Myanmar’s lost generation: Karen refugees with nowhere to call home

On the Thai-Myanmar border, 100 000 people of the Karen ethnic minority live in nine refugee camps. Several generations are living there, and for the young ones, it’s the only home they’ve known.

Senin, 14 Agus 2017 10:39 WIB

A group of refugees at the camps on the Thailand-Myanmar border (Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew)

A group of refugees at the camps on the Thailand-Myanmar border (Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew)

For six decades, Myanmar has faced civil war. Ethnic groups have been at the centre of conflict, suffering persecution and violence. 

Forced to flee, hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities now live as refugees in other countries. 

On the Thai-Myanmar border, 100 000 people of the Karen ethnic minority live in nine refugee camps.

Several generations are living there, and for the young ones, it’s the only home they’ve known. 

With a tenuous ceasefire signed in Myanmar, the refugees may be repatriated. 

But they say there’s nothing to return home to. Fighting continues in the villages, landmines are uncleared, and there are fears that the military have seized their land.

Reporter Kannikar Petchkaew traveled to Maesod on the Myanmar-Thai border to find out more.



The Karen people are from Southern Myanmar, and they are one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic minority groups. 

In 1978, one thousand Karen refugees arrived in Thailand’s border towns. Many more have followed since then. 

They were fleeing fighting between the Myanmar army and armed ethnic insurgents, fighting for independence. 

They came to Thailand seeking safety, and expected to stay a few months. 

That was 40 years ago. Today, they’re still here, unable to return to safety.

Hayso lives in Mae La, the largest border camp. Here, more than forty thousand people live in a crowded collection of ramshackle bamboo huts, fenced in and guarded by Thai soldiers.

He says the place feels oppressive. 

“It is a part of the environment and also a part of the world. It's like you are being put in the cave, you don't see the real, the real moon or the real star or the sun,” he sad despondently.

“What you see is the only the reflections within the cave. So it's difficult to picture weather this is the reality or not. Only you move outside the cave then you can see the real reflections of the true nature, or the world.”

Hayso Thako, now 36, was 6 years old when his parents left their home town in Karen state. They spent days walking with him to the Thai border. 

Hayso says he was too young to remember it all. What he does remember is they promised him it would be a short visit. Thirty years later, they’re still here.

I don't have any kind of status, just refugee,” he said. “I don't have any birth certificate. I don't have any registrations here.”

Refugees stuck in Thailand, like Hayso, now face an uncertain future. Programs that promised resettlement in other countries have ended. 

Donors that once supported those in Thailand are moving their funds into Myanmar. New international crises have arisen, competing for the world’s attention and sympathy.

“We try to continue to advocate to the international donors and we met with the embassies especially the Canadian, the US, the UK, and Australia,” Hayso explained. 

“Because now most EU donors are leaving. They moved their offices to Rangoon ,to the Burma side.”

A ceasefire agreement first signed in October 2015 was supposed to end 6 decades of civil war between the Myanmar government and ethnic minority groups. 


The refugees living in camps should be rejoicing. Instead, Hayso says they are stranded between a rock and a hard place: The world is telling them to go home –cutting back on the international aid that has kept them alive. 

But fighting around their villages continues. It’s still not safe to go back.

Meanwhile, survival in the camps is becoming harder.

 “Our worry is food, my main concern is if the people do not have enough food,” Hayso stated. “Then we may have a lot of problems in the camps, which means also effect to the neighboring area.”

Refugees are unable to work, and don’t get a proper education. The Thai military has even stopped them leaving the camps. 

Half the refugees here were born and grew up in camps.

20 year old Say Hel says she can’t imagine life in Myanmar.

“I have never been there, I was born in Thailand and I have never been there. I don't know how can I do or what should I do,” she told me.

Thai army officials have warned the refugee camps will soon be shut down. 

Staying in a refugee camp isn’t much of a life. But moving on doesn’t seem to be an option either. 

For Say Hel and the young generation of refugees, there is nowhere to go.

“I am not Thai or Myanmar, no one accept me that I am their citizen, I am not belong to any country. I feel like I lose my hope,” she continued, “should I die or? I don’t want to do anything!”

 

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