TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY FOR THOSE OUTSIDE MYANMAR
by Alan Nichols
Each week the new Parliament of Myanmar meets. This last week all new Members grained for their new positions. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi warned them that the Parliament should ‘not be a perch for lawmakers’ personal interests.’ She said: ‘It’s not a stepping stone for a position. It’s also not a call to fight people with different opinions. It’s a place where we have to try our best to collaborate for the sake of the country and people.’
Themes of the training were democracy, public leadership, ethics and the responsibilities and challenges facing lawmakers.
March 17 is the date set for determining who the President of the country will be.
This blog examines migrant workers from Myanmar working in Thailand, the continuing conflict in the northern part of Myanmar which is displacing ethnic groups.
Comments are welcome from ‘followers’ of the blog as to what issues should be examined.
MIGRANT WORKERS ARE HUNGRY FOR HOME
Back in 1991 when working for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Bangkok, I went for the first time to the village of Mae Sot in Thailand. It was the gateway to the camps for Burmese refugees. Mae Sot was then a village of perhaps 20,000 residents. The bridge over the river into Burma/Myanmar was closed.
Today more than 500,000 Burmese migrant workers live in and around Mae Sot, and the trade in 2015 was worth $1.57 billion. The workers used to be illegal, but now the Thai government has issued 600,000 temporary ‘pink cards’, and promised them a minimum wage, labour reforms, and a cessation of conflict. But it may not be enough to encourage them to stay. They mostly have families back in Myanmar, desperately poor, to whom they send money. And many couples left their children back in home villages, with grandparents and other family members looking after them.
This is one huge challenge for the new democratic government of Myanmar.
But a complication is that the migrant workers live near 150,000 refugees from Myanmar, mostly from Karen, Mon and Karenni ethnic nationalities, in camps under the control of UNHCR. They also want to go home.
Frontier magazine of Myanmar (issue February 4, 2016) reports: ‘From every corner of Myanmar, the migrant workers chose a life of crooked landlords, abusive bosses and police raids because it was still better than anything their homeland had to offer.’
The migrant workers watch closely what is happening in Myanmar. The minimum wage offer is not enough to attract them. They are inquiring about hospitals, schools, actual jobs and actual peace. Refugees are thinking the same.
THE OTHER OPTION CLOSES
The other option which has been available to people from Myanmar displaced outside the country for one reason or another. Those within the refugee camps have been processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Those judged to be refugees under UN law are then eligible for settlement in a third country. Australia has been one of those countries for ten years until 2014, taking more than 10,000 Karen and Mon, but then the UN judged that peace had come to Myanmar and the settlement process closed down. So did UN and other supplies of food and medical care to those within the camps not chosen for a third country. There is no longer a long-term future for the 150,000 refugees still in camps in Thailand.
Many refugees settled into third countries, visit back home. This is a Mothers Union group at St Thomas’ Werribee, Melbourne, about to go home to check on families.
CONFLICT CONTINUES EVEN DURING THE ‘PEACE’
While the national election last November promised a ‘free and fair’ vote including everybody, in what purported to be a time of peace with ethnic groups, the reality is that fighting continues in northern Shan State, with occasional abductions of local youth to force them to join the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The Myanmar Times of February 5, 2016 has a disturbing analysis of what is happening. Northern Shan State is home to a mix of ethnic groups, and various armed organisations including the government’s military, operate in the area.
In 2011 a decades-long ceasefire between the KIA and the Government military ended, and since then fighting has sent thousands from their homes. Although many other ethnic groups signed a new ceasefire, the KIA refused to, and conflict continues.
Fiona Macgregor and Thu Thu Aung, writing in The Myanmar Times write: ‘So much fear is now stalking the region that some community leaders say their villages are home only to old people and babies. The young people having fled to the larger towns or to the border with China to avoid being taken by armed groups.’