After 63 years, civil war in Myanmar might finally be near an end after the government agreed a ceasefire with the ethnic Karen. But can peace usher a return for the many Karen refugees in neighbouring Thailand?
Every time Moon Lay steps out of her small hut, she can see her home in the distance: the mountains of Kayin State, beautiful and grand. On the horizon lies her former village, now slashed and burnt. When fighting broke out in Myanmar between the military and rebel troops after disputed elections in 2010, it was the villagers who were caught in the crossfire. Moon Lay, and many others, were forced to flee across the nearby border. "I was running and running, carrying my two daughters. Everyone was running. All the time we heard gun shots. I was so scared," she recounts as tears slowly roll down her cheek.
Another Burmese refugee in Thailand, Pah Dah, speaks of his longing for his family and hometown. He left Myanmar when soldiers settled in his town and forced villagers to work for them. When Pah Dah was 16, he decided to undergo the three-day trek through the jungle to escape, nearly drowning in a river in the process. "Sometimes I dream of my house, my garden," he says. "I want to go back. But it is just not possible for us to do so at the moment."
A lifetime of war
For more than 60 years, civil war has had a tight grip on life in Kayin state in eastern Myanmar. The military has been fighting the ethnic Karen - and the rebels have been fighting for independence. The non-governmental organization Free Burma Rangers has documented human rights abuses in the conflict for years. Rape, forced labor and killings are a part of everyday life. Villagers are even used as human minesweepers by the soldiers, one spokesperson says.
Now, it is hoped peace is about to come to Myanmar after the rebels and the army agreed a ceasefire deal earlier this month. The details are yet to be agreed, but for the international community this initial agreement is already an important step forward.
Western nations say ending the ethnic conflict is one of the key requirements before they will consider lifting sanctions against Myanmar. Several high-profile diplomats who have visited Myanmar in recent months - from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to British Foreign Secretary William Hague - have stressed this precondition.
No kind of life
Pah Dah and Moon Lay are hopeful as well. They now live near the small, dusty Thai border town of Mae Sot. About 80 percent of the inhabitants are of Burmese origin. In total, it is estimated that more than one million Burmese refugees live in Thailand, some in refugee camps, others illegally.
The thousands who fled over the border in 2010, as Moon Lay did, were not received well by the Thai authorities. One officer in Mae Sot declared that "as soon as it is safe [in Myanmar], we will send the refugees back."
"Thailand wants the refugees to go back. The refugees also want to go back," says Duncan McArthur from the Thai Burmese Border Consortium, which provides relief to some 160,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand. The border crossing over the Moei River was reopened last December, but McArthur urges the authorities not to rush the repatriation process. "There is no point in doing it prematurely because then people will just come back in a less regulated way. We are not yet ready for a mass-repatriation. That is going to take time."
Illusion of peace
And the situation in the mountainous northern state of Kachin shows that a ceasefire is by no means a guarantee for peace. A long-standing peace was broken just last year, since which both sides have been caught up in brutal clashes once again.
"The army is still kind of doing its own thing: It is a little bit decentralized. So the specific guys who are running the camps in these areas have orders from the top - but they can also do things at their own pace," the spokesperson for the Free Burma Rangers explains.
After decades of war and abuse many Karen remain skeptical. "There have been some peace talk offers by the government. But I think the intention is maybe not for genuine peace talks," Pah Dah says. "It is not that we are pessimistic. It is a fact that there still are many troops in our state and villagers are still displaced from their homes."
Pah Dah has not seen his family for three years now. The road leading to his hometown is no longer accessible because there are too many landmines, he explains. Large parts of Kayin are littered with such explosives. Both the army and the rebels have used them to great effect during the conflict. Many victims arrive at the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot where they receive free treatment. But the waiting list is long, and life in Myanmar remains dangerous, even without the fighting.
"Our village is not yet safe. That is why I do not dare to go back. And there is nothing there anyway," Moon Lay says. And so it seems that in the hearts of the many Burmese refugees lingering in Thailand, there is still fear for what they might lay across the border, even after all sides have laid down their arms.
Author: Monika Griebeler
Editor: Darren Mara