From the main road, Mae La looks much like a traditional Thai village. Smoke rises from thatched, wooden homesteads which straddle a hillside carved up by dirt tracks.
Close to the Burma border, Mae La is the largest of 10 refugee camps in Thailand and has since 1984 served as a home to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the world’s longest-running civil war in adjacent Karen State.
But since a ceasefire between the Burmese army and Karen rebels signed in January and government reforms, Human rights groups and aid agencies have started talking of the possibility that many of Thailand’s roughly 140,000 Burmese refugees may soon return home. The vast majority are Karen, while the other main minority – the Karenni – is also starting to look at repatriation.
Still, Dah Eh Kler, general secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) which monitors conditions on both sides of the border, suggests an area which has seen over 60 years of warfare will take time to support normal, everyday life.
“We are encouraged by the changes in Burma but there are many improvements that would need to happen before refugees would be safe to return,” she said.
The most pressing concern coming out of recent repatriation discussions with refugees is the presence of Burmese Army soldiers strategically positioned throughout the long, thin strip of land that is Karen State.
For decades, rights groups have documented Burmese Army orders instructing whole villages to relocate to “secure” areas away from Karen insurgents. Their wording was usually a variation on the same theme: “Anyone found hiding in the villages will be shot.”
During a third round of peace talks this month, the Karen National Union (KNU), the political wing of the insurgents, made a request to the Burmese government’s chief negotiator Aung Min that the army withdraw soldiers from areas close to Karen villages. They are still awaiting a response as President Thein Sein’s office consults with the Burmese Ministry of Defense.
Karen State remains one of the most heavily mined areas on the planet, another major concern for returning refugees, many of whom have already lost legs in the jungle. Up until at least the end of last year, reporting in the area by the Karen Human Rights Group suggested both the Burmese Army and rebel Karen National Liberation Army were still laying anti-personnel mines.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that although the Burmese Army has started to use bulldozers to clear mines, this remains a haphazard process. Some mines are signposted with skull and crossbones, but hundreds lie hidden.
“There has been little progress in demining,” said Robertson.
Almost every societal need is missing in much of eastern Burma including basic water and sanitation. Schools are mostly ad hoc and inferior to those in Thai refugee camps, particularly Mae La, as is the almost non-existent healthcare.
About 200-plus Burmese per day journey across the border to seek medical care at Mae Tao Clinic a few kilometers inside Thailand in Mae Sot.
“Our services are still very much needed along the border as the government has a long way to go to provide adequate healthcare to the people of Burma, especially those in ethnic areas,” said Dr Cynthia Maung, founder of the clinic.
Realizing the gap between services for refugees on the Thai side and those over the border in Karen State, the Burmese government has in recent months started to look at humanitarian and economic projects in this war-torn area.
During the recent peace negotiations, the Burmese government delegation reportedly talked enthusiastically about setting up factories and farms to offer employment. Meanwhile, the new Myanmar Peace Support Initiative has established a model village in Bago Division where internally displaced people in eastern Burma can access emergency assistance.
Closer to the border, the KNU has recently set up a handful of liaison offices to increase interaction between themselves, government forces and its proxy militias.
“There have been some remarkable changes that do give rise to hope,” said Bill Frelick, the head of HRW’s refugee program.
Amid this changing situation, some donors who fund refugee programs in Thailand have shown greater interest in spending money inside Burma and on programs to teach refugees vocational skills.
“Strategy was developed which would shift donor funding away from simple provision of food and other basic services towards more sustainable solutions,” said Mathias Eick, a spokesman for the European Commission’s aid program ECHO, which has provided 24 million euros (US$31.35m) for Burma funding this year.
The Karen Refugee Committee invited key humanitarian agencies including the Thailand Burma Border Consortium and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to a first repatriation workshop with refugees in June. Karenni groups are due to hold their first parallel workshop this month.
“It is still too early to discuss logistical planning in the form of transportation, cross-border procedures, etc. ” says Vivian Tan, a spokesman for UNHCR, which coordinates aid agencies in the camps.
A key concern is the paperwork which should state each and every refugee is a Burmese citizen and that they own the land in Karen, Karenni and other areas to which they plan to return. But few ID cards have been issued and there are already reports of people returning to find some villages have turned into economic concessions doled out to friends of the Burmese army and its proxy militias.
Karen refugees are indicating they want to return in the manner in which they first arrived in Thailand – en masse to provide safety in numbers and in the same structure as their original villages. Refugees and Karen groups have also stressed that the move back should be a test at first so that they can exit back to Thailand if things turn ugly again.
On the Thai side, the department that governs aid agencies under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter to Human Rights Watch this month which read that “Thailand is in no hurry to rush this matter.”
A few days later, the Thai National Security Council issued a statement which appeared to be more impatient, suggesting refugees “may return within a year.”
For the moment though, UNHCR, aid agencies and the refugees themselves remain reluctant to commit to anything approaching a specific date for what would be a landmark return.
“We hope that we can go home one day soon,” said the KWO’s Dah Eh Kler, who herself fled fighting as a child. “But it is just not possible under the current conditions in Karen areas.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.