by Alan Nichols

IMG_2316As peace talks continue inside Myanmar as a further step along democracy’s way, anxiety is increasing among the 140,000 refugees from Myanmar in camps inside Thailand.

Most belong to the Karen ethnic tribe, who have lived in Burma for 500 years since migrating from Mongolia.

Many of those living in the refugee camps have lived there for twenty years, and have no home or ancestral land to return to.

Back in November, the camps came under strict supervision “while Thai authorities carried out verification checks of who was in the camps, whether they are registered with the UN, or whether they are new arrivals” (Border News, Christ Church Bangkok Karen Ministry).

An example of the anxiety which this caused was when students and staff at the Noh Bo Academy, which is outside the camps, began to fear that the authorities were about to move the academy inside Mae La camp, which already has 52,000 people. (The Academy has had 30 years of financial and pastoral support from Christ Church Bangkok, overseas supporters with many volunteer teachers from Australia.)

Young people at the Academy are very worried about the future. Their whole lives have been in Thailand. Australian refugee intake from the border camps, at about 1200 a year for the past ten years, ceased a year ago as the UNHCR judged that peace was coming inside Myanmar.

As a result of this intake, now more than 5000 Karen live in Wyndham Municipality, centred on Werribee in Melbourne.


On December 27 fire broke out in Zone C of Mae La camp, destroying 120 homes and making 600 people homeless. Naw Blooming Night Zan, spokesman for the Karen Relief Committee, told the Karen News that camp officials, UNHCR, NGOs and That officials immediately organized food, blankets and shelter.

But because of peace negotiations, food and other relief supplies are at 50% less than a year ago. World attention has shifted to the Syrian crisis.


Increasing concern is now being expressed about suicide rates in the camps, as people despair and young people see no future.

Saw Pha Htaw, social affairs coordinator for Mae La camp, said to the Karen News: “We have seen in the past that suicide cases were related mostly to drug usage, but now the trend has changed –  we are still investigating to try to figure out the reasons behind the most recent cases.”

On December 2 a young Karen refugee couple killed themselves by drinking pesticide, and the young women was pregnant.

Young adult camp residents born in the camp have expressed their frustrations about not being recognized as citizens by either the Thai or Burmese governments.  It was not only the physical fence around the camps, young people have stressed that the “mental fences” played havoc with their minds – fear of being arrested, and fear of a world that has dramatically changed while they remained within the confines of a refugee camp.

Camp records show that 13 people died from suicide during 2015, as well as suicide attempts that have been unreported.


Of course, officials and ethnic leaders inside Myanmar are making preparations for refugees to come home. Former student leaders from the 1988 student uprising are now welcomed home. Disputes about land titles are growing, as some Karen land has been sold or leased to Chinese investors.

Community groups, ethnic leaders and churches are setting up boarding houses, start-up small businesses and education opportunities to attract young people to return.


Last week NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi formally and publicly entered the peace process by speaking at a fresh round of talks between the Government, army and ethnic minority armed groups, tackling economic and social issues (The Australian, January 13).

The painstaking negotiations have until now been steered by President Thein Sein. But some armed groups have boycotted the talks, and clashes continue in parts of the country between rebels and soldiers.

Each of these steps by the NLD leader moves Myanmar towards fulfilling  the democratic promise of the November 8 when the NLD won 80% of the available seats in Parliament. Another 20% of seats remain reserved for the army.


The Australian Myanmar Institute will hold a seminar on the transition to the new Parliament with the Australian Ambassador, Mr. Nicholas Koppel at the University of Melbourne on February 11, 2016, from 2pm. Further details will be announced.