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“Uncle George” has been in exile for more than 37 years and his abundant charm can’t hide his desire to go home. Silver-haired, gap-toothed and possessed of a mischievous laugh, the former teacher has been in “temporary shelter” in north Thailand since fleeing conflict in his native Karen region of eastern Myanmar in 1977.
He had, he explained, been detained by the military dictatorship of Myanmar, the country also known as Burma, and was lucky to be released. Most of his friends who were held at the same time ended up dead. George says he “killed” his real identity years ago, as part of his escape from his homeland, and is reluctant to give anything other than a nickname.
Today, he is part of a committee overseeing seven refugee camps in Thailand, which host more than 100,000 displaced people from Myanmar, mostly members of the Karen minority, an ethnic group of some 7m people with its own culture and languages. Many, including George, are wondering whether the conflict behind this long-running but little-publicised exodus will ever end.
Now 64 — “so I remember the Beatles” — George is a leader in this transplanted community, with an elder statesman’s taste for rhetoric and the existential. “Sixty years of civil war is, I think, enough,” he says. “Imagine — temporary shelter seekers stay in Thailand four decades. It’s a very big burden for our community.”
The humanitarian troubles in this corner of Southeast Asia may not be as obviously apocalyptic as those facing Syria’s displaced millions but Myanmar’s conflict and its regional impact in some ways foreshadow what is happening now in the Middle East. Last year, more than 1m people from Myanmar, whose population is officially estimated at 51m, were either refugees or internally displaced, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, based in Geneva. Their exile is a product of a civil war first kindled by the circumstances of Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948 and then stoked by half a century of authoritarian rule.
The quasi-civilian government to which Myanmar’s ruling generals handed power in 2011 has signed provisional ceasefires with many ethnic, political and military groups, including the Karen National Union, the main organisation representing the Karen people. But the peace is precarious and vulnerable to sporadic clashes and broader power struggles in the run-up to landmark national elections towards the end of this year that are supposed to mark a decisive step away from five decades of dictatorship.
These conflicts have been waged, on and off, since the 1940s, albeit more intensely over the past 30 years. The Karen, like other refugees from Myanmar’s patchwork of small wars, have had to build the structures of governance, society and services from scratch. That is why this border region is one of the International Rescue Committee’s longest standing areas of engagement.
The IRC, a global humanitarian charity that is the FT’s partner for its 2014/5 seasonal appeal, started working in Thailand in 1976 in response to an initial influx of refugees from neighbouring Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The charity now works with more than 140,000 long-term refugees from Myanmar, who began to flee their home in large numbers in 1984 and its work spans many areas, including healthcare, food security, justice and women’s rights.
This year, Myanmar stands on the cusp of a potentially profound reform but nationwide peace remains elusive — and while the ebbing of the fighting has brought hope, there are also new opportunities for conflict. “This will take time,” says Eh Kalu Shwe Oo, head of the Karen Department of Health and Welfare, the ethnic regional counterpart to the main Myanmar government health ministry. “We are now in a transitional period, with no real peace yet.”
The operation to support displaced people on both sides of the frontier is centred on the small north Thai border town of Mae Sot, a laid-back place less than an hour’s flight from the hustle of Bangkok. Those living inside and outside the camps scattered around the area are served by the town’s crown jewel: the Mae Tao clinic. When Dr Cynthia Maung, its founder and director, began 25 years ago it was a rundown building with dirt floors. Since then Dr Cynthia, as she is universally known, has built up a facility that serves between 400 and 500 patients a day and delivers more than 2,700 babies a year.
Dr Cynthia, whose modest style belies the international honours and acclaim bestowed on her (among them a big poster on a wall at the hospital to mark her recent 55th birthday), says that she has noticed changes in Karen women’s attitudes, as well as improvements to their health, over the past decades. “Women used to say, ‘We need to deliver eight babies because two will die, another two will become soldiers and another two will move away, so when you are old who will take care of you?’ ” Dr Cynthia says. “But after two or three years’ access to healthcare, they changed their family planning.”
The focus on healthcare, particularly child and maternal wellbeing, is an example both of what can be achieved here and how great the needs still are. The IRC has helped negotiate collaboration between Myanmar’s government and the Karen Department of Health and Welfare to roll out more health services on the Myanmar side of the border. The IRC has also helped to fund the reproductive healthcare staff who work in almost half the 40 Karen-administered mobile clinics now operating in the region, each serving between 3,000 and 5,000 people.
Despite the progress, the scale of suffering is still horrific. The figures used by the Karen authorities, from surveys by several researchers, reveal how hard it can be to achieve improvements in a country debilitated by decades of conflict and with an average per capita income estimated by the World Bank at little more than $1,100 a year.
In 2013, almost one in 10 children in eastern Myanmar died before their first birthdays and almost three in 20 before they turned five — both figures appear worse than the corresponding rates five years previously, although comparisons are hampered by incomplete birth records and a lack of consistency in the geographical areas surveyed. Health experts in the region hope they can reverse these trends now the conflict is less intense. They aim to address broader public health problems and diseases, such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, that hit children particularly hard.
In a classroom across town from the Mae Tao clinic, a teacher uses a video projected from his laptop to explain osmosis to students. This is part of an IRC-brokered venture with Bangkok’s Thammasat University to help experienced Karen health workers achieve formal qualifications that will be recognised by the Myanmar government should they ever be able to go back to work in the country.
“Even though we have been working for a long time, we have no accreditation or certification,” says Sophia Hla, 36, who has been with the Mae Tao clinic for more than 10 years. “So this is an opportunity for us.”
While less fighting and greater freedom of movement are positives, they also bring problems. Almost 20 people were reported killed or injured between 2012 and 2014 by landmines planted in the Karen region during the war, according to the IRC-supported Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG).
Some companies have also exploited the greater freedom by swooping to grab land in the region, prompting the KHRG to launch a project to help local people lobby the authorities over property seizures and other rights abuses.
“That will be a chance for us to build a relationship with the government,” says Way Lay, an advocacy co-ordinator for the group. “To get to know them, and also for them to know us.”
The initiative is one example of the way the work of the Karen groups and their international backers (which also include World Education and NGO groups — including the IRC — in The Border Consortium) spreads from emergency care into more subtle and qualitative areas of life. The experiences of the Karen and other Myanmar groups in Thailand reflect the slow-burn humiliation and social exclusion suffered by many refugees around the world. Though the Thai authorities have been longstanding hosts of the camps, they don’t like to advertise their presence and declined an IRC request to take the Financial Times to see them. Residents are often restricted in their movements, prohibited from working outside the camp facilities or even stepping outside their boundaries.
A big preoccupation for this Myanmar community in Thai limbo has been in improving access to justice. Uncle George says the camps have created their own detention centres and courts for low-level crime such as petty thefts and brawls, which are generally dealt with through measures such as community service and agreed compensation orders. This legal network is monitored by the IRC-supported Legal Assistance Center, based in Mae Sot, which has also played a role in helping camp residents use the Thai courts for the first time.
One family, who asked for their real names not to be used, tell how the centre helped them win compensation after their daughter, now nine, was run over on a road outside the camp in 2013. The money was desperately needed by her parents: the husband earns Bt120 (less than $4) a day from illegal work as an agricultural labourer, while his wife gets just Bt1,200 a month as a teacher at a school in their camp. “I have to go out secretly [from the camp] and come back secretly,” he says. “If I don’t go out, my family won’t be able to eat.”
The daughter broke her leg and suffered injuries to her side and jaw in the accident last year but has now made a full recovery. According to her parents, the driver said he hadn’t stopped because his vision had been blurred and he was worried the car behind him might crash into him. He paid the initial medical fees but not the follow-up charges, nor the living costs of the family while they had to stay near the hospital.
The parents secured Bt60,000 (almost $2,000) under Thailand’s criminal injuries compensation scheme. “By myself I wouldn’t have got any money,” the father says. “The Legal Assistance Center helped me get a lot.”
Like other long-term refugees, this family and their peers need dignity and enforceable rights as much as money. While returning home may now be more of a possibility for the displaced Karen than at almost any time during the past 40 years, no one is making any assumptions, especially amid the election uncertainties and a build-up of Myanmar military forces in their homeland. Some refugees are tentatively visiting their old houses but are also, as Uncle George puts it, still keeping their “feet between two sides”. Beyond that is a whole generation of refugees born and brought up in Thailand, some of whom may feel little connection with Myanmar and have no desire to live there.
Uncle George frets about Myanmar’s next chapter, even amid international applause for the changes there. In a world of plentiful, and more newsworthy, crises elsewhere, he says: “We are worried about donor fatigue. But without any donations, any support from sympathisers, where do we live? What is our future?”
Michael Peel is the FT’s Bangkok regional correspondent
Photographs: Peter Biro