Waiting in silence: life in a border refugee camp

Rosalie Smith

Mar 17, 2009 (DVB), Although being in Nu Pho camp feels like being in any little village peppered with bamboo huts, no one I spoke to there seemed to feel safe.

"The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army is just too close", says Kohw, an Arakan monk who has lived in Nu Pho for over a year and a half. Kohw is unregistered, and therefore illegal, along with the other thousand or so in the Arakan section of the camp.

Rumors about planned DKBA attacks on former political leaders in Nu Pho circle around the camp from time to time. The DKBA split from the Karen National Liberation Army , the armed wing of government opposition group Karen National Union , in 1992 and joined sides with the then State Law and Order Restoration Council (now State Peace and Development Council-SPDC), Burma's ruling military regime.

"We have so many spies affiliated with the Burma government," says Kohw’s friend, who approaches us to warn about any curious bystanders in the camp. On 28 January last year, one suspected DKBA spy was arrested by the camp security officers and later executed.

"All the Burmese people here who speak good Thai are potential SPDC spies", Kohw says. The presence of spies creates a climate of fear, despite many of the people in Nu Pho having no valuable information or contacts, and thus being of no use to the SPDC. Still, people remain careful about what they say and who they speak to.

The sight of children playing in the narrow streets and the friendly attitude of people in Nu Pho seems to give a false facade. Hleswe, a registered refugee who owns a small cornershop, has contacts among the KNU leaders and firmly believes that the DKBA will attack in the next two months.

"Current KNU leaders have warned me that former KNU leaders here, and all political leaders, are in danger of getting assassinated," he whispers. Hleswe has seen up to a hundred border police moving up to the Thai side of the mountains nearby. "The DKBA will enter the camp from there, behind the mountains," he said. "It will happen."

Kohw is an ex-political prisoner, and is aware of the assassination attack rumors too. He is worried about the camp policy whereby ex-political prisoners or people affiliated with activism in Burma live among refugees, who have no special status in the SPDC’s eyes.

"If an attack happens, the Thai military will be of no use to us," he said.

Hleswe believes that lack of resources mean the KNU won't be of much help in the event of an invasion. Likewise, the Thai military do not have the capability to maintain security in the event of a DKBA invasion.

"I don’t feel safe here," Hleswe admits. In Burma he worked for an armed political organization and is worried that his past will hinder resettlement. His wife and nephew are in the camp illegally.

"What will I do after I resettle? The same, long process waits for my wife and nephew."

Living under stress

Feelings of frustration and stress are common among the unregistered refugees in Nu Pho. Some who have stayed in the camp longer suffer from mental health problems says a monk who works with an underground organisation in the camp that deals with social welfare issues among Arakan refugees. Camp officials, however, do not allow such organizations in Nu Pho so they are forced to work covertly.

"We have no work, no income and no hope for finding work," says one Arakan monk.

Unregistered refugees are not entitled to a camp pass that would let them go in and out of the camp premises. They don’t have access to the food supplies controlled and distributed by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) and are not offered shelter either.

Out of the 14,000 or so refugees in Nu Pho, as many as 4000 are estimated to be unregistered. Since 2006, there has only been sporadic registration of newcomers, meaning the majority go unregistered.

Along with lack of food and shelter, unregistered refugees also have to worry about the camp officials who monitor their every move.

"When there is a conflict between registered and unregistered refugees, Thai officials have threatened to deport any unregistered refugees immediately, whether the conflict was their fault or not," Kohw says.

Like many others, Kohw spends his days in waiting. Some are waiting for a chance to get registered, while other are holding out for resettlement. And everyone waits for a possible attack.

Until recently, Nu Pho residents were under a strict curfew starting 9pm, forbidden from walking outside, listening to the radio or even having lights or candles on. Now, only wandering around after 9pm is forbidden but the huts still seem to stay silent and dark, creating a perpetually tense and ominous atmosphere.

"I feel like I’m under house arrest" said one Arakan monk.

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