By Daniel Rook (AFP)
MAE LA CAMP, Thailand — At first sight the bamboo huts nestled at the foot of soaring limestone cliffs in the jungle could be mistaken for an eco-tourism haven — except for the barbed wire and armed guards.
Beyond the perimeter fence and security checkpoints, designed to keep the residents in and unwanted visitors out, tens of thousands of refugees from war-torn eastern Myanmar are living in fear of being sent home.
Thailand’s announcement in April that it wants to close nine border camps, holding more than 140,000 displaced people, has sent ripples of anxiety through the traumatised communities after a more than two-decade presence.
“We’re scared to go back,” said Suai Pu, 27, who fled Myanmar six years ago with his wife and son and lives in the biggest camp, Mae La, home to about 46,000 people packed into around four square kilometres (1.5 square miles).
“People are so worried. They are praying. They cannot sleep,” he said. “We don’t have a home. We don’t have land. If we go back, what can we do?”
Most are Karen, whose eastern state is the scene of one of the world’s longest-running civil wars, stretching back six decades. Others include minority Chin, Mon and long-suffering Rohingya, as well as majority Burmans.
About 93,000 residents have been registered with the UN as refugees, but while an ongoing resettlement programme has allowed tens of thousands to move to third countries, they are soon replaced by new arrivals who trickle across the Moei river every day on doughnut-shaped inflated rubber tubes.
Many others live illegally outside the camps.
Vast numbers of people have fled the Myanmar government’s counter-insurgency campaign, which rights groups say deliberately targets civilians, driving them from their homes, destroying villages and forcing them to work for the army.
“Their safety would be seriously at risk if they went back,” said David Mathieson, a Myanmar expert for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“There’s still lots of fighting and landmines and no infrastructure such as clinics and schools. Most of the refugees are in camps because of persecution and if they go back the possibility of retribution from either side is high.”
Many of the children in the camps have grown up there and know no other life, leaving them unprepared for a return to the insurgency-plagued jungles of eastern Myanmar just a few kilometres away across the border.
Thailand’s renewed talk of shutting the camps followed the March handover of power from the long-ruling Myanmar junta to a nominally civilian government, after an election marred by widespread complaints of cheating and boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
Thailand’s National Security Council chief Tawin Pleansri said it had become the country’s “burden” to take care of the refugees.
The Thai government has stressed that it will only send them back when it is safe and no timetable has been set for their return, but inside the camps there are some signs of change in the air.
“The Thai officials called a meeting in the camp to start a preliminary screening process. Once that’s finished, they will send them back — although they’re not talking about that yet,” said Ehkler, a community leader in Mae La.
Sitting in a simple bamboo hut he built with his own hands on a pocket of dusty red ground in the camp, Kyaw Dee remembers constantly fleeing fighting as a child. His uncle was not so lucky.
“He was accused of being a rebel and taken to the Burmese army camp. Nobody dared to vouch for him so he was killed,” he said.
Kyaw Dee’s story is a familiar one in Mae La: forced to work as a porter for the government army, carrying ammunition and firewood, he left his home and parents behind six years ago to seek refuge across the border.
“Life was hard because we were trapped between the rebels and the government. We paid money to the rebels and had to work for the state army,” recalled the 38-year-old father of three.
“I don’t like living here but I manage. I want our children to have a better life. We want our country to be peaceful,” he said.
Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.