In 1948, Burma led by General Aung San, won independence from British colonization. Almost immediately an internal war between ethnic groups resisting the centralized democratic government began. In 1962 a military junta, led by General Ne Win took control of the state. Democracy was completely abolished and the ethnic minorities’ fight for independence was violently quashed. Complete control of the economy was taken. Forced constitutions and military violence were and are still today overriding forces.
The zenith of the military cruelty devastatingly occurred on 8 th August 1988 when over 8,000 civilians, mostly students were massacred, while peacefully protesting for an end to the dictatorship. Thousands more protestors were arrested, facing excessive force, while an estimated 10,000 fled to other countries seeking refuge. Thailand received the largest number, known as the “student” refugees.
Following the widespread killings and severe international condemnation the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), later to be renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), took control. The doors of the government were opened to multi-party rule.
In 1990 the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of national hero General Aung San won a landslide victory. However, the SPDC refused to hand over power, forcing the party to serve as the democratically elected government in exile. Thousands of supporters of the National League for Democracy were arrested, tortured and systematically murdered. Many more were imprisoned and more again fled to Thailand and surrounding countries.
In Thailand, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 democratic activists who seek and are often granted refuge. In fact, the claims of the democratic asylum seekers known as “the students” often hold more weight than those of the ethnic minorities.
For eight years the SPDC have been enforcing a brutal campaign to relocate ethnic minorities. The relocations of Karen, Shan, Akha, Karenni, Lahu, Mon and many more from over 3000 villages obliterate minority resistance followings and make way for economic development of the areas. In some cases, they are developed as tourist destinations.
It is estimated there are 1 million internally displaced people from minority groups within Burma. They are forced into internment camps where serious violations such as forced labor, extrajudicial executions, daily and multiple rapes and torture take place as common practice. International humanitarian aid is denied access to these camps and areas of conflict, in direct violation of international law.
The ethnic minorities who flee fighting between the Burmese military and the minority resistance groups are granted temporary refugee status in Thailand with the understanding that they will return to Burma once fighting has died down.
Thousands more who come seeking refuge from serious human rights violations are given little consideration and often reside in the country illegally.
Burmese in Thailand
In Chiang Mai there are approximately 120,000 Burmese refugees and migrants. They come in the search for freedom from fear, oppression, military brutality and violations of their human rights. The reality of what they face here is a lot different. The Thai government has little means to invest in the excess of Burmese seeking refuge. Their legal systems are far below those which are needed to deal with the huge numbers crossing the borders. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees UNHCR has been handed the responsibility yet it has been given little freedom in processing the claims of the asylum seekers.
Somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Burmese women have entered the sex trade, where corruption and violence are common occurrences. The children have no access to education and are often sent to the streets to beg or sell flowers. Their parents have little means to provide for them.
Refugees find themselves faced with impossible decisions. If they choose to stay in Thailand , they have no rights, limited access to education, restricted movement, exploitation in the workplace and the threat of deportation. If they choose to return to Burma , they are returning to the lives of fear and destruction that they fled in the first place.
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