Life in limbo: Shan refugees in Thailand

Since the military coup in Myanmar in 2021, approximately 2.3 million Burmese and ethnic minorities have been internally displaced, while 1.35 million have become refugees or asylum seekers abroad. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 130,000 Myanmar refugees are currently seeking shelter in Thailand, comprising individuals who arrived both before and after the coup.

The United States State Department has reported that 150,000 Myanmar refugees reside in nine officially recognized refugee camps in Thailand. The official count only includes those within the refugee camps; however, the total number of Burmese residing in Thailand is considerably higher. The majority are stateless, lacking even Burmese passports, and only a small number possess a Thai residence ID card, granting them legal status in Thailand and the right to work.

The Thai government has initiated a program to issue ID cards to stateless and orphaned children, enabling them to attend school. In a separate initiative, adults are receiving biometric ID cards, which do not entail specific rights. However, possessing these cards allows individuals to verify their years of residency in Thailand. While this currently does not grant any specific privileges, it opens the door for a potential future opportunity. There is a remote possibility that, over time, individuals with these biometric ID cards may be eligible to apply for a higher-order ID card, providing them with working and residency privileges.

At a refugee camp in Chiang Mai province, I met up with Sai See Fa, a former English teacher who fled Shan State and now lives in the camp. He explained that without an ID card, refugees are not allowed to work. There is a farm near the camp where they can work illegally one month out of the year taking in the harvest. But the pay is low, $9 for a 13-hour workday. "And it is not every day. Maybe just ten days. And if police come, we have to pay a fine."

The camp used to have 600 people, but now it is down to 300 as many gave up and went back to Burma or found a way to live legally or illegally inside of Thailand. Among the 300 people, there are 80 children, 20 of whom are orphans. In the context of the Burma conflict, the term "orphan" is used loosely to describe unaccompanied minors. The parents may be dead, but they may also be alive and unable, because of the war, to reach their children. The orphans were housed in a concrete block building funded by Buddhist monks. Several other concrete block buildings served as a school for the children, as well as providing English and Thai classes for the adults. However, the funding from various NGOs is minimal and does not regularly provide food to the refugees, apart from the orphans. On the plus side, Sai See Fa explained that previously, the Thai government did not allow the building of permanent structures in the camp, but now is allowing concrete construction rather than bamboo.

The camp headman, Sai Leng, was 72 years old and spoke excellent English, which he had learned at a convent school in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, when he was young. By the time he had completed fourth grade, however, the government shut down foreign and religious schools. Sai Leng and other children were forced to attend Burmese government schools; they banned English medium education and taught a government curriculum heavy on propaganda. However, that was only when teachers were even present. "The salary was so low that teachers all ran other businesses and only came to school when we had exams. So, we got about one-third of an education."

The Burmese army was suspicious of everyone in Shan State; it captured and tortured people whom they suspected had information about the resistance. "All the civilians were Shan, and the Burmese generals thought that we wanted to support the Shan revolutionary troops, but actually, all the civilians want is to live peacefully. We didn’t want to be involved with any fighting." However, the paranoia of the state persisted. "And then they did some bad things to us. They burned some of the houses. They took all our belongings, trucks, motorbikes, and domestic animals. They took pigs and chickens. And they arrested some of the Shan civilians only because they suspected. And they killed some of them."

Finally, life in Shan State became unliveable. "So, we had no choice. We had to cross the border into Thailand."

"At that time, we thought it would take a short time, and then we could go back. But now, it has been almost 32 years, and he has been living in the refugee camp ever since. His children grew up there and are now adults."

A resident of the camp, Sai Pom Wan, aged 45, told me: "I feel safe in Thailand, but the biggest problem is low income and high expenses for the family." He explained that an NGO supports the children's transportation to school, but the issue of food remains. "Sometimes there are individual donors, like a visitor; when they come to the camp, they donate food, but not regularly. So, sometimes we need to go and work on the farm." However, finding farm work is challenging due to the saturation of the surrounding area with refugees from Burma, all seeking employment. During the harvest, they can work for about one month, but for the rest of the year, they face significant struggles.



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In spite of the struggle for daily survival, Sai Leng felt that there were some positive developments in terms of the conditions for refugees. "At first, when I arrived, the newborn babies did not get Thai IDs, even if they were born in the Thai hospital. But now, they receive a birth certificate from the hospital as well as from the district office. So, it means that we've improved a little." His hope is that with the Thai births of the babies officially recognized, there will be a clearer path toward obtaining citizenship or a residency and work permit.

Thirty-eight-year-old Sai Bee has been living as a refugee in Thailand for over 20 years. His two children were born in Thailand and have never known life in Myanmar. He said that he felt safe in Thailand, but that life was still difficult. The camp supports us for rice, but only two months, 16 kilograms of rice per person. "Sometimes it is hard to find a job, and hard to buy food. Without an ID card, it is hard to work. And even with an ID card, it is difficult with no degree. I speak English and have an ID card, but sometimes, companies do not want to hire me because I have no diploma."

About his hopes for the future of the war, Sai Leng said, "I believe that we will win … And we can get a real democratic, a real federal system just like the United States. Until now, I think we didn’t have a good opportunity because of a lot of different ethnic troops and also People’s Defense Forces (PDF)." There are several ethnic resistance forces fighting against the Myanmar government. During the more than 70 years of conflict, they have been known to switch sides, sometimes in a ceasefire with the government, war among themselves, or fight on the government side. But after a combined offensive launched in October, the resistance armies have been forming alliances with each another and launching combined attacks on the government forces. And they have been winning. The PDF is a new element that is also turning the tide against the government. These are militias, about half of whom swear allegiance to the National Unity Government (NUG), the government in exile. For the first time, there is widespread hope that the government may fall.

"The NUG government is not very strong till now," said Sai Leng, "but they try very hard, and they have some connections in the US Congress." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing for aid to Burma in 2024. So far, the BURMA Act only provides non-lethal assistance. But according to David Eubanks, the ethnic resistance armies would welcome military aid, even if it was a fraction of that given to Ukraine. 

Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image: Mae La Refugee Camp, by Mikhail Esteves from Bangalore, India -  Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0  


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