As Myanmar Transitions, People Continue To Flee

By Will Carey | 06 Mar 15

Aside from skimming through a concise history book on Myanmar prior to arriving in Bangkok, I had no accurate knowledge of the country’s history and diversity. Myanmar’s civil war has been raging for 60 years, currently the longest running civil war in the world.

After gaining independence from the British in 1948, Burma (as it was previously named) swiftly fell into political chaos and a military regime took hold of power in 1962. The regime went on to commit grave abuses against its people, particularly the ethnic minorities of its outer states.

Forced labour, torture, rape and political oppression were rife even after the 1988 anti-government uprising that left thousands of demonstrators dead. Pro-democracy fighters persisted throughout the 1990’s, spearheaded by Aung San Suu Kyi, who would spend 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest for her efforts to promote a democratic and free Myanmar that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.

Myanmar is only recently opening up to the outside world as the alleviation of trade and investment sanctions begin to bolster the economy and a transition to a democratically-elected government gives the appearance of positive change. However, my work at the Human Rights Foundation of Monland has led me to believe otherwise.

Despite the impression of transition into a democratic government, many argue that this is not the case. The military regime’s political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, currently still holds power with a quarter of the parliament reserved for the military.

Mon state borders Thailand and is home to the native Mon people. Many of my work colleagues believe that although human rights abuses are not as widespread and calculated as they have been in previous decades, the military government continues to commit crimes on the ground. These tend to go unreported, as political and journalistic freedom is often quashed with the threat of imprisonment, torture and death.

On 30 September 2014, freelance journalist Par Gyi was captured by government forces after photographing a skirmish between the Burmese military and the rebel Democratic Karen Benevolent Army. On 4 October, the reporter was declared dead in military custody. The military claimed the man was shot as he attempted to steal a military weapon. Later exhumed, the body showed signs of torture and gunshot wounds that contradicted the story told by the military.

Fear of military abuse, conflicts between armed groups and minimal job prospects have forced thousands of refugees through the dense jungle into Thailand’s refugee camps, throughout Southeast Asia and at times into Australia’s detention centres.

Decades of civil unrest and military-led human rights violations have resulted in a surge of refugees fleeing across Myanmar’s borders into neighbouring China, India and largely, Thailand. The Kingdom of Thailand borders various ethnically and politically diverse states in Myanmar including Mon, Shan, Karen and Karenni. Each state has its own military, political ambitions and struggles for the freedom of their people.

Ceasefire agreements enacted between fighting states and the Burmese government have yet to relieve tensions and seldom last long. The end of a ceasefire agreement in 2011 has created an uncertain future for the people in the northern state of Kachin. Last November, Burmese government forces shelled a Kachin army training camp, killing more than 20 troops in a Kachin-controlled area. This year has seen an escalation in fighting, forcing hundreds to flee their villages.

“Fear within these camps is very real, as the people have no legal status, no official way of earning income and have nothing to return to in Myanmar.”

Refugee camps in Mae Sot, Kanchanaburi and several others along the Thai-Myanmar border continue to accommodate asylum seekers. However, the future of these people is uncertain, as Thailand is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and is without a formal national asylum framework.

These camps are seen as “temporary settlements”. After the 2014 Thai military coup, the army announced plans to deport over 100,000 refugees back to Myanmar and have implemented stricter measures to control the movements of undocumented people. The announcement was condemned by human rights organisations for its lack of transparency and clear policy. Fear within these camps is very real, as the people have no legal status, no official way of earning income and have nothing to return to in Myanmar.

Immigration detention statistics released in 2013 by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, which is now the insidiously named Department of Immigration and Border Protection, stated that there were 52 Myanmar refugees in Australian immigration detention facilities. Current records do not determine exactly how many are in detention, placing Myanmar refugees in an “Other” category.

Last December saw a 37-year old Myanmar man climb the Broadmeadows Detention Centre roof, refuse to come down and threaten to jump off. The man had been in detention for four years with a negative ASIO assessment. But no one had ever explained to him why he was a threat to Australia, and he feared deportation back to Myanmar.

Although the transition into a democratically-elected government may seem like a positive step for Myanmar, it is too early to tell for sure. Years of war and government-inflicted abuses across the country’s various ethnicities have created a volatile, untrustworthy and at times unliveable environment, forcing people to seek refuge over the border into Thailand and further abroad to Australia.

After completing a Bachelor of Social Science (majoring in Environmental Studies), Will Carey worked at the Human Rights Foundation of Monland in Thailand, an organisation endeavouring to expose human rights violations within Myanmar, with the prospect of further studies in human rights.

Feature image: Gzooh/Flickr