Field notes

Settling down hard for refugees returning to Myanmar

It has been a bumpy road back for some of 71 Myanmar asylum seekers who formed the first batch of Thai border camp residents voluntarily repatriated under a bilateral arrangement between the two countries.
Left: Ms Khin San Yee with pictures of her family with Ms Aung San Suu Kyi taken before she fled to Thailand, at the housing estate in Yangon where she lives. Above: Zin Ko Win, who lives with his parents in Yangon, was born in Thailand's Nu Po camp.
Ms Khin San Yee with pictures of her family with Ms Aung San Suu Kyi taken before she fled to Thailand, at the housing estate in Yangon where she lives.ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Left: Ms Khin San Yee with pictures of her family with Ms Aung San Suu Kyi taken before she fled to Thailand, at the housing estate in Yangon where she lives. Above: Zin Ko Win, who lives with his parents in Yangon, was born in Thailand's Nu Po camp.
Zin Ko Win, who lives with his parents in Yangon, was born in Thailand's Nu Po camp. He misses his friends and wants to go back.ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

They face issues like red tape, unemployment and integrating the children in new homes

Mr Kyaw Htoo was just 12 years old when he left his impoverished family in Myanmar to tap rubber in Thailand.

The year was 1988. A military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters had left thousands dead or imprisoned, and universities closed.

Upon his friends' suggestions, he later sneaked into a remote Thai border camp for displaced persons, hoping to gain asylum in a third country. But his dream of a life in the West never came true.

Last year, only months after the first fully civilian ruling party assumed control of Myanmar in decades, the 41-year-old returned to his hometown in Thanbyuzayat, in the southern Mon state, that he had left as a boy. He had no job and about $750 in resettlement aid.

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"My parents sometimes give me money for tea," he tells The Straits Times. He has returned to tapping rubber, hoping to save enough to start a business. "I have no friends... I don't go out."

It has been a bumpy road back for some of 71 Myanmar asylum seekers who formed the first batch of Thai border camp residents voluntarily repatriated under a bilateral arrangement between the two countries.

While many of them have reached out to kin for help, some say red tape and prolonged job hunts have cooled their hopes for rapid change under the government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD).

FAITH IN MYANMAR GOVERNMENT

I want to support this new government. If the military had stayed in power, I would have stayed on in Nu Po.

MS KHIN SAN YEE, who lived for seven years in Nu Po camp in northern Thailand to avoid military persecution for being an NLD activist, on returning to Myanmar.

The kingdom currently hosts about 100,000 who fled Myanmar from the mid-1980s to avoid being persecuted by the then military regime, or being caught in the crossfire between the Myanmar military and armed ethnic groups.

Most identify as ethnic Karen and are housed in nine border camps in the northern provinces of Tak and Mae Hong Son, as well as Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi in the west.

The camps are largely funded by international aid, but the budget is shrinking in the face of more urgent humanitarian emergencies in countries such as Syria and Sudan.

Thailand, meanwhile, hopes to shut the camps down.

LONG ROAD HOME

Under the pilot programme that took place last October, each voluntary returnee received 8,300 baht (S$340) in grants for food, housing and other resettlement needs from the United Nations' food and refugee agencies, plus a further 400,000 kyat (S$410) from the Myanmar government and Myanmar Red Cross Society.

 

SLOW PACE OF CHANGE

I thought things had changed a lot in Yangon. But from what I have seen, I now know that it will take a long time.

MR THANT ZIN MAUNG, who lived for over a decade in Nu Po camp, on having had to lower his expectations of Myanmar's transformation upon his return. 200 Number of people who have expressed interest in returning to Myanmar in the next round. No date has been set.

They were transported to their requested destinations within Myanmar, where they now have to build a new life on their own after years of being guaranteed rations and access to education and healthcare within the camps.

The Straits Times interviewed seven returnees five months later. While they have kept in touch with aid workers, several admit that the homecoming has been harder than they thought. Securing jobs is an issue. And so is integrating children who have known only the camp all their lives.

In Yangon, Mr Thant Zin Maung, 48, who lived for over a decade in the isolated Nu Po camp in northern Thailand, tells The Straits Times he has had to lower his expectations over any rapid transformation of his country. "I thought things had changed a lot in Yangon," he says. "But from what I have seen, I now know that it will take a long time."

The NLD government marked its first year in power in March amid heavy criticism. While its overwhelming win in the 2015 election created huge expectations, changes have so far been incremental.

Legally, it is hamstrung by a Constitution that gives the military control over the Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs ministries, as well as a quarter of all parliamentary seats.

But it has also come under fire for keeping a tight lid on information and concentrating decision-making in the hands of a few.

Mr Thant Zin Maung got a taste of the bureaucratic tussles upon his return when he tried asking a senior official for help to renew an expired driving licence. According to him, the official said: "Don't worry, I can get it for you." He managed to get it only last week, some four months after his initial request.

"It's like there are two different governments here, one at the top and one at the bottom," he says.

RAYS OF HOPE

Some of the other returnees have had a smoother transition. One report last November by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees highlighted how Mr Tun Tun Win, a returnee from a camp in Thailand's Ratchaburi province, managed to get his four children into a government school in Myanmar's Tanintharyi region without much difficulty, and looked forward to starting an ice- cream shop.

On the industrial fringe of Yangon called Hlaing Thar Yar, 60-year-old Khin San Yee lives with her husband and son in a new government-built studio apartment. The former political prisoner bought the 10.2 million kyat flat on hire purchase - after negotiations to reduce the down payment were aired on local media.

There is little by way of furniture in the flat, and straw mats double up as beds and sofas. A piece of cloth strung across the flat serves as a divider for her 31-year-old son, who has so far been able to get only ad hoc construction-related work.

Yet Ms Khin San Yee, who lived for seven years in Nu Po to avoid military persecution for being an NLD activist, is optimistic about life in Myanmar. "I want to support this new government," she says, leafing through a stack of photographs of her younger self with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi during party activities. "If the military had stayed in power, I would have stayed on in Nu Po."

On the upper floors of the same block of flats lives four-year-old Zin Ko Win, who was born in Nu Po camp to another set of political activist parents.

The quiet, watchful boy longs to return to the bamboo huts and earthen roads of his first home. "All my friends are in Nu Po," he says.

According to Thailand's Operations Centre for Displaced Persons (OCDP), which oversees the border camps, some 200 people have expressed interest in returning to Myanmar in the next round. No date has been set.

"Most of the people registered in the camp are preparing to go home," Mr Soramongkol Mangalasiri, assistant chief of the OCDP, tells The Straits Times. "But if they see the situation in Myanmar as unsafe, they are prepared to continue staying on in the camps."

Ms Sally Thompson, executive director of the Border Consortium which coordinates aid in the camps, stresses that while there are more open discussions about returning to Myanmar, "the movement to return has not picked up pace", adding that "it is static".

Distrust of the military still runs deep, given the powerful position it continues to hold in the NLD government. Meanwhile, access to medical facilities and schools - which were provided in the camps - remains patchy or non-existent in certain parts of Myanmar.

To ease parents' anxieties about disrupting their children's education, Save The Children, a non-governmental organisation which provides schooling for some 25,000 students in the camps, is trying to persuade the authorities to conduct future repatriation exercises at the end of the school year.

PUSH COMES TO SHOVE?

But deteriorating conditions at the camps may ultimately nudge dwellers over the border. Funding for the camps was cut by 30 per cent over the last three to four years, resulting in more selective distribution and reduction of food rations, says Ms Thompson. Adults are now given 9kg of rice per month, compared with 16kg in the mid-1980s.

"We are on the threshold now as to how much further we can reduce rations," says Ms Thompson. "We are at the minimum."

Mr Kyaw Htoo recalls the hardship caused by the ration cuts before his departure. "Some people had to ask for help from relatives who had moved to third countries," he says. "Some had left the camp for work, which got them arrested."

Mr Kyaw Htoo, who did odd jobs and farmed pigs around the camps in order to support himself, says: "I really struggled."

As funds continue to dwindle, camp residents may have to cope with being given less material to repair their homes, and have fewer opportunities to be taught new skills on site, says Ms Thompson.

Meanwhile, resettlement opportunities in third countries are slim, given the improving political situation in Myanmar. The United States has accepted more than 80,000 Myanmar refugees over the years, far more than other receiving countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan and Finland.

"It's inevitable the camps will close," says Ms Thompson. "The question is, what will be the trigger? We hope that the situation inside Myanmar would be a pull factor to make people move back. "  

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 13, 2017, with the headline 'Settling down hard for refugees returning to Myanmar'. Print Edition | Subscribe