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What will election mean for Thai-border refugees?

For refugees from Burma living in camps just across the border in Thailand, a landmark election in their homeland triggers mixed emotions – hope that a hated government will be defeated, and fear of the uncertain future such an upheaval might bring.

Ko Chit, 45, who lives in Mae La refugee camp, the largest of the nine camps that are home to around 110,000 people, is typical of those who spoke to Reuters.

He wants opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to win the 8 November poll, the country’s first free and fair election in a generation, but worries that could result in being sent back to Burma while it remains unsafe.

“The situation is not yet stable and we cannot go back because of fighting and persecution,” Ko Chit said. “If there is no non-governmental organisation to support us there, it would be better to stay in the camp.”

For many who spoke to Reuters, the looming fear is that an NLD win will prompt Thailand to declare it is now safe for them to go back and shutter the camps.

Some residents have been living in the camps for 30 years. Nearly 80 percent are ethnic Karen from eastern Burma who fled armed conflict and often persecution at the hands of the Burmese army during decades of military rule.

Trusting the Burmese government does not come easily. A quasi-civilian administration now holds power after the junta stepped aside in 2011, ushering in a period of reform, but most senior figures in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) are former generals.

Under the constitution, the military will hold 25 percent of seats in parliament regardless of the outcome. It will also retain control of all portfolios related to national security.

The Burmese government was not immediately available for comment.


Fragile ceasefire

None of those in the camps will be able to vote. More important to them, in any case, is a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed between Burma’s government and eight armed ethnic groups last month.

“If the refugees are to return, an end to fighting, the withdrawal of troops and security of land tenure are just some of the conditions they need – something no party can guarantee, at least not in the near future,” said Sally Thompson, Executive Director at The Border Consortium, which coordinates activities in the camps.

For the refugees, returning is not an option, at least for now.


“We are afraid. We have no land to go back to. The army is still in many villages,” said Oo Say Ha, 66, who lives in Mae La camp.

Thailand has no timeframe for the refugees’ return, Sansern Kaewkamnerd, Thai government spokesman, told Reuters.

“We will not interfere with Burma’s election. Whatever the outcome, if there is peace, we will encourage people to return.”

Thailand has not signed a 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, nor does it have a specific law on refugees. With the opening up of Burma, the Thai government has promoted the return of refugees as a realistic option.

Just months after the taking power in a 2014 coup, the Thai junta said it would send home refugees living in the camps, a move rights groups said would create chaos.

Gen. Ner Dah Mya, head of the Karen National Defence Organisation, a military wing of the Karen National Union that largely controls Karen State, said he did not believe the ceasefire agreement his group has joined will hold.

“If the refugees are deep inside Myanmar and something happens, it won’t be easy for them to move out again,” he told Reuters. “There is a fine line between life and death.”



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