The Economist (blog)-Jun 5th 2012
ADORING throngs of expatriated Burmese nationals (and NGO staffers) lined kilometres of the airport road to welcome Aung San Suu Kyi to the border town of Mae Sot. On the last day of Miss Suu Kyi’s landmark visit to Thailand, her first trip abroad in 24 years, she was escorted by tight security provided by Thailand’s army and police. From the tarmac her convoy was whisked past the cheering supporters to Mae La, the area’s largest refugee camp. More than 45,000 shelter here, most of them ethnic Karen who have fled war and repression in neighbouring Myanmar.
Inside the Mae La camp, a maze of bamboo and thatched huts only 10 kilometres from the border with Myanmar, Miss Suu Kyi, an icon for her country’s democracy movement, told the cheering masses that Myanmar’s refugees are not forgotten. She said she hopes that conditions back in Burma, as she calls the place, will permit them to return in the not-too-distant future.
The Thai authorities had already decided to change Miss Suu Kyi’s schedule, pruning it severely. She met only a few camp officials and representatives of the Karens’ political groups. No microphones were allowed, and no loudspeakers. The Lady, as she is popularly known, had to stand on a plastic chair and shout to be heard. Many of the 1,000 refugees who were permitted to attend the little football-pitch assembly could scarcely hear a thing she said. At one point a few of the refugees were just able to make out: “It is not our country...We do not have the opportunity to do as we planned.”
A large crowd of Burmese migrants, NGO workers and medical staff had gathered on the grounds of a legendary Mae Sot clinic and hospital run by Dr Cynthia Maung. The institution has long provided free treatment for the endless stream of the sick and wounded who arrive from Myanmar’s war-torn Karen state, just across the Moei river. But Miss Suu Kyi was pressured by nervous Thai officials to abandon her visit to Dr Maung’s hospital. They claim her programme had to be changed for reasons of security.
Over the past several decades Karen civilians have fled fierce fighting between the poorly-equipped rebel forces of the Karen National Union (KNU) and Myanmar’s national army. Altogether there are around 140,000 Myanmar refugees scattered across nine camps in Thailand.
Thailand’s defence minister, Sukumpol Suwanatat, is keen to send the refugees back home and close the camps. His rationale is that Myanmar is moving towards democracy. Khin Ohmar, a co-ordinator of Burma Partnership, an NGO, expressed a common fear among the community of exiles. “We fear that the Thai authorities will misuse Suu Kyi’s comments over the refugees’ situation, for the purpose of speeding up the repatriation of refugees.”
In her meetings with migrant workers and in her brief encounter with refugees, Miss Suu Kyi acknowledged their desire to return—and also their anxieties about going home too soon. She seems to be taking the measured position that the time is not ripe for their return and that it won’t be until two conditions are fulfilled: there should be both peace in Myanmar and the economic opportunity for them to earn a living.
In spite the efforts of Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, to bring the KNU (and all ethnic armed groups) into peace talks and ceasefire agreements, so far there is no military agreement between the two sides. Fighting still rages farther north of Karen (or Kayin) state, in Kachin state. The KNU, for its part, welcomes the notion of peace talks with the government, but insists that it is not yet a safe time for refugees to return home.
The KNU and other ethnic parties were disappointed that conversations planned between Miss Suu Kyi and the leadership of the KNU and other ethnic groups were cancelled. Apparently the Thais scuttled them after receiving complaints from Myanmar’s government.
Thein Sein himself decided to skip the World Economic Forum in Bangkok. Had he gone ahead, as planned, he would have been upstaged by the rock-star reception given to Miss Suu Kyi, his most prominent political rival and, as it happens, a Nobel laureate. At first he postponed his official visit to Thailand, till June 5th and 6th, and then he cancelled it altogether. According one Bangkok newspaper, the Nation, Burmese diplomats had complained to Thailand’s foreign ministry about Miss Suu Kyi’s trip to meet with rebel groups at the frontier. Another report had it that Miss Suu Kyi’s meeting with Thailand’s deputy prime minister was especially annoying to officials in Myanmar. They discussed labour and refugee issues, which the two governments have failed to do for the past 40 years.
The government in Naypidaw knows there are hugely sensitive constitutional issues at stake. Many of the ethnic groups in Myanmar are demanding a federal solution along the lines of the Panglong agreement drafted by Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, in 1947. It is becoming clear that while the government is happy for Miss Suu Kyi to endorse its reform process, buttressing its legitimacy by serving as a partner, they do not want her to become in any way involved in a solution to the ethnic conflicts.
(Picture credit: AFP)