This past week saw a pilot voluntary return of 68 Myanmar refugees living along the Thailand-Myanmar border. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) heralded the return as a “milestone.”
Unfortunately, many have questioned the readiness of refugee return and have not viewed the repatriation as a positive step towards improving the lives of refugees. Two days prior to the return, a number of Karen civil society groups expressed concern that the conditions required to support returning refugees – such as jobs, affordable housing, education and food – are yet to be firmly established. Indeed, the last minute change of mind by 25 of the original returnees demonstrates the hesitation and concerns that many refugees have over the issue of sustainability of any return. To further cast doubt on the appropriateness of the repatriation, 17 of the returned refugees are already regretting their decision due to the lack of housing provided by the Government. As one returned refugee stated, “We chose to return to Myanmar but I think we made a mistake. I thought the government had already arranged our accommodation.”
A number of civil society organizations have also questioned why repatriation was taking place in the midst of increased violence throughout Myanmar with an ongoing crackdown and reported human rights abuses by the security services in Rakhine State, along with military offensives launched by the Myanmar Army in northern and eastern Shan State and other parts of northern Myanmar. Furthermore, the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) and the Karen Refugee Committee highlighted the recent clashes between the Myanmar Army’s proxy Border Guard Force and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which displaced approximately 2,000 villagers from Mae Tha Wor Village, Karen State to locations near the Thailand-Myanmar border, as an example of instability due to the lack of a sustainable ceasefire. A recent commentary from KHRG also lists ongoing militarization around villages, unexploded ordinance, and human rights abuses and conflict as further evidence of the fragile situation in Karen State. These challenges do not provide a safe and sustainable environment for the return of refugees.
A refugees’ right to land confiscated from them, or land claimed during their displacement, is enshrined in a number of international legal instruments, including the Pinheiro Principles and the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the context of National Food Security. However, despite these obligations, the Myanmar Government has yet to form a clear policy on how the rights of refugees would be protected, including gaining access to their original property, particularly land. This is especially pertinent as development projects and increasing militarization in ethnic areas has the potential to upend ancestral homes for returning refugees, as has been the case for many internally displaced persons (IDPs).
While this initial instance of organized return is voluntary, there are concerns that pressures placed on refugees may leave them with little option but to leave the camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. For example, declining food provisions and services such as health and education in refugee camps, coupled with the lack of options regarding third-country resettlement, will likely force many refugees to comply with a ‘voluntary’ repatriation. Luiz Martin, Secretary of the Karenni Refugee Committee, expressed his concern to the Myanmar Times regarding the decrease in support to the camps coupled with the ongoing conflict, “What if they go back, the camp closes and the fighting resumes? That’s their main concern.”
The hesitancy of refugees along the Thailand-Myanmar border to return to their origins is indicative of the fact that human security and the opportunity to pursue sustainable livelihoods are far from guaranteed in Myanmar. While the decision to return or not ultimately lies with the refugees themselves, the Myanmar Government must first recognize this right and do more to address the root causes that contributed to their displacement in the first place. Furthermore, refugees themselves should define the terms of their return and remain free from any overarching pressure to do so. Thus, international stakeholders such as the UNHCR must include refugees and community based organizations (CBOs) from refugee communities in all stages of any plans and preparations for return, including striving for greater transparency of all repatriation plans.
With ongoing armed conflict, persistent human rights abuses, the presence of landmines, and the lack of meaningful inclusion of refugees as well as the conflict-affected communities and CBOs in the planning and implementation of the return process, the chances of a safe and dignified return of these refugees remain worrisome. A clear precedent is the case of Mon refugees who were repatriated in 1994 from Thailand to Myanmar, only to live for the next twenty years in IDP sites due to ongoing conflict and a lack of durable livelihood solutions. Instead a new precedent should be set, in which the return of refugees should be truly voluntary and dignified with protection and livelihood opportunities established and guaranteed.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”