Thailand: Burmese refugees strive for self-reliance

04 September 2013|Angela Wells and Dana MacLean

A Shan refugee student studies in a local community school. Burmese Shan community members embrace the opportunity to educate their children while seeking protection in Thailand. (Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific)

Wieng Haeng, 4 September 2013 – More than a decade ago, two Thai Buddhist temples opened their doors to provide sanctuary to 500 Burmese Shan refugees fleeing conflict between the Shan State Army and Burmese military forces in southern Burma. This hospitality was later extended to the refugees by the local authorities of the rural town of Wieng Haeng, which allowed the establishment of Krung Jor Camp in 2002. But with the human rights situation improving in Burma, there is much talk of sending Burmese refugees home.

Despite progress in Shan State, the 2013 Amnesty International report documented a myriad of human rights violations faced by minorities in the country. This is in sharp contrast with the relative security offered to Shan refugees in Krung Jor Camp where many have been able to access education services and employment, albeit in the informal labour market, according to camp leader and Shan advocate, 61-year-old Mr. Sai Lang.

While ceasefires have been signed with eight ethnic opposition groups, including Shan rebels, and the government has agreed to end forced-labour and child military recruitment, real change is likely to take years. Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported an intensification of armed conflict last year and that many Shan in Burma remain subject to arbitrary arrest, unlawful killings, sexual violence, torture, and destruction of livelihoods.

According to Mr. Lang, control of resources — gold, rubies, sapphires and teak — fueled the violence in Shan State in which the Burmese military engaged in practices such as forced labour, military conscription and rape, as a tactics of war. Unfortunately, the lure of huge wealth is still very powerful.

“In ethnic areas like Shan or Karen states, the Burmese (military) are still seizing land from people to sell to foreign companies for activities like tourism.”

Mr. Lang believes that if his community were to return, it is unlikely they would be able to sustain their families.

Over time, many of the 500 Burmese Shan asylum seekers have been able to find ways to provide for their families while living in Krung Jor. This has earned the community a level of acceptance from the host community, which in turn heightens opportunities for self-reliance and community building. This has of course been helped by the fact that many Thai citizens in Wieng Haeng are also ethnic Shan. Similar language, religious and cultural customs as the Burmese Shan has facilitated a degree of integration.

Due to the unofficial nature of Krung Jor Camp, as well as a lack of legal residency or employment rights, the Shan refugees have been dependent on NGOs and local communities to start anew in Thailand.

Today, many Burmese Shan are able to make the same wages as Thai workers, an average of 175 Thai baht (5.5 US dollars) per day, working as seasonal farmers in garlic, bean, corn or chili fields.

One group of seven women took part in a Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) tailoring workshop and have since been hired by a local tailor shop where they make a living.

“JRS training opportunities allowed us to learn new business skills”, said Ms. Onkham, one of the course graduates who now works in a shop.

“Now the refugee women have stable employment in the local community. It’s more sustainable than providing aid”, said the JRS Project Director in Wieng Haeng.

In Wieng Haeng more than 300 students attend primary and nursery schools supported by JRS. Also, since 2006, Thai schools have accepted all minors, irrespective of migration status, said Camp Education Coordinator, Mr. Sai Oo.

“In the past, it wasn’t a priority to educate girls, but this is now changing and becoming more important. I try to emphasize that just learning to write isn’t enough for the girls, they are eager to learn and need higher education to contribute to their societies and families”, said Mr. Sai Lang.

by Angela Wells, JRS International Communications Assistant, and Dana MacLean, JRS Asia Pacific Communications Officer

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