Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Hopelessness Among Shan Refugees Persists After 20 Years Of Displacement

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Suddenly, a truck appeared in the middle of the field at the mountaintop, where only the sound of the wind could be heard. Murmurs began to arise as the truck came to a stop.


One by one, the individuals stepped out of the truck, each carrying a side bag and wearing a traditional Shan straw hat. They were people who had just finished a long day of work and were leaving for home.

“We work as daily wage laborers to support our families. We have to take on whatever work is available, as we don’t have the luxury of choice. Our income is barely enough to make ends meet. Back then, we used to get only 70 baht a day. We have more opportunities for work during certain times of the year, such as the planting and harvesting seasons for crops like garlic and onions,” explained Pa Nang Kyar, one of those returning from daily labor work.

Pa Nang Kyar emphasized that displaced women have a lot of responsibilities to fulfill such as being a mother, a wife, and supporting themselves, which is why they have no choice but to work for daily wages.

The Koung-Jor refugee camp is where these displaced women and workers lived. It is situated on the Thai-Myanmar border in the Piang Luang sub-district, which is part of the Wiang Haeng District in Chiang Mai province, Thailand.

People at the Koung Jor Shan Refugee Camp
People at the Koung Jor Shan Refugee Camp.

The individuals who have been displaced were forced to flee their homes during the 2002 armed clashes between Restoration Council of Shan State and the Myanmar military, specifically the Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA). These civilians were accused by the Myanmar military of supporting the RCSS/SSA and as a result, many were arrested, tortured, and killed while their villages were burnt down. These atrocities led to the displacement of these people who had to seek a safer place to live.

As conflict broke out, Pa Nang Kyar and her fellow villagers were forced to flee their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

In recalling her experience, Pa Nang Kyar shared, “There was a fight and we had to run for our lives, and couldn’t even take anything with us. Those who have children have to carry their children, those who have their grandchildren, grab their grandchildren and flee through the forest for days.”

Back then, a total of 636 individuals, including villagers from Pang Kant Kaw, Pang Mai Soong, and Pang Haut in Mong Ton township and Mong Sat district of Shan State, had to flee the violent conflict.

In 2003, these displaced individuals managed to find refuge and establish a new home at a refugee camp located in Koung-Jor village, Piang Luang sub-district, Chiang Mai province, along the Thai-Burma border.

Currently, the daily wage for refugee women is only around 250 baht. These women depend on daily wages to survive and, in the past, some attempted to travel to a third country in search of employment to make ends meet.

Pa Nang Kyar shared, “We’ve tried, and at times I’ve considered moving to a third country. However, we haven’t been able to complete the process of applying for a passport. Refugees used to be issued passports, but even after all these years, we still haven’t received them. They said they were lengthening the procedure.”

Children in the refugee camp
Children in the refugee camp.

The refugees have been living in displacement for two decades now, leading them to abandon the idea of returning to their home communities. Even if they do decide to return, they claim to have nowhere to live.

U Loong Sai Lieng, a committee member for the Kung Jaw refugee camp, revealed that during the conflict, the Myanmar army attacked villages caught up in the fighting by burning homes, looting belongings, torturing, and assaulting the people.

“The Burmese army persecuted the Shan villagers as much as they could throughout the conflict because they believed the Shan population would support the Shan armed resistance organizations. All the properties were seized, and some homes were set on fire.Right now they are committing the same thing in Sagaing and Bago, burning down the houses. Back then villagers were also arrested with accusations that they were supporting the Shan armed forces. Thus it was no longer possible for us to stay in the village but to flee to the border area,” stated Loong Sai Leng.

When they first reached the Thai-Myanmar border area, at Kung Jaw refugee camp area in 2003, the Thai government did not take them in and recognized them as refugees. They even informed the Myanmar military to resettle the refugees somewhere else in Myanmar.

The Thai government has contacted the Myanmar military, to re-settle those Shan refugees who fled the fighting.

The Myanmar government refused to accept the refugees, stating “if they cannot speak Burmese then they are not citizens of Myanmar,” and disregarded their request. As a result of the government’s refusal to resettle the refugees, they decided to stay in Koung-Jor.

Pa Sein Nu, a refugee woman, spoke about the challenges that the refugee community faced in supporting their families and sustaining their livelihoods. They had to collect grass and straws from various sources, such as wheat fields, paddies, and forests, to create thatch for roofs, which they then sold in order to earn a living.

As Pa Sein Nu explained, “These days, making and selling thatch is challenging. From the forest, we extracted and gathered grass and straws. Following that, we had to weave them to create thatch and it takes time. When there are events, we can only sell those finished thatches; otherwise, we must simply retain them for ourselves.”

Pa Sein Nu revealed that despite the significant effort and time invested in making thatch, a single piece of thatch only amounts to 20 baht. With very few buyers in the market, she struggles to maintain a consistent source of income.

As a result, the refugees are mostly reliant on daily wages to fulfill their basic needs. Additionally, the increase in the cost of goods has made it difficult for them to make ends meet, forcing them to be frugal with their food consumption.

Pa Sein Nu explained, “The current daily wage is only 250 baht, while commodity prices have significantly increased. In the past, we could buy food that was too heavy to carry for 100 baht, but nowadays, even a simple trip to the market could cost us over a thousand baht. Previously, we could buy a fish for a reasonable price, but now, a fish costs around 80 to 100 baht. Consequently, we must be very mindful of our spending habits and live a frugal lifestyle, often having to skip meals when we are short on cash. Our income is comparable to covering ourselves with a thin blanket; if we try to cover our heads, our feet will remain exposed, and vice versa. We wouldn’t be able to afford dinner if we had breakfast. Therefore, we must be extremely cautious with our spending.”

Koung Jor Refugee Camp
Koung Jor Refugee Camp.

Koung-Jor is one amongst few Shan refugee camps situated along Thai-Myanmar border, and Koung-Jor is in Piang Luang subdistrict of the Wiang Haeng District of Chiang Mai Province. Nevertheless, neither the UNHCR nor the Thai government have given it legal recognition as an IDP camp.

“There are concerns that if the camp were to be recognized, it could attract more refugees from Myanmar. Additionally, the Thai government was trying to maintain good relations with the Burmese military regime, which is another reason why the camp was not granted formal recognition,” Loong Sai Lieng, gave the explanation for why the camp was not given formal recognition.

The six Shan refugee and IDP camps, namely Koung-Jor, Gawng Mung Mong, Loi Kaw Wan, Loi Tai Leng, Loi Lam, and Loi Sam Sip, have been providing shelter to 6,200 people, but The Border Consortium (TBC) has ceased its relief and supports to these camps since 2017. In response, camp committees and local non-profit organizations took on the responsibility of gathering aid and donations from alternate sources to assist the refugees.

Following the military coup in 2021, there have been violent crackdowns on protesters, arbitrary arrests, killings, and an increase in armed conflicts. The political instability has led to a degradation in education, social, and economic opportunities. Job opportunities have become scarce, forcing many young people to flee to neighboring countries like Thailand to seek refuge and employment.

“I had to flee to Koung-Jor camp where my relatives are because of the challenges we faced in accessing education. Even though we wanted to continue going to school, we were no longer able to do so,” said a 17-year-old who preferred to go by the name Sai La.

In September 2022, Sai La resorted to taking an illegal underpass to cross the Thai-Myanmar border and eventually arrived at the Koung-Jor refugee camp.

Sai La conveyed that the political instability resulting from the military coup has also affected Shan State, leading to a decrease in educational activities and the loss of numerous opportunities for young people like him to receive an education.

“I haven’t been able to attend school since the outbreak of Covid-19, and following the military coup, I missed out on four years of education. Normally, I would have been in my first year of college at this point. Now I don’t even feel like going to school anymore” remarked Sai La.

Currently, Sai La is residing with his relatives in the Koung-Jor refugee camp and pursuing his education at a school in Thailand.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has reported that over 1.5 million individuals have been displaced in Myanmar due to ongoing armed conflicts, with over 1.1 million of them being displaced following the military coup, according to their latest statement.

There are over 100 children in the Koung-Jor refugee camp, and they are currently learning the Shan language, as well as Thai and English, during the summer.

“Our desire is for these children and young individuals to acquire extensive knowledge and obtain higher education. We want to give them a good foundation. We would encourage them to finish their secondary education up to Grade 6 in a Thai school, so that they could pursue higher education in the future,” stated Sai Main.

According to Sai Main, providing education to children who have been displaced by conflict is crucial. Failing to do so may hinder their ability to differentiate between right and wrong, potentially leading them down the wrong path in the future.

Pa Nang Kyar stated that despite enduring more than 20 years of living without any future prospects or hope in refugee camps, the people residing there still hold a desire for the younger generations who have grown up in the camps to have access to quality education and a brighter future.

Pa Nangkar expressed a lack of optimism regarding the future, saying, “I do not hold high hopes or expectations for what lies ahead. I plan to remain here and grow old in this place.” However, she also added, “As my children and grandchildren were born and raised here, I also wish for them to complete their education here.”

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