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Burmese Refugees In Thailand: Implications Of Suu Kyi’s Visit

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by Panchali Saikia

A major highlight of Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to Thailand was her visit to the Mae Sot refugee camp in June 2012. The Mae Sot camp is the largest among the nine refugee camps in Thailand, with nearly 50,000 refugees of which most are Karen ethnic nationals of Myanmar.

This controversial visit to the refugee camp has raised significant questions in the international community and within Myanmar. Why did she visit the refugee camp, especially when it was not a part her original agenda? What are the likely implications?

What Was The Purpose Of Her Visit?

Suu Kyi’s visit to the refugee camp as mentioned above was not a part of her agenda; it was a last minute decision. Why would Suu Kyi then jeopardize the political freedom she gained in Myanmar by stepping on a critical issue instantaneously after her victory in the by-election?

Suu Kyi is well aware that this victory will not be sufficient to bring democratic rule to Myanmar. She needs to mobilize and gain the support of everyone within Myanmar. Her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) holds only 6.4 per cent of the parliamentary seats, in comparison to the 80 per cent share of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The parliament has very limited power and the military dominates with an effective veto over its decisions.

Her visit to the refugee camp seems to be an attempt to gain the emotional support of the people of Myanmar and increase her vote bank. This could be drawn from her statement: ‘As we don’t have a mic, I am going to have to shout, ‘I won’t forget any of you. I will try my best for you!’ (Bangkok Post)

Impact Of Suu Kyi’s Visit On The Political Situation In Myanmar

Her visit however makes the situation much more adverse, raising speculations on her future endeavours. A pre-planned visit to the refugee camp by taking into confidence both President Thein Sein and the Thai government would not have aggravated the political situation in Myanmar. She could have urged the international community and the Thai government to provide assistance to the refugees in the camps and the asylum-seekers. The Thai authorities have recently reduced food aid to the refugee camps by around 20 per cent. Also, other international organizations such as UNHCR have cut aid to these camps.

Although this visit turned international attention towards the long-standing refugee crisis of Myanmar, it has further complicated the situation, especially the political rift within Myanmar. Possibly due to Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein abruptly cancelled his official trip to Bangkok. Thein Sein was to attend the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Bangkok, which also hosted Myanmar’s opposition leader Suu Kyi. It is widely believed that President Thein Sein did not want to be overshadowed by the iconic leader at the forum. However, the Myanmar government denies any such report and states that it was due to domestic matters that the President had to cancel his trip.

The political change in Myanmar has been swift; both the ruling government and opposition party must address the refugee crisis carefully with close cooperation and understanding. Any such impulsive and aggressive stand by Suu Kyi during her foreign trips will affect her relations with the government. After Suu Kyi’s visit to the refugee camp, an adviser to Myanmar’s president criticized Suu Kyi’s trip to Thailand because of a lack of transparency (The New York Times). The rapport between Thein Sein and Suu Kyi is shaky and any turbulence in this understanding will have an adverse impact on the internal stability of the country.

The Return Of The Refugees?

The return of the refugees in the midst of the present situation in Myanmar seems doubtful, however, had their voices been heard, the long-standing crisis within the camps would have been addressed. The local newspapers in Thailand reported that the Myanmarese refugees were disappointed with the schedule of Suu Kyi’s visit as they did not get any opportunity to interact with her about their plight within the camps. Moreover, Suu Kyi did not mention anything about the progress of the peace talks in Myanmar or the possibility of their return to the country.

It cannot be ignored that political instability and ongoing clashes in Myanmar have added to the increase in the refugee influx into neighbouring countries. Unless there is a political settlement between the government and the armed ethnic groups, the question of the Myanmarese refugees will remain unanswered, leading them to the point of no return.

Also, the refugees are concerned about being forcibly repatriated to Myanmar. The Thai authorities are apprehensive of the influx as this will add to their economic burden and pose a threat to Thai national security. They have also announced that in the next three years all the nine camps will be closed down.

Preparatory talks by Thailand to repatriate the refugees and on the closure of nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border is under process. This will have a major impact on the Myanmarese refugees in Thailand. A forced repatriation will further complicate the situation and might lead to a major conflict not only within Myanmar but also along the borders, jeopardizing bilateral relations between the two countries.

(Panchali Saikia is a Research Officer at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies)

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