Myanmar - ReliefWeb News
With the new military regime in Thailand, dread pervades the country’s largest displacement camp as refugees from Burma worry about their fates.
By DENE-HERN CHEN,
Two weeks ago, Kyi Htay sneaked back into Mae La refugee camp in the dead of night. Working as a medic in southeastern Burma’s Karen State — and registered as a refugee in the camp for more than 20 years – the 45-year-old has made this journey dozens of times. But this trip was different. With multiple checkpoints manned by the Thai military on the roads and the threat of deportation looming if he was caught, Kyi Htay found it more challenging than ever to covertly ferry his family of five back into the camp.
“It was very difficult to sneak in this time compared to before the coup,” said Kyi Htay, who had been absent from the camp for almost a year. “But if one of my family members misses the population census, the Thai authorities will cut all our rations.”
Kyi Htay’s fears are shared by many who go beyond the camp’s boundaries to seek supplemental income. When Thai authorities announced in July that Mae La’s residents were prohibited from leaving, residents began speculating that this latest enforcement could serve as yet another burden on their already uncertain living situations.
Some of the refugees have lived in Mae La for nearly as long as the three decades the camp has been operating, and thus have tried to carve out a better life for themselves within the confines imposed upon them. With the majority of the residents being ethnic Karen who fled from conflict in their home state, these refugees want to be afforded the same privileges as anyone starting a new life. They want to be able to move freely to make more money; they want ample food to stave off hunger; and they want a sense of security — however nebulous such a concept may be for someone displaced by fighting.
While it is true that they are now facing stricter security since Thailand’s military coup in May of this year, the fear that Thai authorities will reduce their rations is a misconception as The Border Consortium (TBC) – which provides food rations to the camps – have no plans to reduce rations after the census is conducted. Yet this hasn’t dispelled concerns as many people have complained that they are not being fully informed on their future, and funding cuts along the border have already caused a noticeable decrease in supplies.
Home to more than 40,000 refugees, Mae La is the country’s largest refugee camp, extending roughly 184 hectares against the mountain ranges of western Thailand. An estimated 100,000 more refugees from Burma are spread out among the other eight camps.
The recent clampdown has stirred new fears. The refugees worry about earning enough for basic necessities if their rations are not sufficient, about losing their refugee status, and about being deported back to Burma. This omnipresent sense of uncertainty and insecurity is part and parcel of the indeterminate nature of being a displaced person.
Kyi Htay, the Karen medic, confesses that he is rarely in the camp because he values his role in a clinic in Karen State’s Hpa-an district treating cases of malaria. Yet he refuses to give up his refugee status for the sake of his wife and four children, all of whom wish to eventually resettle in the US.
“My wife and children want to go to the US, so I will go too,” Kyi Htay said. “I don’t really want to be resettled though. I feel great pity for my people and I want to stay with them to help them.”
On the other side of this spectrum stands Ma Aye Htoo, 44, who said she wishes never to return to Burma. Along with her husband and four children, she lived in the dense forests of Karen State for four years before coming to Mae La. Though food was scarce, the bigger problem was the lack of medicine, and when two of her children got sick, they passed away that same day. Her remaining two children died later that year.
“Even though there are many people who want to return to Burma, I don’t ever want to return there,” she said. “I’ve lived through a lot of misery there. I lost four of my children there, and I will never go back.”
While she is not directly affected by a moratorium on camp departures as she does not plan an attempt to leave, the implication of a virtual house arrest weighs deeply upon her.
“It feels like we are stuck in here, like this camp could be a trap,” she said. “The other thing is that staying here could be like an addiction, because it seems easier than in Burma.”
Saw Wah, a 34-year-old Karen refugee who has lived in Mae La for 15 years, is angered by the lack of transparency, not least because he was never approached to take part in the census.
“The Thai authorities should explain things to us; there is no transparency between them and the camp people. This issue confuses everyone – the entire camp feels this way,” Saw Wah said. “It decays my hope and my purpose.”
As the proprietor of a small grocery store within the camp that sells mostly bottled drinks and snacks, Saw Wah added that the camp restrictions have directly affected his business as his usual customers now have less expendable income.
Duncan McArthur, partnership director for TBC – which assists with distributing rations to the nine border camps — told DVB in an email that his organisation is not expecting the census to affect the distribution of rations to the refugees.
“The population counts are being conducted in an ad hoc manner and vary from camp to camp,” McArthur said. “The actual purpose remains unclear, but there haven’t been any punitive out comes to date.”
He added that any restrictions on the refugees’ comings and goings will reduce their access to forest products and labour opportunities.
“This is likely to mean that refugees will not be able to supplement food and shelter assistance at a time when some foreign donors have reduced humanitarian support,” McArthur said.
The UNHCR is also not involved in the headcount, nor were they consulted or invited to take part in the process, said Iain Hall, the refugee agency’s senior coordinator in Mae Sot. District authorities informed UNHCR that the headcount was “to ascertain the actual number of refugees and asylum seekers presently residing in the camps,” he said.
While UNHCR advocates for a comprehensive verification process by the Thai authorities, Hall said that the agency’s concerns about the census “such as the inconsistent approach, lack of prior information to the refugees, and some inconsistent ‘messaging’ by some district-level authorities” were shared with the Thai government.
He also said that while laws governing migrant workers are different from those concerning refugees – current policy bans displaced people from seeking employment outside the camps – Thai authorities have not always enforced these distinctions.
“Over the many years of this protracted situation for the refugees from Myanmar [Burma], the application of that specific regulation may have been inconsistently applied and refugees were able to secure an income outside of the camps, while running the risk of an illegal action,” Hall said, adding that while the Thai government has been “sympathetic” to assisting the needs of the refugees and have allowed the development of their skills and income-generation capacities, the Thai government “is also obliged to manage the issue within the confines of their current policy and legislation”.
“[The Thai government] has not shared any plan with UNHCR as to the possible actions that it may take concerning refugees that are found working outside the camps,” he said.
“There is no timeframe on the repatriation of those refugees that desire to return home to Myanmar [Burma],” Hall said, adding that Thai authorities have issued public statements that “any repatriation will be in accordance with the international standards and in respect of human rights and the associated humanitarian principles related to voluntary repatriation.”
Col. Werachon Sukondhadpatipak, a spokesman for the Thai Army, reiterated that the military government has no intention of immediately repatriating the refugees as it would be a lengthy process. Meanwhile, the census will be used to tally up the actual number of refugees against the figures held by the UNHCR, and this would go into a database, he explained.
“They need to be able to control the movement of the refugees living in the camp, for those moving out and moving in, because some were moving out and trying to seek employment,” Sukondhadpatipak said.
As for issues of transparency, Sukondhadpatipak agreed that there should be more on-the-ground communication between the Thai authorities and the camp residents.
A lack of information and a lack of faith are issues that many people in the camp struggle with. Last October, Law Ba Htoo, a refugee in Mae La for 25 years, was informed that he and his family are now eligible for resettlement in the US. Since then, they have been eagerly preparing for their final departure from the camps, and even attended cultural orientation training sessions in March to acclimate them to traveling and living in a new country, he said.
But after March, there has been no news. Since Law Ba Htoo was previously warned that he should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, the 39-year-old Karen man has been cooped up in his home, afraid to leave for the past three months. With his wife and children residing in a different camp about 30 km from Mae La, he misses them very much and they speak daily on the phone.
“Some of my friends… have gone to the US, and some are still here. I am confused about this and no one tells me anything,” Law Ba Htoo said. Queries to the UNHCR were unsuccessful, as the staff could not provide him and his family with a firm departure date.
Despite this long wait, Law Ba Htoo believes that he is blessed to have been chosen, as being resettled in a third country is the majority of camp residents’ desire. Forced to flee from his home when he was just 14 after the Burmese military burned down his village, Law Ba Htoo considers himself a lucky man. After all, he met his future wife while holding a job at a refugee clinic in Mae Sot, has two daughters, and is now looking forward to a new life in Dallas, Texas. He has no desire to look back.
“Even if I go back to Burma now, it would still be the same situation. It would not be better for us,” he said. “We already know the ending to that story.”
A village in Rangoon Division’s Hlegu Township has been inundated by floods for the past two weeks, with no sign of water levels abating due to a block in the drainage system.
Hlegu Township has been hit especially hard during this rainy season due to its proximity to the Ngamoeyeik Creek and the Pegu River. More than 1,000 homes and 3,000 people have been affected in Ngwenanthar, Malit, Sinhpon, Sitpinmyauk and Yaekyaw villages.
However, for Tadagyi, a largely rural village on the outskirts of Rangoon that is referred to by locals as Balar, the problem lies in the drainage systems, which has been blocked by aquatic plants. Residents are demanding that authorities construct a new piping system – which would be about 3,000 feet long – to resolve this seasonal issue.
“As the land is wet all season, the weeds keep multiplying and it blocks the drains off,” Tun Tun, a resident of Tadagyi village, said. “Now, it’s the worst since there are other types of shrubs growing. The only way to get the water out of our village is to construct a new draining system.”
Water levels have reached as high as the villagers’ hips, and the residents travel around Tadagyi in a boat. Village administrator Zaw Tun said that this season has brought a higher volume of rains. Combined with the overflow from rivers in neighbouring villages, he said, Tadagyi is in urgent need of government assistance. Hlegu Township officials recently visited the area to survey the damage.
“There has been more rain this year than last year, and the flooding in the rivers around the region is also an added factor to this situation,” Zaw Tun said. “With the water hyacinth [which blocks the drainage system], the villagers can clear that up themselves. But with this other type of plant, they need help from the authorities.”
Other areas in Burma within range of major rivers, such as the Salween River and Sittwe River, are expected to suffer more severe floods, but the water levels are expected to subside more quickly, according to an official from the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology.
In Karen State’s capital of Hpa-an, residents were hit by floods on Monday due to overflowing from the Salween River, and water levels remained at 6 cm above the warning level, while flood-hit residents of Pegu Divison’s Madauk saw water levels reach about 20 cm due to its proximity to the Sittwe River.
The official said that these water levels will start abating after 48 hours, and that these areas are prone to floods in August.
In Mon State, heavy rains in Thaton, Kyeikhto and Bilin towns have led to fatal floods, with one woman killed during a landslide when shop stalls collapsed in Kyaikhto’s Kyeikhtiyo Hill – the site of the famous Pagoda on the Golden Rock.
Khin Saung, a local physician in Kyaikhto, said that around 800 residents have been evacuated to flood shelters.
“The road, flooded by downhill stream water, now cannot be used for small vehicles as the current is too strong. A residential area next to the road was also inundated and around 800 residents were evacuated to the flood shelter in a nearby monastery,” said Khin Saung, adding that the water on the road begun subsiding on Wednesday morning.
Myanmar: ....In Case of Emergency: how communities in Myanmar prepare for and respond sustainably to natural disasters
Myanmar ranks as the most at-risk country in Asia-Pacific in terms of natural hazards, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Medium to large-scale floods, cyclones, earthquakes, landslides or tsunamis occur every couple of years causing death and destruction as well as setting back development interventions.
Through ActionAid’s work as part of the Myanmar Consortium for Community Resilience, our target areas in the Delta have increased their knowledge, capacities and tools to prepare for and respond to extreme weather and changes in their climate including developing their own village action plans.
Together with two local partners, Action for Social Aid and Knowledge and Dedication for Nation building, Labutta and Kyunsu townships, reaching almost 43,000 people in 42 villages.
Furthermore, the partners of the Myanmar Consortium for Community Resilience have engaged with local and national authorities and civil society organisations to support the implementation of improved policies and plans within a better functioning institutional framework.
At the national level the Consortium has been cooperating closely with the Disaster Risk Reduction Working Group to enhance coordination and to provide support to key government agencies.
The principle of inclusiveness is central to Myanmar Consortium for Community Resilience’s disaster risk reduction work. The project actively engages women, children, older people, and people with disabilities at every stage of the community based disaster risk reduction (CBDRR) approach.
This booklet will give a brief overview of ActionAid’s approach to disaster risk reduction, present voices from the villages where we have been working, and showcase the impact of mitigation projects and simulation exercises.
By YEN SNAING
RANGOON — Heavy downpours in recent days have caused severe flooding in Pegu and Mon states, where hundreds of residents have been forced to flee their homes and traffic has been hindered by inundated roads, local residents and officials said on Wednesday.
Karen state, Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions have reportedly been affected small-scale flooding.
A Department of Hydrology official said the Pegu, Sittaung and Salween rivers had risen above danger levels since Tuesday and warned that levels were likely to remain dangerously high until Friday and could cause further flooding in Pegu, Mon and Karen states.
The Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers have seen no rapid rise in water levels so far, according to officials.
Pegu River levels have risen sharply in recent days and flooding has occurred in Pegu, said Ye Min, a local reporter based in the riverside town, adding that parts of the highway connecting Pegu with Rangoon to south and Naypyidaw to the north were flooded with about two feet of water.
Flood levels had reached so high in Pegu town’s Kyun Thar Ya quarter that about 20 houses on stilts had been flooded and dozens more were at immediate risk, he said, adding that some 1,000 residents were forced to leave their homes and take shelter at several local monasteries.
Myo Khaing, a Lower House MP from Pegu Division’s Kawa Township, said the Pegu River broke its banks last week, inundating at least half a dozen villages in Pyay, Wat Htee Kan and Kawa townships and causing hundreds of villagers to seek shelter in local monasteries.
“There has been flooding since about a week ago. Water reached till the floors of home and some people went to stay at the monastery,” he said. “We haven’t heard of any other townships [in Pegu] that are as badly affected as us.”
Thiha, a resident of Tanatpin, located southeast of Pegu, said flooding had severely affected the town. “Water has reached our rice mills. The whole Tanatpin town is flooded, including surrounding farms,” he said.
“The water has risen with another six inches compared to yesterday. Though not all houses are completely inundated with water, some have been, and people there had to stay in the monastery.
An Irrawaddy photographer in Pegu town said he observed many residents fleeing their homes by boat, adding that the Myanmar Red Cross had arrived in the town to begin aid deliveries to the displaced families.
A Mon State official, who declined to be named, said the northern half of state had been hit by severe floods that had inundated roads, hampering traffic from Mon State to Rangoon and Pegu.
“We have formed committees in every township to help and provide rescue support in emergency cases. Currently, the water is still rising on the highway,” he said, adding that five feet of water covered the road between Thaton and Moulmein at mile stones 131 to 139.
Between 30 and 40 cars were trapped in the floods, the official said.
Staff at the offices of Yaun Ni Tun and Talamon bus companies in Rangoon said bus services to Mon State had been disrupted and were temporarily suspended on Tuesday.
Tun Lwin, a well-known independent meteorologist, said in a daily forecast on his Facebook page on Wednesday that heavy rains will continue in many of the already flooded areas, as well as in northern Arakan State, southern Chin State and southwestern Magwe Division.
Two low-lying villages in Hlegu Township, located on the eastern outskirts of Rangoon, have suffered from severe flooding for about two weeks. Several thousand residents in Bar Lar and Ngwe Nant Thar villages have struggled to cope with the waters, which have risen to just below the floors of the wooden houses on stilts.
Kay Wonn Tha, the abbot of the Buddhist monastery in Bar Lar Village, said residents were receiving some food support, but lacked access to clean water.
Local farmer Maung Maung said his rice crop had been destroyed, adding, “There has been 15 days of flooding. Our farm are under water just before we have planted that the rice are destroyed, we have to plant our rice again.”
Additional reporting by May Sitt Paing.
(New York) – US Secretary of State John Kerry should press the Burmese government during his upcoming visit to reverse Burma’s deteriorating rights situation, Human Rights Watch said today. Kerry is scheduled to visit Burma from August 8 to 10, 2014, to attend meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
Many of the key indicators of human rights reform in Burma have stalled or are backsliding. During the past year the number of political prisoners has risen with increased arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters and prosecutions of journalists. Efforts to reform the justice system and enforce the rule of law have achieved little progress. And the military has been involved in widespread abuses linked to land grabbing and continued fighting in ethnic minority areas. Human Rights Watch highlighted these and other issues in a letter to President Barack Obama in July.
“While the United States continues to spin a positive story about reforms in Burma, the reality is that the reform process has not only stopped but is going into reverse,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Kerry should use his visit to deliver a clear and public message of deep concern about serious human rights problems, including continued persecution of the Rohingya, continued military abuses against ethnic groups, and the need for constitutional reform.”
The ASEAN meetings, which Burma chairs in 2014, precede the East Asia Summit in November in Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital. World leaders, including US President Barack Obama, are expected to attend.
Kerry should strongly raise concerns about the persecution of the largely stateless Rohingya in Arakan State, violence fomented by Buddhist extremists against the Muslim population, and new legislation infringing on the rights of religious minorities. No one has been held responsible for the “ethnic cleansing” and crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingya in 2012, which caused more than 100,000 to flee the country and left another 140,000 displaced and living in dire conditions.
The government has not taken a public stand against Buddhist religious leaders whose statements and actions have fomented anti-Muslim violence and discrimination throughout the country. Instead of using the law to help protect vulnerable religious groups, the government has endorsed several draft laws on religious conversion and interfaith marriage that would further isolate, intimidate, and discriminate against Muslims and other religious minorities. Kerry should press the government to demonstrate genuine progress in ending the persecution of the Rohingya, preventing further sectarian violence, and abandoning discriminatory legislation.
“Optimism for Burma’s reforms has been dealt a blow by the government’s inaction in the face of rising violence against Muslims and its denial of basic rights to the long persecuted Rohingya,” Adams said. “Burma’s government is playing with fire by allowing Buddhist extremists to dictate the boundaries of religious practice in the country.”
Kerry should also denounce continuing rights abuses by the Burmese army and opposition armed groups in ethnic minority areas and press for prosecution of those responsible. Military abuses include killings, sexual violence, torture, and the use of child soldiers. The Burmese military’s business interests and those of its cronies have been responsible for land grabs resulting in mass displacement. The government and military have blocked access by international aid and development agencies to ethnic minority areas devastated by decades of armed conflict, which lack basic education and health care. Kerry should press for an end to war crimes in conflict areas, urge accountability for serious rights violations, call for the full participation of rights groups and women in all peace talks, and seek unfettered access by domestic and international aid agencies.
“The ongoing peace process with ethnic armed groups has not addressed the suffering of millions of ethnic minority people during decades of war,” Adams said. “While talks take place, the military still commits horrific abuses for which no one is held to account.”
Kerry should also raise concerns about faltering constitutional reforms. Burma’s constitution contains numerous provisions that are undemocratic and violate fundamental rights, and should be amended or revoked before, not after, expected parliamentary elections in 2015. Key provisions include the effective ban on a presidential candidacy by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the military’s quota of 25 percent of the seats in parliament, and its powers to dismiss parliament and overrule civilian legislation.
The military’s effective veto over constitutional amendments and behind the scenes oversight of the civilian government have ensured that reforms have stalled. Kerry should make clear to the Burmese government that reforms need to be in place so that the Burmese people will be able to freely and fairly elect their leaders in 2015.
“Kerry should work with other donors and friends of the Burmese people to deliver a clear message to the country’s leaders,” Adams said. “They need to be put on notice that Burma will lose US and international support if reforms do not continue.”
Friday’s release of 91 children and young people by the Myanmar military, all of whom had served as underage soldiers, is a welcome step: It demonstrates the Myanmar military’s commitment to release child soldiers present in its ranks. But at the same time, it shows that the problem of child recruitment remains ongoing and persistent. Children continue to be unlawfully recruited into the ranks of the Tatmadaw Kyi (Myanmar Army), with 340 cases of underage recruitment reported to the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2013 and 2014. Of these, 48 cases were actually recruited in 2013 and 2014.
Two years back, the Myanmar government made a commitment to the international community and its own citizens. Through a Joint Action Plan signed with the United Nations, it pledged to end the recruitment and use of children into its armed forces and the Border Guard Forces (BGFs). It also promised to take steps to ensure that children would be protected from recruitment in the future.
Since then, there have been some positive changes on the ground. Access by the UN Country Task Force to military sites has improved; release of some children from the army, though slow and still a small number, has taken place; a massive awareness raising campaign has been initiated; and some measures are being taken to improve recruitment practices.
However, there is no process yet to verify and release children from the BGFs, which are under the remit of the Joint Action Plan; children who escape from the Tatmadaw Kyi continue to be detained and treated as adult deserters; and accountability measures have so far failed to deter ongoing underage recruitment despite the fact that it is against the law.
Particularly concerning is the fact that the reasons which drove underage recruitment in the past have not been addressed: Continued pressure on the Myanmar military to increase troop numbers within an informal, incentive-based quota system drives demand for fresh recruitment. Battalion commanders, particularly in infantry battalions, are under constant pressure to recruit and failure to meet recruitment targets invites censure and penalties against battalion commanders. Recruitment processes lack effective monitoring and oversight, allowing underage recruits to “slip through the net” despite military directives to end this practice.
All this puts children at grave risk of unlawful recruitment. A majority of the cases of underage recruitment in 2014 have been coerced, with children being tricked or lured into the army through false promises. The practice of falsification of age documents, including Citizenship Scrutiny Cards (CSC) and household lists, by recruiters and civilian “brokers” continues unchecked and no measures have been adopted to establish accountability for this illegal practice.
Friday’s releases, which bring the total number of children released by the military under the Joint Action Plan to 364, are to be commended. But there is also a need for a renewed and demonstrable commitment to end and prevent child soldiers in Myanmar. For instance, ensuring that all children are registered at birth and all children possess an identity document that lays out clearly their ages, is a tangible way of providing protection to children against unlawful recruitment. Similarly, support by the international community to the Myanmar authorities to ensure that it strengthens recruitment procedures—implementing effective age verification measures that are monitored and hold violators accountable—is yet another way to bring in long-term prevention.
The responsibility to protect children from grave violations in conflict lies not just with the Myanmar military. Armed opposition groups active in various regions of Myanmar have also been known to recruit children and use them in hostilities, a practice which has seen them “listed” for several years in the UN secretary-general’s annual reports on children and armed conflict.
Current peace efforts in Myanmar offer a remarkable opportunity to prioritize the protection of children. The Myanmar government and all parties negotiating the nationwide ceasefire agreement need to ensure that child soldiers issues are not only fully incorporated in the peace process, but that mechanisms are established to verify and release children. The recruitment and use of children must be considered a violation of ceasefire agreements. All these steps are essential to fulfil the Myanmar government’s commitment to fully protecting children.
Charu Lata Hogg is the Asia program manager for Child Soldiers International, an NGO working to end underage recruitment across the globe.
Snapshot 30 July–5 August
OPt: As a 72-hour truce begins, 1,179 civilians have been reported killed since Operation Protective Edge started. A third of the population of the Gaza Strip – 485,000 people – have been displaced, an increase of 270,000 since last week. Most IDPs are staying in schools, which are severely overcrowded. The health system is overwhelmed.
Syria: Attacks on Douma and Kfar Bata, east of Damascus, have killed more than 50 people, while opposition forces have advanced in Hama. Deliveries of humanitarian aid to hard-to-reach areas dropped in July; only 49 of 287 such locations were reached.
Sudan: Further heavy rains and flooding have affected 6,100 households, half in River Nile and North Kordofan states. More than 3,000 homes are reported destroyed, and South Sudanese refugee camps flooded. Khartoum state has declared a high alert.
Updated: 05/08/2014. Next update: 12/08/2014