Burma's slow march

For all the excitement about change, the generals are still in charge—and refugees still marooned in camps
December 12, 2012

Refugees on the Thailand-Burma border, where more than 140,000 refugees remain in camps

In April 2011, just after reformist president Thein Sein was sworn in, Win Myint was at his home in Rangoon when suddenly there was banging on the door. Half asleep, he opened up and police and military intelligence burst in. Armed with automatic weapons, they searched for almost two hours but found nothing. Then, before they left, they threatened Win Myint and his sisters with arrest and imprisonment.

Win Myint had come under suspicion because his brother—a former soldier in Burma’s army—appeared in a 2010 HBO film I co-directed, Burma Soldier, where he spoke out against the military. The brother, Myo Myint, was jailed by the regime and severely tortured, serving 15 years in prison. He later fled to Thailand as a refugee and was resettled in the US.

After threats and harassment, Win Myint and his two sisters fled to the Thailand-Burma border, hoping to be accepted as political refugees and re-united with their brother in the US. Having made contact with the US embassy, they went to Umpiem Mai refugee camp, joining more than 140,000 refugees in the camps of the Thailand-Burma border. More than a year later, they remain stuck in the camp and without hope.

Today there are nine refugee camps that straddle the ill-defined frontier between Thailand and Burma. Most have fled the fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic insurgents. Recently, the Burmese government has brokered ceasefires with most of these armed groups, but the situation remains tense.

Meanwhile, change in Burma continues at a dizzying rate. After elections in 2010, reforms swept the country. They included amnesties for hundreds of political prisoners, new labour laws and the relaxation of press censorship. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released, joining the political mainstream as a member of parliament. In response to the reforms, most sanctions have been lifted. Washington has normalised relations with Burma faster than it has with any other country in the past, including post-apartheid South Africa. In November, President Barack Obama made an historic visit to Burma, meeting with President Thein Sein and praising him for the “steps that he has already taken for democratisation.”

For years, Suu Kyi’s stand against the military dictatorship informed western policy. Imprisoned for 15 years, she became a global icon. The regime, by contrast, was regularly rebuked for its human rights record. Now, what were once benchmark positions for dialogue with the dictatorship—such as the unconditional release of all political prisoners—have been abandoned by the US. Although several hundred prisoners have been released, there are still more being held.

Despite this, investors and governments, keen to exploit the new political situation, are rushing in. Burma is strategically placed between India and China and, with its rich natural resources, it is viewed as a final frontier for business. But the problems that have plagued ordinary people under military rule—poverty, forced labour, land grabs, harassment and intimidation—continue.

Many refugees on the Thailand-Burma border have been observing the west’s relationship with the new government with a mixture of hope and alarm. “They [western governments] believe in the changes,” one Burmese aid worker told me, “I believe some of them, but the Burmese army is still very powerful.” After decades of military rule and the world’s longest running civil war, there is deep distrust among the refugees. “The Burmese are lying,” another said of the reforms. “They always lie.”

For years, the camps have been supported by a consortium of international aid agencies but in recent years financial support has dwindled. In the politically driven world of donor aid, there is a view that the border refugees are a burden. As an aid worker said, donors like the EU “have never been sympathetic to the ethnics.”

And, as the world’s focus shifts, large amounts of foreign money will likely be redirected for reconstruction inside Burma. But this view, aid workers argue, is short sighted. “If you want genuine reconciliation,” the same aid worker told me, “you should be investing in these people, not cutting them off—they are part of the future.”

The Thai government has a patchy history as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution or conflict. Thailand never ratified the UN Refugee Convention and the populations of the border camps are not considered refugees but illegal migrants with little legal protection. The Thai embassy in London said, “Thailand is not a state party to the convention relating to the status of refugees and related protocol.” This means that under immigration law, if refugees go outside the camps, they are subject to arrest, detention and deportation. But, the embassy said in a statement, “we respond to all cases in the spirit of the convention and human rights and humanitarian principles.” Repatriation “will be on a voluntary basis and taking into consideration their safety and dignity.”

But there have been instances where refugees have been forced back, most recently with hundreds of Muslim Rohingya from Burma, one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Although the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) makes regular visits to the camps, the refugees know the UN is powerless to provide protection. When I asked the UNHCR for a guarantee that refugees will not be forced back, the regional spokesperson could only give vague assurances. Resettlement, wrote the UNHCR to me by email, “may be offered to them as a possible solution.”

Chief among obstacles on the road to meaningful change is the Burmese military, an institution which has dominated every part of Burma’s landscape for almost half a century. Despite the euphoria, it is the generals who continue to be the ultimate arbiters of power in Burma. And it is the military who threatened Win Myint and his sisters.

For them the reforms have meant little. They have been targeted because their brother has done something few former soldiers dare to do: speak out against the army about the routine abuse of civilians. “The army thinks that we are distributing the DVD—they believe that the film is aimed at breaking the army,” said Win Myint.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia division director at Human Rights Watch, sees Myo Myint’s family’s situation as a test case for resettlement, because there is no guarantee that even in a reformed Burma the army will not come after them. “It’s quite clear,” Robertson wrote to me, “the Burma army is a power unto itself and can do what it wants—especially with relatives of someone who it views as a traitor.”

According to a report by the US Agency for International Development, it is not clear what influence Thein Sein actually has over the generals. His calls for an end to the fighting in Kachin state have been ignored by commanders. The 2008 constitution, which was pushed through by the military regime, legalised military rule and the army has the legal and constitutional means to reassert martial law at any time. In early 2012, soldiers burst into a Christian conference in western Chin state. When an ethnic Chin MP intervened, telling the soldiers they had permission from the local authorities to hold the meeting—in accordance with tight controls in place over Christian gatherings—a captain pointed a gun at the MP’s head and screamed, “We take orders from the North Western Regional Command!”

Although long time supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, Win Myint and his sisters are doubtful of her ability to influence the military. “She has no power,” says Win Myint. “She must organise the army to follow the government, but in reality she can’t do anything.”

Over the past year, although the US and the UK have generally condemned violence in western Burma, they have remained silent on the issue of continued abuse by the armed forces specifically. “While we have not specifically condemned the military in Burma,” said Jonathan Farr, senior press officer at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, “we expect the [Burmese] government to do what it can to bring an end to the violence.”

In the rush to re-engage, the US has even considered inviting members of Burma’s armed forces to observe the annual Cobra Gold military exercise between the US and Thailand.

Meanwhile, says Phil Robertson, “the Thai government is twiddling its thumbs and playing for time, waiting for the day when it can send all the refugees back to Burma.”

For now, Win Myint and his sister remain in the camps along with thousands of others. Whatever reforms take place in the country, they know where the ultimate challenge lies, and that is with the military itself.

More than a year after arriving, their situation has stagnated. The refugees of the camps remain in limbo, fearful they will be forced to return. “We don’t know what will happen to us. We’re afraid we’ll be sent back by force,” Win Myint said. “According to UNHCR, we won’t be sent to a third country [like the United States] because we’re over 18 and unmarried,” he explained. “We have no hope.”