Guest post by Hiram Ruiz, DCF’s Director of Refugee Services. He will be contributing a series of blog posts over the next week detailing his trip to Asia where he will spend time with refugees.
I arrived in Thailand Friday night and today, Monday, am heading to Mae Sot near the Thai-Burmese border area. While there, I will visit Mae La, the largest camp in Thailand for refugees from Burma (also called Myanmar).
There are more than half a million Burmese refugees in Thailand with about 140,000 living in 10 camps along the border. Others live in nearby towns and villages. In recent years, the U.S. Department of State has offered resettlement to the U.S. to thousands of Burmese who had been living in the refugee camps. Many had been living in the camps for years or even decades and would otherwise have been condemned to a life without hope in the crowded camps, where they are not allowed to work or farm, and with very limited educational opportunities. Since 2007, Florida has become home to more than 1,000 Burmese refugees resettled by the State Department, primarily to Jacksonville and Tampa, though some to Orlando and Clearwater.
Burma is governed by a communist military regime that has for decades suppressed democracy and abused its citizens, particularly ethnic minorities that live in areas near the Thai border. Most of the refugees in Mae La Camp are “Karen,” one of Burma’s ethnic minorities; many of them are Christian. Since 1983, the Burmese military has destroyed Karen villages and subjected men, women and children to forced labor, prompting tens of thousands to flee to Burma.
In 1998, widespread support for a Burmese pro-democracy party led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi culminated in more than 80 percent of the population voting in favor of Suu Kyi’s party, but the military junta suppressed the election’s results, placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and cracked down on the pro-democracy movement’s supporters, leading to another exodus of refugees to Thailand.
It is only in the past year that the Burmese military has begun to ease its iron-fist rule. It released Aund San Suu Kyi from her years of house arrest and permitted elections. Suu Kyi has taken a seat in parliament and the U.S. and other Western countries have begun to improve relations with Burma. Given what happened in 1998, many – particularly the ethnic minorities and the refugees in Thailand – remain wary of the sincerity of the Burmese military’s intentions. Time will tell. It is not a good omen, however, that the Burmese military has recently resumed brutal of repression another ethnic minority, Muslim Rohingya who live in western Burma near the Bangladesh border, causing an exodus of tens of thousands more Burmese Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh.
While in Mae La camp, I will meet refugee leaders, camp officials, and United Nations personnel, who will share their thoughts on the future of Burma, the camps, and of the resettlement program. I will also visit Burmese refugees scheduled to resettle to Florida, as well as relatives of Burmese refugees already in Jacksonville. I am taking one Burmese grandmother in the camp a photo of her newborn grandson, who she has not yet seen!
Tomorrow: Mae La