Outside of Nai Soi village in northern Thailand, more than 14,000 refugees from Kayah State debate elections going on just across the border. While there will be no voting for those in Thailand’s largest refugee camp – most lack ID cards – that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions about the coming polls.
People started settling in the Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp in 1992 and it was officially opened in 1996, according to the Karenni Refugee Committee. Most of the camp residents fled Kayah State due to clashes between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups fighting for independence. The Karenni National Progressive Party signed its second ceasefire agreement with the government in 2012. The first, signed in 1994, collapsed after less than three months.
“I was born in Shadaw township and I came to the camp with my family 20 years ago,” said Ko Su Reh, 22, “The fighting between the Burmese and the Karenni armies forced us to move from place to place.”
His story is common among the refugees, who were uprooted, often multiple times, due to intense conflict. Many of the younger refugees have spent their whole life at the camp, knowing only a 5-kilometre perimeter around Nai Soi.
Trusting the Myanmar government doesn’t come naturally here. The refugees expect and hope that the ruling party will be defeated in the polls by the National League for Democracy, but they don’t anticipate their troubles will be over after an opposition victory.
Most fear that if NLD wins and the political situation in Myanmar is stable, their camp will be shuttered, and they will be forced back into a country they associate with violence and hardship.
“I think if the NLD wins, good changes will come, but it will take a long time before they have consequences in Kayah State,” said Ko Than Tun Oo, 20, who joined the refugee camp in 2011.
He added that before the refugees are funnelled back into Kayah State, they want to see a plan to ensure their well-being and livelihoods agreed to by the local administration. Most of all, Ko Than Tun Oo said, they demand a national ceasefire and genuine peace to be in place before they are repatriated.
“In July, the UNHCR presented their resettlement operation plan, but we think it is too soon [to return],” said Ko Luiz Martin, secretary of the KRC. “A lot of people panicked. The Thai government said the refugees will not be forced to leave, but that within two years, we will have to be gone. U Aung Min from the Myanmar Peace Center also said Myanmar was ready to welcome back the refugees.”
But as clashes continue to flare in Myanmar, the credibility of the ceasefire agreement, which will not be signed by all armed ethnic groups, remains in doubt. Given the fleeting agreements made in the past, many of the residents do not store much faith in the latest peace deal.
Returning is also difficult to conceptualise for those who no longer have a home to go back to.
“In the camp, it’s hard – everyone is struggling for survival. But what will we do if we go back?” said Ko Anthony, 30. He fled Myanmar in 2010, afraid to be arrested after campaigning against the 2008 constitutional referendum. Fear of political persecution upon being repatriated is also common among the refugees.
“Most of the refugees are accused of having connections with armed groups branded as unlawful. They fear they could be arrested if they go back home. Since most of the people here come from eastern Kayah State, devastated by the civil war, their villages don’t exist anymore. There are still landmines and the threat of land-grabs,” said Ko Luiz Martin.
Increasingly, however, Thailand appears to be playing a resentful host. In 2005, Thailand stopped officially registering and admitting new refugees to the camps. While waves of unofficial entries have continued, the newer arrivals have no status, no identification, and cannot officially seek asylum or apply for resettlement. They also cannot obtain official employment, and without the protection of any recognised status are vulnerable to exploitation.
“We feel like birds trapped in a cage,” said Ko Neh Reh. “A lot of young people, fed up with their limbo situation, dropped out from school. Violence and alcohol abuse are increasing in the camp.”
Meanwhile, living standards deteriorate every year. The food rations provided by supporting NGOs are never enough to match the rising refugee population and donor interest has waned. This month, the refugees will only get 9 kilograms (20 pounds) of rice per person, compared to the 20kg a head provided in the 1990s.
“Rations have declined because of donors’ change of interest. Since 2012, their new strategy is to focus on the development inside Myanmar. The camp is growing, but increasingly, it is forgotten,” said Ko Luiz Martin.
He added that to supplement their food, around 15 percent of the refugees work illegally in the nearby Thai farms. If they are caught by immigration officials, they could be deported and charged for illegal entry. At least for now, Thai authorities have mostly appeared willing to look the other way, but no one knows how long that leniency will continue, and whether the results of the elections will end it.