[former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of ten books on ethnicity and politics in Burma and other countries in the region. He is currently with the Asia Pacific Media Services www.asiapacificms.com]
Decades of civil war, insurgencies and counterinsurgency campaigns as well as gross economic mismanagement by successive military-controlled regimes have driven millions of people from their homes in Burma, either as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or as refugees or stateless migrant workers to neighbouring countries. The total number of IDPs is impossible to ascertain, but refugee organisations which are engaged in cross border relief operations on the Thai-Burma frontier believe they number in the hundreds of thousands. On the Thai side of the border, at least 500,000 people are living in refugee camps and less formal, makeshift settlements which resemble squatter villages. Many of them are ethnic Karen, who have fled fighting between ethnic Karen guerrillas and the government’s forces, or ethnic Shan who have escaped to Thailand because of the civil war in their part of the country. Fighting between various separatist rebel movements and the central government broke out shortly after Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948, and is still continuing.
In addition, migrant workers from Burma rank the highest in numbers of human-trafficking victims in Thailand. On June 4 this year, the New Delhi and Kolkata-based Burmese news group Mizzima quoted Sompong Sakaew, director of the Thai NGO the Labour Rights Promotion Network, as saying that 700,000 foreign workers have registered officially with Thai authorities. A recent estimate, however, put the actual number at more than three million, and they are mainly from Burma. Many are employed in Thailand’s fishing industry, on construction sites or as lowly-paid factory workers. Others are street vendors, and many young women are kept in slave-like conditions in Thailand’s many urban and rural brothels. Transnational networks use Burmese children as beggars in the streets of Bangkok — and most of the money they are able to collect ends up in the hands of the criminals, not the children.
There is also an unknown number of mostly ethnic Chin refugees in the north-eastern Indian state of Mizoram. In January 2009, Human Rights Watch released a 104-page report titled “We Are Like Forgotten People: The Chin People of Burma: Unsafe in Burma, Unprotected in India,” which states that “the Chin Population in Mizoram is estimated to be as high as 100,000, about 20 per cent of the total Chin population in [Burma’s] Chin State.” The Chin call themselves Zomi, or Mizo the other way round, and the two peoples are closely related, which often makes it difficult to tell a Burmese Chin from a Mizo from India. But once settled in India, the Chins, or Zomis, nevertheless remain stateless. According to Human Rights Watch, “the Chin face discrimination and threats of forces return by Mizo voluntary associations in collusion with the Mizoram authorities.” Only about 1,800 Chins have made it to New Delhi, where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, has an office, which makes it possible for them to have their refugee claims decided and be considered for resettlement in third countries.
Human Rights Watch also states that as many as 30,000 Chins have fled to Malaysia hoping to obtain UNHCR recognition — in addition to the tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas who already are there as cheap labour. Even more of Rohingyas, natives of Burma’s Arakan or Rakhine State, are living in south-eastern Bangladesh, in camps or small villages near the border. Both the predominantly Christian Chins and the Muslim Rohingyas complain about religious discrimination in their homeland. They claim they are often driven from their land, and used as forced labour by the Burmese army.
The Rohingyas especially are vulnerable in a predominantly Buddhist country, where they have been made scapegoats for the government’s failed economic policies. Even many pro-democracy activists in Burma refuse to recognise the Rohingyas as an “indigenous people”, claiming they are “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. While the Rohingyas speak the Chittagonian dialect of Bengali, they have been living on what now is the Burmese side of the border for centuries. In Chin State, Christian pastors have been forced to worship in Buddhist temples, and the refugees allege that the authorities are destroying churches, crosses and other religious symbols as well as restricting the printing and importing of Christian bibles and literature.
The number of refugees and migrants from Burma in China is unknown, but there are substantial communities of Burmese of various nationalities living in the south-western province of Yunnan, mainly in border towns such as Ruili, Tengchong, Mangshih and Jinghong. Most of the refugees and migrant workers there are Kachin or Shan, and can quite easily mingle with their ethnic cousins in China, called Jingpo and Dai respectively.
There is no easy solution to Burma’s multitude of refugee problems. Repatriation is not an option as long as the civil war continues in several parts of the country — and, some would argue, as long as the country remains under repressive military rule. A general election, scheduled for this year, is unlikely to change Burma’s military-dominated power structure; rather, the election is designed to legitimise the military’s hold on power, perhaps with a few token civilians in the new national assembly.
Further, Thailand does not recognise people from Burma as refugees but refers to them as “displaced persons”, which makes their situation extremely precarious. India, although reluctantly tolerating the presence of refugees from Burma, has not signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, which means that Burmese refugees in India lack basic protection of their rights under international agreements.
In recent years, some Western countries such as the United States, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Finland have accepted substantial numbers or people from the camps in Thailand — and some from India as well — for resettlement in their respective countries. But a lasting solution to the problem cannot be found until and unless there is a meaningful political settlement inside Burma, between the military government and the pro-democracy opposition, and between whatever government is in power and the country’s many ethnic minorities. On the other hand, it is not realistic to expect a solution to any of these problems within the foreseeable future. Burma’s refugee problem is here to stay for many years to come, perhaps even decades.