Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A different set of rules for Burmese refugees

Thailand sounds like a very cruel country when the government says it will repatriate Burmese asylum-seekers after that country holds its first general election in two decades.

The Burmese military junta will hold the election on November 7, the first since the one in 1990 that Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide but were not given the power by the top military brass.

The upcoming election is a move to turn the junta into a civilian government of sorts, but not necessarily introduce democracy as such. According to the junta-sponsored 2008 constitution, any and all Burmese governments come under the control of the military.

All the military officers, including incumbent Prime Minister Thein Sein, are doing is donning civilian attire to contest in the election on behalf of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Nobody believes the Burmese military will withdraw from politics, or give up their control of the economy and society.

Suu Kyi and her party are not allowed to participate in the election, and though she has been given the right to cast her ballot, she has decided to abstain.

Ethnic minorities along the Thai border also see this election as a sham. They believe that the election would give the junta more confidence to wield power, and they would launch a major offensive against the armed ethnic groups.

Major ethnic groups, such as the Shan State Army, Karen National Union and Karenni National Progressive Party are not participating in the election either. They turned down the junta's proposal to become border guards and instead vowed to continue their armed struggle.

Chief of the Karenni armed forces, Bee Htoo, said recently that he anticipated a big offensive after the election, but added that the minorities were preparing a strong resistance.

It appears as if conflict will only continue after the general election. Conflict between the Burmese military, the opposition and minorities has fuelled an influx of refugees into Thailand for decades.

About 110,000 asylum-seekers from Burma are being sheltered in nine camps along the borders. Most of them have been here since the 1988 uprising, when they failed to overthrow the military regime. About 10 per cent of these refugees have already been settled in other countries.

In addition, some 2 million people from Burma - classified as "migrant workers" - are either legally or illegally seeking jobs in Thailand. These migrants are a big headache for Thai authorities, but this "burden of proximity" cannot be avoided.

Every time people in neighbouring countries have a problem, they have no other safe haven but Thailand. However, the people and the governments in this country need to treat them as human beings.

It is inhumane to push them out or chase them away. Of course, Thailand cannot shelter them forever either and they need to eventually return to their place of origin or find refuge in a third country.

Still, there's no excuse to repatriate them to a place where they could face further persecution, because it is pretty clear that the upcoming election will not bring peace to Burma.

Thailand's handling of refugees from the Indo-China conflict in the previous century suggests that nobody is sent home if the conflicts have not ended. Refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have never been shown the door, so why are the Burmese being pushed out while their home is still up in flames?

The Nation, Bangkok

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