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Burmese Refugees Hopeful After Reforms

  • Ron Corben

Burma's ethnic Karen novice monks attend class in Mae La refugee camp near Mae Sot, Thailand, Oct. 2010 (file photo).

Burma's ethnic Karen novice monks attend class in Mae La refugee camp near Mae Sot, Thailand, Oct. 2010 (file photo).

Refugee aid and assistance groups say Burmese government reforms have triggered fresh hope among more than 120,000 refugees living in camps along the Thailand-Burma border.

But aid groups also warn of widespread, lingering problems that would make a return home difficult for many of them. Some have lived in the camps for up to 20 years, while others are new arrivals fleeing poverty and violence between the Burmese army and armed ethnic groups.

But recent political reforms under Burma President Thien Sein, along with growing international engagement, have nonetheless raised their spirits.

“For a long time I did not have the hope," says Robert Htway, chairman of the Karen Refugee Committee in Mae Sot, adding that optimism was especially high after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma. "But I see the situation now, we know Hillary [Clinton] go back [to Burma], so we shall see. For me, a civilian who is the refugee, if the government [reforms], [if there is] real change, all the people [will] want to go back to the home land.”

Seven camps along the border house the massive refugee community. Tens of thousands also work in the border regions or make their way to factories on the outskirts of cities such as Bangkok.

Cynthia Muang, who heads the Mao Tao refugee clinic in Mae Sot, says people are “excited” by developments inside Burma and prospects of going home.

“Actually, the suffering of the local community or Burmese people, and the displacement and the poverty and human rights violations ... people (are) really excited," she says. "And, people want to go back home safely, and secure and with dignity.”

But a recent report by the refugee support group known as Thailand Burma Border Consortium, says conditions inside Burma’s eastern border regions remain desperate because of the protracted military conflict.

That fighting and the legacy of years of warfare worries Lynn Yoshikawa of Washington-based Refugees International. Although talk of returning to Burma is positive, she says, it is uncertain when refugees could safely return.

“It is great that the discussion is starting, but the potential for the refugees in Thailand to be able to return to Eastern Burma remains very distant," she says. "Regardless of the political situation, the extent of land mines there is incredible and no-one really knows where they are.”

Yoshikawa says there remains some “considerable disconnect” between optimism in Rangoon by civil society and harsh realities along the border region with Thailand.

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