10 months after the coup, many Karen and Karenni refugees are still hiding in the forests and mountains, while concerns over wars on the border have increased. We discuss with academics the role of diplomacy in refugee assistance to enhance national security and developing diplomacy to pressure Min Aung Hlaing.
Housing in IDP refugee camp
After the Myanmar military carried out the coup, the violent suppression of protestors and affirmed conflict between the Myanmar security forces and armed ethnic forces in various areas along the border resulted in an increase in the number of refugees/internally displaced people.
Myanmar Humanitarian Update No. 13 of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that from 1 Feb to 6 Dec 2021, the number of internally displaced people in Myanmar increased to 284,700. Most are vulnerable groups - women, children and the elderly, - but they include the young and people escaping persecution by the Myanmar military.
If fighting in the area of the ethnic armed forces continues, there is higher chance that refugees will flee to Thailand to escape unrest in their country. In this dry season, there is more concern that confrontations along the border will start to flare up again.
The coup in Myanmar is therefore becoming a turning point which is forcing Thailand, as a neighbouring country that will be fully impacted, to reconsider its refugee policy. But before getting to that point, we would like to update you on the situation of refugees/displaced people in Kayin and Kayah states which border Mae Hong Son Province.
‘Can’t go, can’t return’ – refugee lives still need to be hidden
In March – April 2021, there were reports of the Myanmar military staging numerous air attacks on civilian targets in Mutraw (Hpapun) District, leading to widespread displacement. Many villagers took refuge in the forests, hoping that nature would help conceal them from Myanmar military attacks, while thousands of other Myanmarese civilians escaped to Thai territory across the Salween River in Mae Hong Son Province before being ‘pushed back’ by Thai officials a few days later.
The Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN), a Karen humanitarian organisation, published a report in early Dec. 2021 that between June and November 2021, the Myanmar military continued with at least 770 bombing missions in Mutraw, in response to the cutting off of food supplies to Myanmar military camps in Mutraw by the KNLA. There were also reports that Myanmar soldiers looted households and arrested and assaulted villagers.
Assessments by KPSN and OCHA show that warfare in the ethnic areas of Mutraw District displaced 50,000-82,000 Karens between Feb and 6 Dec 2021. Presently, although the unrest has abated, villagers are still taking refuge in the thick forest in Mutraw in Kayin state for safety. Some took refuge on the Myanmar bank of the Salween River so that in case of unforeseen circumstances or bombing near the river, they can quickly escape to Thailand.
For an overview of the impact, our journalist spoke to ‘Luang’ Santipong Moonfong, Director of the Development Centre for Children and Community Network (DCCN), Sop Moei District, Mae Hong Son Province, which provides aid to refugees from Mutraw District, as well as Susanna Hla Hla Soe, the Minister for Women, Youth, and Children’s Affairs of the National Unity Government (NUG), for the most recent accounts of displaced people in Kayin State.
Luang said that there had been continuous air attacks from Mar to July 2021, but in July the situation in Mutraw eased. Surveillance planes did not fly as often as in Mar-Jun, resulting in many moving to live in refugee camps or IDP camps. But many villagers still did not return to their community areas and chose to escape into the forests or mountains or along the border, since they still feared unrest. Some from villages located near Myanmar military camps are still too scared to go home.
“Especially now, villagers are more anxious, because normally, in the dry season after the rains stop, fighting often occurs. This year, I think there is more worry than in earlier years because the fighting is still in our memory, and the internal violence still continues,” the Director of the DCCN said.
Susanna Hla Hla Soe said that previously, the war in Karen areas affected people mentally, especially female refugees. Many feel that they themselves are desperate and unable to help themselves. Left untreated for a long time, it becomes a mental wound. Soe also said that refugees living in the forest often feel unsafe and do not know when they will get attacked by the Myanmar army.
“The saddest thing is that even though they try to hide in the forest, the SAC soldiers [the State Administration Council, the military junta that rules Myanmar] is still trying to find them and kill them,” Soe added.
The NUG Minister stated that an urgent issue, apart from food, is the recent weather in Mutraw which has become much colder. Most refugees do not have enough blankets and clothes to keep warm and mostly light fires to keep warm.
Santipong said internally displaced people have to face disease during the rainy season, especially mosquito-borne malaria and diarrhoea, which result from living in the forest without proper hygiene and unsafe drinking water. Right now, the Foundation is trying to donate water purifiers and installing them for refugee use at various locations in Kayin State, but victims of accidents or serious injuries have to be sent for treatment in Thailand.
Displaced refugees in Mutraw. Photo taken on April 2021 by the Transborder News Agency.
Soe said that another issue refugees have to face is the lack of isolation facilities at the border. Right now, the NUG is trying to find such places for those that have tested positive for COVID.
Finally, in dealing with the conflicts on the Thai-Myanmar border at Mae Sam Laep, Mae Hong Son Province, that may occur in the future, many sides predict that the conflict will restart after the rainy season, but Luang Santipong believes that last year’s experience has better prepared people in the area, including civil society organisations and community leaders, to deal with emergencies on the border and help refugees.
Karenni displaced people
Kayah state is located in the east of Myanmar, covering around 300,000 rai (480 sq km). It borders Shan State to the north, Kayin State to the south and west and Mae Hong Son Province in Thailand to the east. Most of the ethnic population is Karenni or Red Karen.
Reports from the Karenni Civil Society Network (KCSN) indicate that almost daily bombing and artillery attacks on Karenni villages started in May to counter the ethnic armed force fighting against the Myanmar army. Civilian targets such as schools or churches were chosen. In addition, there were also reports of arrests by the Myanmar military with people tortured and executed to instil fear, so that no one will fight the military.
Violence within the state resulted in Kayah State having the highest number of internally displaced people among states in the eastern region. The OCHA reported that between the Myanmar coup and last December, there have been as many as 85,000 internally displaced people in Kayah State, while reports from the KCSN estimate the number of internally displaced people at possibly 100,000, similar to the number in Kayin State. Many other Karennis have had to take refuge in the forest to escape attacks by the Myanmar army.
4 essential supplies still urgently needed
Daniel, the NUG Minister of Home Affairs and Immigration, said in an interview on internally displaced people that in the unrest in Karenni areas in July there were still shootings, but in this past rainy season, the conflict has eased.
The problems of Karenni internally displaced people are no different from in Kayin State – access to humanitarian aid, a lack of vital essentials especially food and rice, and shortages of winter clothing and medicine. In the past, there were reports that many villagers in Kayah State had caught COVID-19, but there are still doctors providing treatment.
Drinking water is insufficient. Minister Daniel added that in the IDP camps, water is very difficult to find. Villagers have to make equipment to pipe water from streams which are far away from the camps. After the rainy season, the streams do not have enough water, impacting the lives of people in the camps.
The Minister of Home Affairs also stated that today, internally displaced people are living in great fear. If they are discovered by Myanmar soldiers or if there is shooting nearby, they repeatedly have to escape. Sometimes the Myanmar military fire artillery into the villages and women and the elderly cannot escape in time. Daniel also revealed that in Karenni areas, the Myanmar military have obstructed humanitarian aid. If the Maynmar army comes across a doctor or foundation worker, they may arrest or assault them.
The NUG Minister of Home Affairs called on the global community to help internally displaced people especially with rice, since in the long term it is highly likely that there will be a great shortage. He also wanted to call on international organisations or the Thai government to pressure Myanmar to return power to the people, or call on ASEAN to help push forward change in Myanmar.
Causes of refugee management problems in Myanmar
Many parties estimate that after the rainy season, the war in Myanmar will start up again and the impact will be felt not only in Myanmar – Thailand, as a neighbouring country, might need to take up the role of guarding the frontier and providing aid to refugees. However, refugee aid during Prayut’s term of office has been widely criticized by NGOs for repeated violations of the “non-refoulement” principle. There are also discussions with academics on how the Thai government should provide diplomatic aid to refugees and what benefits it will receive from this.
Refugees in Karenni state. Photo taken by Metta Charity.
Going back to 8 July 2021, civil society working committees have kept track of refugees from Myanmar, in a collaboration of many NGOs working in refugee aid. A summary report on the Myanmar situation was submitted to the Committee on National Security, Border Affairs, National Strategy, and National Reform for the Thai government to solve the humanitarian crisis for internally displaced people and refugees from Myanmar.
The document criticised the work of Thai security agencies for their refugee aid measures from Mutraw, Kayin State, after many thousands of villagers had to cross the border after Maynmar warplanes dropped bombs on various communities on 27 Mar 2021. This violated the international principle of non-refoulement, or not pushing refugees into situations of danger.
The principle of non-refoulement, in summary, says that if there is reason to believe that any person has entered [the country] because there is a real fear of persecution, they must not be “pushed back.” This is unrelated to any need to assess if there is war or not – they must be provided with aid and allowed to stay temporarily.
Not only once, but almost every time in Mar - Apr 2021 that a refugee from Kayin State entered Thailand, including aid measures for refugees from Myawaddy who entered Mae Sot District, Tak Province, after confrontations between the KNU and the Myanmar army at Lay Kay Kaw, the form has been for the Thai government to open a temporary space for refugees to receive initial aid until the unrest in the country-of-origin ends. When the situation becomes peaceful, the government will hurry to push them back.
The management of refugees, whether from Mutraw or Myawaddy, clearly shows that the Thai state remains steadfast and has no wish to play the role of Good Samaritan by establishing temporary shelters or refugee camps. They will also not be kind to refugees by allowing them to live in Thailand for too long, out of fear that it will escalate and linger like the 9 camps for refugees who have not been able to return home for 30 years. However, it is often found that refoulement by Thailand is carried out when the target country is not yet at peace and has the appearance of compulsion.
The Prime Minister said in an interview with the mass media on the Thai-Myanmare border situation in Mae Sod District, Tak Province, on 24 Dec 2021, that although Thailand is ready to look after those affected as regards shelter, food and medicine, there will be no camps because the existing camps sheltering around 9,000 people are already a problem.
The Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, posted on Twitter on 20 Dec 2021 warning the Thai authorities against rushing to send back refugees from Myawaddy since they may become targets of the Myanmar army.
Bhanubhatra Jittiang, lecturer at the Faculty of the Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, repeated that what the Thai authorities fear is that if they become too kind or lax with their refugee policy, it will become a pull factor for other refugees to migrate into Thailand. But Bhanubhatra sees that Thailand cannot stop. As long as neighbouring countries continue to have security problems, refugees will continue to come.
If the problem must be dealt with, the CU lecturer proposes that the Thai state should change its perspective on refugees by having them come into Thailand as workers, since Thailand already needs a large workforce from Myanmar anyway.
“The demand for labour is high in Thailand, which already needs labour from Myanmar. Why don’t we try to push some of these groups of people so that they can become a force to drive forward the Thai economy?” the CU lecturer stressed, also pointing out that if the Thai state is worried about this issue, what is important is that Thailand needs to solve the problem at its cause, which is the Myanmar military.
Solving the refugee issue through diplomacy
Bhanubhatra made 3 suggestions for managing refugees and for diplomacy. In the short term, Bhanubhatra views that helping refugees is a downstream issue, and what Thailand needs is a “humanitarian corridor”, especially along the border where refugees from neighbouring countries enter Thailand, in order to be able to send help to refugees and protect the security of the Thai state.
Bhanubhatra says that a “humanitarian corridor” policy means setting up a zone or area of around 5 to 10 km to send help for both the Thai and Burmese sides.
On the Thai side, international organisations may be asked to coordinate with the Thai authorities and other civil society organisations may be requested to set up stations ready to deal with future situations, while on the Myanmar side, the humanitarian corridor is created for people who need help to enter these areas.
Later, a ‘No Fly Zone’ needs to be set up so that no planes can fly over and drop bombs, since whenever a bomb is dropped, Thailand’s sovereignty is always affected.
“This means that humanitarian aid is protection for the nation state’s security. For example, if we don’t create a humanitarian corridor and there are bomb attacks at the border, the explosions may affect Thailand, or the bombs may fall on the Thai side. Thailand is affected. So setting a No Fly Zone, creating a humanitarian corridor, in the end it’s all for Thailand’s benefit. This is a benefit that you can say is about territory and sovereignty,” the political science lecturer said.
Later, implementation may require the establishment of a working committee in order to prepare various agencies and these agencies include the state sector, civil society, international organisations or foreign governments that will work with the working committee – and Thailand can become the leader.
This suggestion is in line with Santipong’s idea; he thinks that there should be operational integration. Whether international NGOs, the UN, civil society or state agencies, they need to be able to work together. Also, the Thai state’s suggestion is still in accordance with the government’s standpoint that does not want refugee camps on Thai territory.
Pressuring Min Aung Hlaing
If we want to solve the issues of refugees in the long term, negotiations with the Myanmar military must play an important role. Bhanubhatra suggests that Thailand needs to adjust all its diplomatic roles with Myanmar, changing its policy position from ‘coordinator’ to ‘stakeholder’ in everything that happens in Myanmar, since as long as Myanmar is not at peace, everything impacts Thailand.
The Chula lecturer thinks that the weakness of Thailand’s diplomatic policy is that it does not dare act harshly towards Myanmar, and has not used its resources to negotiate with the Myanmar military, although Myanmar has relied on Thailand all along, whether it concerns becoming an ASEAN member, economic issues, exporting natural gas, etc. So Thailand should use this advantage to negotiate with the Myanmar military.
If there is fighting between ethnic groups and the Myanmar military, in the end, who carries the burden? The Thai army carries the burden, the Ministry of Interior carries the burden, it’s all Thai state agencies. If Thailand does not view itself as a ‘stakeholder’, these problem-solving methods will not happen.
Approaching the parallel Myanmar government
The third suggestion is that the Thai government needs to approach and negotiate with the National Unity Government to pressure the Myanmar military.
Bhanubhatra asks why it is important. It is important because the NUG has what is called ‘legitimacy’. The UN Special Rapporteur says that the 3 most important pressure points on the Myanmar military are a weapons boycott, limiting their financial capability, and legitimacy. If Thailand can impose these 3 things, then the Myanmar military can be pressured. Thailand then can push the NUG to become the rightful government of Myanmar.
In the long term, Thailand should leverage its role and status in ASEAN. Thailand has always been someone that Myanmar relies on. Thailand was the one to bring Myanmar into ASEAN membership, but Thailand has never used this advantage. In the end, Thailand may be the leading actor in talks or lead the conversation, which may result in pushing forward a regional collaborative framework on the management of camps for refugees and internally displaced people, which will be beneficial to the Thai state.