After Burma Poll, Conflict Looms
Image Credit: Mikhail Esteves

After Burma Poll, Conflict Looms


MAE LA CAMP, THAILAND—Aside from the checkpoints, it could be any village in Thailand. The bamboo houses, bisected by dirt lanes and picturesque streams, are well-tended and strung with brightly-coloured laundry; in dirt-floored cafes, men in Burmese longyi (sarongs) chat over shots of sugary tea and chew betel nut, while nearby stalls stock the latest Thai cosmetics and DVDs. Children, their cheeks daubed with swirls of traditional thanaka face paint, chant lessons in Burmese and English in well-equipped bamboo classrooms.

But for the residents of Mae La refugee camp, life is in an ongoing limbo. Created in 1984, the camp is now home to an estimated 47,000 inhabitants, most of whom fled ethnic violence and other abuses inside the military-ruled country to the west. Around 65 percent of the camp’s residents are ethnic Karens, part of the tragic diaspora born out of the group’s 60-year-old insurgency in neighboring Karen State. The remainder also includes Shan, Kachin, Mon and Karenni refugees from across Burma, as well as a small contingent of exiled student dissidents.

As the Burmese military junta gears up to hold elections for the first time in two decades, few of the camp’s inhabitants expect things to change for the better. Byran Awng, a 68-year-old Shan, is pessimistic over the chances that the elections, scheduled for November 7, will bring peace and stability to his native Shan State. In August last year, the retired teacher experienced the brief outbreak of fighting between junta troops and ethnic militias in the Kokang Special Region, a Chinese enclave in Shan State along the border with Yunnan Province. He says the incident, which sent about 30,000 people fleeing into China, will likely be repeated after the poll.

‘After these elections, I think there’ll be more fighting, because the people don’t like the elections, or these generals,’ he says in the gravelly English he learnt as a schoolteacher. ‘(The election) will make it worse.’

Over the past year, the security situation along the Thai and Chinese borders has worsened following the introduction of a Burmese government scheme to extend its control over the raft of armed militias that signed ceasefires with the junta in the 1980s and 1990s. The so-called Border Guard Force (BGF) plan—tied to the timing of next month’s election—now threatens to unravel a fragile status quo in the ethnic states.

Elise Patterson
October 28, 2010 at 05:29

“There will be peace if the government loses its power” – this quote cited by a Karen monk captures the reality of what the Burmese minority groups have hoped to happen since the SPDC has been in power from 1962. The military’s actions in September 2007, the tragic events of the Cyclone Nargis and the junta’s economic mismanagement and the nationalistic and xenophobic tendencies have strengthened and maintained the regime’s control over the country and at the same time bypass foreign pressures to reform. Given the junta’s unrelenting grip in maintaining power, peace will most likely not occur.

Moreover, I agree with Sangrio, the elections will cause turmoil and difficulties for minority groups in Burma. In order to address this predicted turmoil and deal with the SPDC, an important question that needs to be and continued to be asked is how the international community / ASEAN and other international entities will deal with this predicted turmoil.

The poor approach by ASEAN in resolving the Rohingya issue in early 2009 to turning its responsibility to the Bali Process for a solution derives from the member countries’ lack of definition as to what situations, states and criteria constitutes official ‘refugee’ status. Many of the member countries in question do not have domestic legislation in place to handle legitimate refugees and do not have the legal framework for international protection of refugees as they have not signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, nor the 1967 Protocol. Refugees in these countries unfortunately do not have legal residence and therefore risk being prosecuted by local authorities as illegal immigrants. Minority groups from Burma, for instance, are often classed by such states as ‘economic migrants’, meaning they have illegally entered an adopted country, seeking better financial opportunities. This is a false perception which ignores the political reality, situation and needs of these minority groups, who are actual refugees fleeing an oppressive government.

Finding a solution is difficult because of many complex circumstances. Any solution will rely on the political will and cooperation of countries within the region.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief