Black diesel smoke belches from a rusty engine that pumps water to the relatively new eastern Myanmar town of Lay Kay Kaw, about 5 kilometers from a local reservoir. Thousands of people who fled to Thailand to escape civil war in Myanmar have come to the 2-year-old town to put down roots, but the homecoming has not been a smooth one.
For the returnees, keeping water flowing as pipes break, especially during the hot summer, is one problem they face in the struggle to adjust after more than six decades of conflict and displacement. Another is a lack of job opportunities. Critics say poor planning contributes to the problems.
WATCH: Challenges Beset New Myanmar Village for Karen Refugees
The returnees include members of the Karen ethnic minority, which has been fighting for independence since 1949. Their settlement is in the state of Karen, or Kayin, a flashpoint in the conflict between the minority group and government.
Observers, however, say the main challenge facing the returnees is security. Plans to “repatriate” another group of displaced Karen refugees this month were delayed by security concerns as sporadic fighting continues.
Myanmar threatening cease-fire
Myanmar forces have repeatedly crossed into areas controlled by ethnic armed groups without permission, violating the Nationwide Cease-Fire Agreement (NCA) signed in 2012 between the Myanmar military and Karen state’s largest armed ethnic group, the Karen National Union.
There are five armed groups in Karen state, including the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO), the KNU/KNLA Peace Council and the Border Guard Forces (BGF).
Recent skirmishes involving government forces and various ethnic armed groups have stirred more mistrust for refugees like Naw Lay Paw. Naw Lay Paw moved from one of the Thai camps to a safe house on the edge of the Thai border town of Mae Sot.
Naw Lay Paw was considering joining some of her family, already living in Lay Kay Kaw, but is not sure if she will have enough money.
“I don’t think I want to return right now because I know I can work on the Thai side and save more money before I return,” the 59-year-old mother said.
The Lay Kay Kaw housing project is seen by analysts as an attempt to restore trust and confidence with the local population, but some locals say the effort offers them little consolation.
Seventy-year-old Karen farmer Naw La Gee, who fled the fighting 30 years ago, is worried about other family members still in the camps, including her two children.
“Right now my son has a job to do but in the past he could not find any work. I have two more cousins that are going to resettle in this village soon, but I don’t know what jobs they can find here so it’s going to be hard for them,” Naw La Gee says, as she pours a cup of tea.
Additionally, international funding is being increasingly diverted to central Myanmar, where many nongovernmental organizations have relocated, taking away vital resources from camps on the border.
Separately, land confiscation is on the rise as both international and domestic development increase in former conflict zones. Thousands of Karen villagers, who farmed sections of land years ago, no longer have hopes of reclaiming property that was taken from them by the government in the agriculture-rich region.
“There are also many investors, including the Myanmar government, who want to do business in our area and open up factories,” said Padoh Mahn Batun, a Karen Forestry Department official.
He once served as a Karen soldier and says he is wary of unkept promises made by the Myanmar military in the past.
“They say they will create more jobs for locals, but we have to consider now how to manage and make our land work for everyone,” he said.
A recent study by the Myanmar civil society network Land in Our Hands, points out that the nation’s military was the leading actor responsible for land confiscation, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all land grabs surveyed.
“For indigenous people, land is life, so transporting rural refugees into urban areas will not address grievances about the dispossession of ancestral lands,” says Duncan McArthur, of The Border Consortium (TBC) a Thailand-based group of 10 NGOs that has provided food, shelter and support to refugees from Myanmar and internally displaced persons since 1984.
New laws that demand official documentation for proof of land ownership have left many displaced families without legal ground on which to stand.
“Instead of criminalizing upland farmers for cultivating so-called vacant, fallow and virgin lands, recognizing customary land management systems will be key to promoting social reintegration,” McArthur added.
An organization known as the Nippon Foundation has created several make-work projects at the edge of Lay Kay Kaw, including an agriculture center where workers grow corn, green beans, dragonfruit and mushrooms, but production is limited and there is not enough to sustain the community appetite.
“Many refugees no longer have homes to return to, so the allocation of land and development of resettlement areas like Lay Kay Kaw is significant in terms of promoting options for refugees beyond the camps,” The Border Consortium’s McArthur said.
“However, return movements will not be sustainable unless access to agricultural land can be secured or employment opportunities generated in the surrounding areas,” he added.
According to Human Rights Watch, farmers received little or no notice before their land was taken from them and received little, or no compensation, depriving them of their livelihood.