food security and the security situation near the border for many years with local civil society groups.

250,000 from southeast remain displaced

The latest findings were released on Wednesday during the TBC’s annual meeting with donor governments and member organizations.

Sally Thompson, the TBC’s executive director, said: “Given that another 87,000 refugees are still spread across nine camps in Thailand, it means that one-quarter of a million people remain displaced by decades of conflict.

“In many cases, communities are too afraid to return because the same troops they fled from have now established outposts near their villages.”

Myanmar has had a civilian government, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, since April 2016, but she and her party have made little headway in reining in the country’s rogue military, which continues to control key ministries such as Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs.

The economy enjoyed buoyant growth for a short period but the peace process has been a dismal failure. Indeed, two of the biggest ethnic armed groups – the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) – said recently that they were considering opting out of the National Ceasefire Agreement.

“The peace process has not begun to address the causes of displacement,” Thompson said. The Border Consortium has provided rice and other food to refugees in the Thai border camps for 34 years but it is concerned that the international community no longer prioritizes humanitarian needs in southeastern Myanmar.

Little faith in the military

The number of refugees in the border camps in Thailand has fallen from a peak of 150,000 about a decade ago. More than 100,000 have been resettled abroad since the mid-2000s, many of them in the US, and about 18,000 have returned to their homeland.

But refugees have kept coming and while talk of repatriation to sites on the Myanmar side of the border continues, brutal offensives against the Kachin, plus groups in Shan State, and, of course, the Rohingya in Rakhine State has eroded confidence that the military actually wants peace.

TBC says interviews with recent returnees showed the key reason for refugees leaving the border camps was the gradual withdrawal of assistance. Food rations have had to be reduced because fundraising has been hit by some donors preferring to support aid projects inside Myanmar instead of aid to areas near the Thai border.

Karen refugee combs her daughter as they stay at Mae La refugee camp in Mae Sot near the Thai-Myanmar border on January 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. AFP PHOTO/PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL (Photo by PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP)
A Karen refugee combs her daughter’s hair at Mae La refugee camp in Mae Sot near the Thai-Myanmar border. About 87,000 refugees remain in the camps, while 162,000 are displaced in conflict-affected areas across the border. Photo: AFP

Meanwhile, the situation across the border is far from rosy. Refugees wanting to successfully reintegrate in their homeland need to obtain citizenship cards and household registration documents to re-establish a legal identity. But the TBC says securing land tenure and re-establishing livelihoods are still big challenges.

It said surveys with more than 1,000 households in conflict-affected communities and camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) suggest food security and public health would also be critical factors.

“Field surveys have consistently found that chronic malnutrition rates are high, which is consistent with poor access to agricultural land, safe drinking water and sanitary latrines. However, the extremely high rate of wasting found amongst children in conflict-affected areas is particularly concerning because it reflects recent nutritional deficiencies,” Thompson said.

Local civil society groups could be the key to delivering services to areas in Karen (Kayin) State which are classed as having endured a protracted emergency, mainly because they have the trust of conflict-affected communities after providing life-saving support for decades, the TBC says.

“If we want to leave no one behind [in the border camps], then ethnic service providers need to be embraced rather than marginalized during this interim period between war and peace,” Thompson said.

A map showing the nine camps on the Thai-Myanmar border plus the Shan IDP settlement at Wieng Haeng in the far north. Image: The Border Consortium

Meanwhile, the psychological toll on the 87,000 refugees still stuck in the border camps has become evident, with reports of increased suicides and other negative social impacts.

There has also been a report that the Mae Tao Clinic – a vital health service for tens of thousands of Burmese and migrant workers on the border – is struggling financially. Prachatai has said principal funders such as UK Aid and USAID have stopped supporting the clinic, run by the famous Dr Cynthia Maung, and that it only has funds for 25% of its needs this year.

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