While Rohingya Draw World Attention, Other Myanmar Refugees Face Crisis

While the world looks on with distress at the tragedy unfolding in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where more than 600,000 people have fled from savage violence since August, tens of thousands of other minorities are stranded on the opposite side of the country, dwelling in camps on Thai border, threatened by disastrous reductions in aid.

Funding to the Border Consortium (TBC), an organization that provides food to the camps, decreased by almost 50 percent between 2012 and 2016, leading to a progressive reduction in rice rations. The European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, once a major contributor to the camps,* cut aid from €2.1 million in 2015 to €1.3 million in 2016.

Until recently, the displaced communities, mostly Karens, one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic minorities, received significant support from various donors. But their predicament began to worsen a few years ago, as Myanmar celebrated two events hailed as milestones on the way toward the end of direct military rule. In 2011, a semi-civilian government led by former general Thein Sein was installed. Now more than 100,000 of them live in camps along the border.

The following year, the KNU, in the midst of a seven-decade civil war with the central government, signed a ceasefire with the central authorities, a step toward joining a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015. Naypyidaw now argues conditions are suitable for those who have been displaced to return, while international donors have begun moving inside the country and cooperating more closely with the authorities.

But more than 100,000 of the displaced live along the border, distrustful of the government, in an existence that grows more precarious as the internatioal donors pull back. Coupled with the emergence of other crises in the Middle East, these developments have underpinned a dramatic decrease in aid to the local community.

“I’ve come here because soldiers destroyed the village. The army attacked and burned the houses and many people hid in the forest. We kept rice in a special place in the mountains, but it was destroyed, so we escaped,” said Pyo Pyo, a villager now living in Ee Tu Hta, an IDP camp on the Burmese side of the Salween River. The story is hardly unusual – nearly all the displaced people tell similar tales of destruction during this brutal, if little-known, war.

Saw Por Lia Ka Lee La Moo, another villager in his forties, still recalls how the military razed his house in 1997. “The Burmese soldiers came to my home and destroyed everything,” he said, lowering his eyes and expressing sorrow and anger for three family members he says he lost in the attack.

Even the famed Mae Tao Clinic is feeling the heat. Founded in 1988 by Dr. Cynthia Maung, who has since been likened to Mother Theresa for her humanitarian work, what was originally a modest Thailand-based clinic has become a facility packed with 55,000 patients a year. As money shrinks, admission criteria are being restricted and the provision of meals to patients’ caretakers has been suspended.

“Our budget is around US$3 million a year. But for next year we have a shortfall because one of the major programs has ended. There is no follow-up funding, so we are cutting down on costs and becoming more efficient,” said Ellen Somers, who is in charge of fundraising and grants.*

Papaya trees dot the camp and pigs roam the muddy tracks between bamboo huts, but they will hardly be enough to feed all the 2,600 residents, who were left to fend for themselves in October, when rice supplies were suspended.

Padoh Mahn Mahn, former Joint Secretary of the KNU and now the camp’s director, said he has found a clearing on the river banks where to grow rice. Whether that will suffice only time will tell, but since 2010 the camp population has almost halved, with people moving out in search of better opportunities.

“If you ask me if I want to go back of course I say yes. But is it possible?” Padoh Mahn Mahn asked. “The NCA does not lead to solving problems. Why? For me it is because there are no conditions for an agreement. Particularly in military matters.”

Whether there will be lasting peace is key to the safe return of the displaced, but independent observers are cautious about the future. Just two large ethnic armed organizations – the KNU and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) – have signed the NCA. All other major players have opted out and some are currently involved in active fighting following the break up of previous ceasefires.

Truces negotiated in 1989 between the government and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and in 1994 with Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) collapsed just as the transition to “democracy” was taking place. Since then, several battles and countless skirmishes have taken place in the northern part of the country, where the number of IDPs has steadily grown over the past eight years.

The ongoing violence in Rakhine is also a reminder that Myanmar remains unstable and that the military – seen by some as defending the nation against foreign interlopers, at least as far as their operations against Rohingyas are concerned – has hardly given up on its old ways. Recent estimates by Doctors Without Borders put the number of Rohingyas who died in Rakhine State since the end of August at 6,7000, including at least 730 children below the age of five.

All this highlights the obvious risks locals on the Thai-Myanmar border face. Should hostilities between insurgents and the military restart, those who have gone back would re-live the violence which had first caused them to flee. And as proven once again by the Rohingya crisis, abuses in Myanmar can assume truly horrific dimensions.

*Story modified to correct errors.

Michele Penna is a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel