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Thousands flee Myanmar to Thai border region

Julian Küng
March 25, 2021

As thousands flee the army clampdown in Myanmar, many have arrived to the border with Thailand, where authorities are setting up temporary camps. They are also arresting people and sending them back to Myanmar.

The Song Kalia River on the Thai side of the border
The Song Kalia River on the Thai side of the borderImage: Julian Küng/DW

In the hilly border region between Thailand and Myanmar, members of the ethnic Karen group have been fighting against the Burmese army for decades. Since the coup in Myanmar eight weeks ago and the brutal clampdown on protests, the territory has once again become a refuge for other opponents of the military regime

According to Padoh Saw Taw Nee, the head of the foreign affairs department of the Karen National Union, which is providing them with food and shelter, there are more than 2,000 refugees now. "Most of them are young people," he told DW. "There are a few doctors; the others are journalists, lawyers, lawmakers and also people who have abandoned the police and military." 

One refugee who left Yangon two weeks ago told DW that he had fled when it became "too risky. "I was scared of being kidnapped by soldiers every night," he said. He added that the resistance movement could "reorganize" in this region as there is better access to the internet through Thai networks, making online communication possible again. 

The army has been blocking the internet in Myanmar to prevent protesters from organizing online. 

'A massive offensive'

After the people's uprising of 1988, thousands of protesters fled to the Karen hills. "At the time, the army launched a massive offensive and we lost a large part of our territory," Taw Nee said. "Now, history is repeating itself." 

He said troops from Myanmar had tried to get into a camp where members of the "civil disobedience movement" were staying. The rebel army had managed to prevent 200 soldiers and eight trucks from entering, but then five hours later another 200 soldiers turned up and demanded entry. 

"We made it clear to them that there would be a battle if they came in," he said. He added that the soldiers left without armed conflict. 

"We are preparing for the worst," he said. "We will launch negotiations and meet the Thai authorities, the UN Refugee Agency and the ICRC because the KNU will not be able cope on its own for very long." 

Thailand fortifies border

In Thailand, preparations are underway for an influx of refugees from Myanmar. At the Tao Tahn temple in Sangkhlaburi, which is about 300 kilometers (180 miles) northwest of the capital, Bangkok, there are stacks of plastic plates and cutlery piling up in the prayer room. "We are ready to take in about 760 refugees," said the 54-year-old head monk, Chatchai, who has done this before and is himself of Karen descent. "We've taken in many Karen people in the past who've now gone back to their villages." 

"The militias' defense belt could easily burst and then people will be forced into Thailand," he said. 

Thailand's government is doing everything it can to prevent this happening. The country's 2,000-kilometer western border is currently blocked because of the coronavirus pandemic anyway and has been patrolled more intensively since the coup in Myanmar. There is more and more barbed wire and the penalties for human smuggling have been increased. 

"It is not normal how many people are crossing the border," said Lieutenant Itthipon, from the Sangkhkaburi police station in the province of Kanchanaburi. 

Phak Poom, an official in the border village of Ban Kao in the same province, confirmed this: "The political situation has meant that there are more people coming from Myanmar. The border is too long to be controlled seamlessly. We can only arrest people randomly or if we get a tip." 

Prohibitive asylum laws

Border guards have been capturing people almost daily, people who are exhausted and hungry and have sometimes waited in vain for traffickers. Hundreds have been arrested, including dozens from the Rohingya ethnic group. "We sent almost all of them back to Myanmar," Itthipon told DW.

The government has justified its measures as a necessary pandemic measure. The country is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention, and its asylum law refers to "illegal foreigners" who can be arrested and deported at any time. 

"Thai authorities should stop pushing back people who are fleeing Myanmar," Bill Frelick, the refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch, said in a recent statement. "The Thai government should immediately allow all asylum seekers fleeing the violent crackdown in Myanmar access to desperately needed protection."

The former monk Moe from Myanmar
"I have been living in Thailand for 30 years and I'm still not able to move freely," Moe saidImage: Julian Küng/DW

What awaits refugees?

At the beginning of March, the Thai authorities announced to the media that football stadiums, schools and other sites had been converted to welcome refugees from Myanmar. The army is also erecting three temporary shelters in the southern provinces of Chumphon and Ranong. Major General Santi Sakuntak said they would be sent back after the situation returned to "normal" and that no permanent camps would be constructed.

There are a number of camps on the western border that have been "temporary" for over three decades now, with the first refugee arriving from Myanmar in 1984. According to the UN, about 92,000 people, mainly Karen, now live in these camps, which are surrounded by rusty barbed wire fences and are under permanent military surveillance. The internees have very few prospects.

Nobody knows exactly how many people are living in countless unofficial settlements in the hills and jungle on the Thai side of the border. One of them is Moe, a Karen monk who fled the military dictatorship after the 1988 uprising, who runs a small village store. "I have been living in Thailand for 30 years and I'm still not able to move freely," he said. 

He said he had worked for a few years in a Bangkok fabric factory before coming back to the border region. "I don't have to worry about anything here," he said. "People know me and about half of the inhabitants don't have any papers. I do wish that I could visit my son and my friends in Bangkok one day without being scared of being arrested." 

For the moment, it is unlikely that Thailand will change its asylum policies. The military government, which took power in a coup in 2014, has said that it would, but there has been no action so far.

This article has been translated from German.