• Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

‘No Returning Home’: Life in a makeshift Myanmar refugee camp in Thailand – a special feature from ST

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Feb 14, 2022

YANGON/BANGKOK, February 14 (The Straits Times/ANN): The lifeline for thousands of Myanmar villagers fleeing violence after last year’s military coup begins in kitchens like this.

On a street in Mae Sot, northwest Thailand, a stone’s throw from a Burmese teahouse selling donuts for breakfast, two women bustle around a giant wok bubbling with red curry . They mix dozens of fried eggs.

Other volunteers pack the curry into foam boxes filled with steamed rice, taking care to place an egg in each box.

Meals are piled into a truck heading for the river border between Myanmar and Thailand. It is crossed by Thai soldiers and quickly spotted by displaced villagers withering in the midday heat on the opposite bank of the Moei River.

“Hta min! Hta min!” They shout, alerting the other villagers that their rice has arrived.

Men, women, and children wade about a minute through chest-deep water, briefly stepping on Thai ground to retrieve their food. Then, with sacks of boxed meals perched on their shoulders, they step back, toes weaving their way into the rocky river bed.

Mae Sot was a bustling border town even before the Myanmar military took over the civilian government on February 1 last year.

Connected to Myanmar’s Myawaddy district by two bridges, it often functions as a halfway house for migrant workers on their way to jobs in other parts of Thailand.

Nearby plantations of onions, sugarcane and maize in Tak province are cultivated by workers from Myanmar. Many regularly crossed the river for work, before the Covid-19 pandemic triggered stricter controls on this porous border.

Myanmar workers tending to a farm in Mae Sot district. – The Straits Times/ANN

When the Burmese junta began cracking down on dissidents, many fled to Mae Sot. Some prominent political activists have even given up asylum in Western countries to continue their work near the border.

Mae Sot’s deep migrant networks, backed by Thai civil society and other groups, kicked into high gear when clashes between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups caused thousands of villagers to flee their homes .

In late December, the junta launched airstrikes and heavy artillery attacks in Lay Kay Kaw, a town controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), which harbored dissidents in its territory.

Heavy clashes were also reported in the following weeks between the army and resistance forces in Kayah state, neighboring the Thai province of Mae Hong Son. More than 9,700 civilians have fled to Thailand.

Thai authorities, suspicious of possible transmission of Covid-19, say fleeing villagers are being given temporary shelter during the fighting. But the villagers wonder if they are really safe after the shooting stops.

Political dialogue in Myanmar remains elusive. As the army rampages against populations resisting its rule, young people who have joined guerrilla forces across the country are determined to overthrow the junta. Myanmar’s Institute of Strategy and Policy says more than 3,500 civilians were killed last year, the highest in at least 30 years.

Junta troops leaving towns and villages they had previously occupied are known to have destroyed homes, crops and livestock, or even planted landmines in the area.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has so far been denied access to civilians who recently fled to Thailand. On January 20, the UNHCR said the situation remained “extremely uncertain and unstable in Myanmar” and urged the Thai government to move the approximately 1,000 remaining refugees in Mae Sot to “safer and more dignified temporary accommodation”.

When the Straits Times reported to the border at Mae Sot on February 7, most of the refugees had crossed the river onto Myanmar soil. Many still felt it was unsafe to return home and lingered on the sandy shore.

While a temporary encampment of blue tarps provided shelter for the refugees, conditions remained miserable – especially in wet weather.

“I couldn’t sleep last night,” 23-year-old student ST Si Thu Aung, who was staying on the Myanmar side, told ST Si Thu Aung. “My tent was damaged by heavy rain and I couldn’t fix it. I had to sleep in the rain.”

Like many others who stay on this side of the Moei River – called Thaungyin in Burmese – he must ford the river to collect his daily meals. It can become more difficult when the river swells during the monsoon season from around May to October.

“I don’t know if I can get home before the rainy season,” he said, soaked after such a meal-collecting trip. “Maybe I should stay here at least a year.”

A small number of refugees remained on Thai soil during ST.

Their flimsy tents were nestled in tall vegetation, making them difficult to spot from afar.

While many fled with little more than clothes, one family managed to bring their goats.

But above all it was a difficult existence. The men piled dried grass on their tarpaulin roofs to get some respite from the scorching sun.

“I want to go home, but I’m scared of landmines,” Thu Lay Phaw, 27, told ST. The farm worker had fled her village of Hpa Lu last December with her husband and three young children.

Her neighbor from Hpa Lu, Ma Moe, 49, is also scared. She did not move from Thailand despite the local authorities having reminded her three times to leave.

Recounting a visit by officials the day before, she told ST: “They said we are not allowed to stay here, but we can come back if there are clashes again.

“But they don’t put any pressure on us. They just informed us,” she said. “Every time they talk to us, we move our tents around a bit.”

Not far from there, Saw Hla Myaing, 58, lives in a tent with 18 other relatives. “This area is safe,” he said. “I hope the Thai government can allow us to stay here.”

Officially, these refugees do not exist.

Boxed meals and other foodstuffs that are sent daily by Mae Sot volunteers to Myanmar refugees.  - The Straits Times/ANNBoxed meals and other foodstuffs that are sent daily by Mae Sot volunteers to Myanmar refugees. – The Straits Times/ANN

Reached by telephone on February 7, the governor of Tak province, Somchai Kitchareanrungroj, told ST that all refugees from Myanmar had returned “safely and voluntarily”.

“As for the possibility of them crossing again due to further fighting, our five districts along the border are well prepared and we can handle the same magnitude of displacement, a few thousand.”

Tanee Sangrat, spokesperson for the Thai Foreign Ministry, told ST: “We understand that Myanmar residents in temporary settlements near the border on the Myanmar side are those who cannot return home to various places. for different reasons, however, some of them who have recently returned from Thailand were able to take various relief items with them.

“Additional supplies have also been made available by various Thai authorities should they wish to seek additional support at this time. Local communities and NGOs are also able to send various forms of assistance to the other side.”

Thailand’s role will be increasingly crucial as ASEAN races to organize humanitarian aid to Myanmar.

UNHCR estimates that around 442,000 people have been internally displaced in Myanmar since the coup. Nearly half of its 55 million people are expected to fall into poverty this year. In Kayin State alone, there are approximately 70,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in areas under KNU control.

As the junta stands accused of blocking humanitarian supplies to communities suspected of supporting the resistance, aid channeled across the 2,400 km long border between Thailand and Myanmar will play an important role in keeping the most vulnerable people alive. vulnerable, according to civil society workers.

“Cross-border assistance is now crucial for displaced people,” says Dr Cynthia Maung, a respected doctor and founder of the Mae Tao Clinic, which provides health services to migrants in Mae Sot.

She noted that Myanmar communities in the border states of Shan, Kayin and Kayah maintain working relationships with Thai authorities and organizations across the border. These long-standing networks are able to facilitate humanitarian assistance, she said.

Take Phra That Pha Daeng Rescue, for example. Thailand’s voluntary relief group said it rushed around 20 injured Myanmar people from the border to Mae Sot hospital last year.

Many victims were injured by rocket-propelled grenades or snipers, says group leader Surent Auttama.

Normally, the group coordinates with local authorities on both sides of the border before carrying out these rescue runs.

“If it’s a real emergency, we won’t even alert the (Thai) soldiers in advance. We just drive up the border,” says Surent. “I’ve been a volunteer for 10 years now, and the situation has never been worse.”

Burmese exiles newly arrived in Mae Sot are doing their part. Political activist Thet Swe Win has teamed up with four compatriots to raise funds for the internally displaced in Lay Kay Kaw.

The money goes to the ingredients of 400 boxed meals every day.

When asked how long he could sustain the effort, he replied, “It’s a big challenge. We assume the fight will continue, so we have to be prepared for that.” – The Straits Times/ANN