Assistance, protection and policy in refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma Border

The following research has been funded in part by the Quantum Code automated trading software.
































© Edith Bowles, 1997



Refugee Studies Programme, Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford University












Acknowledgements: The researching and writing of this article was made possible by the Ford Foundation Southeast Asia Practitioner Fellowship, at the Refugee Studies Programme of Oxford University. The author would also like to thank the many friends and colleagues who reviewed the document, providing invaluable comments and insights.






















The importance of refugee autonomy and participation in assistance programs has been documented in innumerable articles, reports, and agency guidelines, along with analysis of why refugee participation in practice has seldom been at the forefront of international response to a refugee crises. The situation of the 115,000 ethnic minority refugees from Burma in Thailand is an instance where refugees have enjoyed a high level of autonomy, run many components of assistance programs, and administered their own camps. Many factors, including the policies of the Royal Thai Government (RTG), non-governmental organisation (NGO) response, and the development of the refugee organisations, have contributed to this arrangement. The provision of assistance, particularly food assistance, has essentially been localised, in that the delivery and distribution of supplies has been left in the hands of the refugee communities, a limited number of NGOs, and local authorities. Consequently the evolution of assistance systems has been appropriate to the situation and promoted a high level of refugee autonomy. Similarly, de facto refugee protection has also been provided through local arrangement, largely as a by-product of Burma’s civil war itself. What has been missing is mandated international protection for the refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not had a protection mandate for the refugees and, until recently, has had only sporadic involvement. Moreover, until 1995, protection was not generally perceived to be a crucial concern.

Since 1995 the drastic deterioration in security in many areas of the border, as well as repatriation and refoulement of refugees by local Thai authorities, has made refugee protection the most important issue for the refugee population. Unlike most situations, 13 years after the first refugees came across the border, there is arguably more of an “emergency” than ever before. There are a large number of internally displaced along the Burma side of the border, the refugee population has increased substantially, and there is an urgent need for protection. The changed circumstances have created a need to critically re-assess the roles of the RTG, NGOs, UNHCR, and the refugee administrations. An important question is refugees can receive protection from an international organisation, and maintain high levels of participation and autonomy.

This paper examines the reasons why such a degree of refugee self-sufficiency, autonomy, and participation has been achieved and the current threats to this system. This will include a review of the development of the refugee crises, the refugee organisations, RTG policy, and NGO response. In particular, the ways in which refugees have administered their own aid programs and how NGOs have built on and supported community structures will be detailed. The effects of the enormous deterioration in security on RTG policy, NGO programs, the role of UNHCR, and the refugee communities will also be discussed, along with the challenges posed by the increased incidence of refoulement and the possibility of repatriation.




Burma is home to one of the longest running civil wars in the world. Among the most ethnically diverse countries of the region, Burma encompasses over 100 culturally and linguistically distinct groups. Since Burma’s independence from Great Britain in 1948, dozens of groups have taken up arms against the central government. The result has been a protracted and brutal war in which ethnic minority civilians from Burma’s rural areas have been the primary victims. Since 1989, most of the armed opposition groups have entered cease-fires with the Burmese government, a military junta known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). However along the Thailand-Burma border, the Karen National Union (KNU), and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) have not entered lasting cease-fires. The New Mon State Party (NMSP), which still maintains base areas along the border, concluded a cease-fire with SLORC in June 1995.

As a result of the civil war, approximately 115,000 Karen, Karenni, and Mon refugees have fled to Thailand where they live in 25 camps along the Thailand-Burma border. In addition there are tens of thousands of Shan refugees who the Thai authorities have not allowed to set up camps. These Shan refugees are largely forced to live and work illegally in Northern Thailand.3 In 1992, another 300,000 people fled from Arakan State in Western Burma to Bangladesh. This population has subsequently been mostly repatriated, although there are still refugees arriving in or returning to Bangladesh. There are an estimated at least 1 million displaced people inside Burma. Finally, there are hundreds of thousands of illegal Burmese workers, who have gone to Thailand or Malaysia to look for jobs and escape the stagnant economy and political repression of Burma.

Burma has been ruled by military governments Burma since 1962, when General Ne Win seized power in a coup and deposed the elected government. Ne Win was forced from power by a popular uprising in 1988, but was soon replaced by the SLORC government. The 1988 uprising was brutally suppressed, resulting in the death or imprisonment of thousands of people. In 1990, elections were held in Burma but SLORC refused to recognise the results and imprisoned many members of the winning party, the National League for Democracy. The leader of the NLD, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was put under house arrest and only released in mid-1995. Although Aung San Suu Kyi has been released, the repression of NLD and the democratic opposition continues unabated. SLORC has one of the worst human rights records in the world and has been condemned by a host of human rights organisations, the United Nations, and western governments.




Along the Thailand-Burma border, refugees come to the camps for a wide variety of reasons. Below are outlined three of the common causes of flight, however there are many other reasons why people chose to come to camps. The human rights abuses by the Burmese army in rural areas have been well documented by organisations such as Karen Human Rights Group, Images Asia, Human Rights Watch/Asia, Amnesty International, Burma Issues, and Mon Information Service.


Military Offensives: Military offensives have been the cause of large, sudden influxes of refugees. Over the last 15 years the area held under control of the opposition armies along the Thailand-Burma border has been gradually eliminated. Every year, except during a de facto cease-fire between 1992 and 1995, the Burmese army has made dry season offensives against opposition bases. Thousands of refugees have fled as a result of these offensives. The last areas held by the KNU, across from Thailand’s Tak and Kanchanaburi provinces, were over-run during the 1997 dry season (October-May), sending approximately 15,000 new refugees into Thailand. While SLORC now controls almost the entire border, some contested areas remain inside Burma where fighting continues.

The military offensives are associated with brutal and widespread abuses of the civilian population, aimed at eliminating support for the opposition movements. As SLORC soldiers move through villages, they loot goods and food from the villagers, and force people to serve as porters for the army. They subject anyone they suspect of working for the opposition to detention, torture, or summary execution. SLORC soldiers often rape women and girls. Sometimes whole villages are looted and burned. (For a detailed report on a SLORC offensive see Images Asia and BurmaNet 1997).

In many instances, villagers flee to refugee camps before the SLORC reaches their village. In others, villagers take refuge in the mountains, move from site to site, sometimes for several seasons, and return home only when they are sure the SLORC troops have left. Some people, especially the more prosperous, stay in the village, despite the SLORC presence, until conditions become unbearable and then decide to leave. In general, new arrivals in camps have known of the existence of camps for several years before actually resorting to them.


Forced Relocation: In recent years, SLORC has carried out massive forced relocations of rural villages, in order to eliminate support for the opposition groups or clear the area for infrastructure projects. In these instances, villagers are informed that they must vacate their villages. Sometimes they are given a designated site to which they are told to move, or they are simply told to leave. For example, in 1996, an estimated 200,000-300,000 people in central Shan State were forcibly relocated. Similarly, almost 100 villages in Kayah State were relocated in 1996, resulting in 5,000 Kayah people arriving in refugee camps and another 50,000-60,000 internally displaced.4 In March-June 1997, 68 villages in Papun District, northern Karen State, were looted and burned by SLORC troops.


Forced Labour: The use of forcibly conscripted labour on infrastructure projects is common in Burma. In dry season, the army routinely calls upon villagers to build roads, railways, airports, army barracks, irrigation ditches, and other infrastructure projects. People are forced to work without pay, food, or access to medical care. Since 1993 thousands of people have come from Mon State and Tennasserim Division to the Mon refugee camps, fleeing forced labour on the Ye-Tavoy railway. Even on roads in the central areas of Burma it is very common to see people, primarily women and children, breaking stones, digging ditches, or building embankments, without pay.




Similar to its policy toward refugees in United Nations Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) camps on the Cambodian border in the 1980s, the RTG has always maintained that the people in camps on the Thailand-Burma border are not “refugees” but “displaced persons” or even “illegal immigrants”. Different bodies within the RTG have regularly and publicly reiterated that their policy is to offer “temporary shelter,” for humanitarian reasons, to those fleeing fighting in Burma, but refugees must go home once the armed conflict ceases. This policy has been variably enacted at different times and places along the border. Although official Thai policy is to offer “temporary shelter” the reality is that some Karen camps have existed and received assistance for 13 years. Along the border with Shan State, however, the RTG has not allowed any refugee camps to be established and has quickly pushed back refugees, once the actual fighting that precipitated their flight has finished. In 1994, at one point, the RTG stated that there were to be no new Karen refugee camps in Thailand, so a camp had to be established for new arrivals on the Burma side of the border. However the refugees were allowed to enter Thailand less than eight months later when all the KNU held territory in that area of the border was over-run.

In regard to NGO assistance to the refugees, the RTG has explicitly mandated that only food, medicines, clothing, and other essential items can be provided. A mandate for educational assistance was added at the end of 1996, following an assessment of educational needs in the camps in 1995 (CCSDPT 1995, 1996). No NGO personnel are permitted to reside in the camps, although exceptions are made for medical staff. RTG also regulations forbid permanent buildings. The refugees are not allowed to plant crops, particularly rice, or engage in economic activities in Thailand. RTG guidelines also require that all assistance to the refugees remains low profile and that the activities of NGOs not be publicised.

An unusual aspect of the situation is that the RTG has consistently refused to grant UNHCR a mandate to provide assistance or protection to refugees on the Thailand-Burma border. As Thailand is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, UNHCR cannot officially recognise the refugees without invitation from the RTG. However, UNHCR has stated that they regard the refugees on the border are primae facie refugees, and therefore of concern to UNHCR.5 5 A protection officer makes periodic visits to the border, but UNHCR has no representative stationed at the border, and must seek official permission from the RTG for each visit.

While some camps have been allowed to remain in the same location for years, particularly the Karen camps in the Mae Sot area, the RTG has regularly exercised its prerogative to move the location of camps. In particular, the Mon camps in Kanchanaburi province have been subject to frequent relocations. The community currently at Halockhani was forced to move five times in seven years. The camp was moved to the Burma side of the border in 1994. Camp residents fled back to the Thai side after an attack by the Burma Army. But they were once again forced back to the Burma side, despite considerable protest from embassies, human rights organisations, NGOs, and UNHCR. Karenni camp #2 has also moved six times since 1989, on some occasions due to security threats but also due to the unwillingness of the local authorities to designate a piece of land for use by the refugees. Repeated camp moves have been very disruptive to the refugees. While most camp moves have been conducted peacefully, there have been incidences of violence and use of force on the part of Thai soldiers. Old camps have been burnt down, in some cases as refugees were moving or shortly thereafter. On occasion the Thai military has made refugees burn down their old camps.

Several factors also have influenced RTG policy toward the refugees from the outset. The Thai authorities wished to avoid a situation similar to that in the Indochinese camps, which were distinguished by high-profile international involvement and attention. Further, they did not want to antagonise the Burmese government by appearing to support the opposition movements (USCR 1986). However, particularly in the early years of the refugee crises, there was considerable tolerance at the local levels in Thailand, as the refugees did not pose a large problem for local Thai communities. The areas they fled to were, in many cases, not heavily populated and the camps were small. The presence of the refugees did not significantly drain such local resources as arable land, water, or firewood. Refugee community leaders negotiated with the local Thai landowners, army commanders, and district administrators to select sites for the camps. Furthermore, to a large extent the same ethnic groups live on either side of the border. There are a large number of Thai-Karen communities from Kanchanaburi to Mae Hong Son and Thai-Mon communities in Kanchanaburi Province.

The RTG had long tolerated the ethnic minority opposition groups from Burma. These groups formed a convenient buffer between the Thai army and the Burmese army, between whom there is deep-rooted historical animosity. From 1984 to 1995, security for the refugees was relatively unproblematic. The ethnic minority opposition armies, stationed along the Burma side of the border, provided de facto protection for the refugees. However, from the early years many observers warned that RTG policy toward the Burmese refugees would harden eventually (USCR 1986).

Despite the inconsistencies in Thai policy and lack of UNHCR protection, RTG policy allowed for a relatively stable environment for the refugee camps, until the early-mid 1990’s. Since them, the quality of asylum in Thailand has deteriorated sharply. This is generally attributed to the increasing economic co-operation between the RTG and SLORC. There is not only flourishing trade between the two countries, but also large bilateral infrastructure projects, such as the Yadana gas pipeline or the sale of electricity from Burma to Thailand. The refugee situation presents an increasingly intolerable embarrassment to both Thailand and Burma. The refugees remind the international community of and provide information on the gravity of conditions inside Burma and SLORC’s appalling human rights record (USCR 1996). The refugee issue also draws criticism of Thailand’s economic rapprochement with SLORC at the expense of the refugees and Burma’s beleaguered urban pro-democracy movement. Both SLORC and the RTG are increasingly anxious to remove the refugee presence from the border.






The first Karen refugees from Burma arrived in Thailand in 1984, in the wake of the fall of the KNU base at Wan Kha. The first camp, Huay Ka Loke, was established not far from the Thai border town of Mae Sot. By 1986, there were 12 refugee camps with a collective population of 18,000 people in Tak and Mae Hong Son provinces (USCR 1986). The first Karenni refugees arrived in Mae Hong Son province in 1989. The first Mon refugees came to Thailand in 1990, after the NMSP and KNU bases at Three Pagodas Pass were overrun by the SLORC. By mid-1997, the refugee population had grown to 115,000. 6

Initially, a significant number of the refugees were members or relatives of members of the KNU, NMSP, or KNPP. Now, however, the overwhelming majority of the refugees are people with no formal connection to the political opposition. The political organisations have however continued to provide a measure of political authority and community organisation in the camps. Each of the political parties has a civil government and administration, in addition to an armed wing. Each group is governed by a central committee, with a president and/or prime minister. Government functions, such as organisation, health, information, education, and foreign affairs, are divided between different departments (sometimes called ministries, bureau, or committees depending on the organisation). These governmental bodies provided a civil administration in the areas under the control of the opposition groups inside Burma. This administration has been extended to the refugee camps, notably in the areas of health and education.

Previously, the KNU controlled a significant amount of territory inside Burma, until the mid-late 1980’s when their territory contracted to the area just along the border and was finally almost completely overrun in 1997. The NMSP party retains control over a small amount of territory inside Burma, under the terms of their 1995 cease-fire. It is impossible to assess the degree to which the KNPP and the KNU maintain civilian structures inside Burma.

Refugees have often come across the border together with whole communities. Within the camps, these communities have remained intact. Often when new refugees decide to come to a camp, they go to one where they already have friends or relatives. Due to the openness of the camps, refugees could move from one camp to another to stay near relatives or visit each other. For travel in Thailand, registered camp residents are given travel passes by camp leaders or by local RTG immigration offices, although refugee movements have been increasingly restricted and some of the camps established in 1997 are closed camps. Remaining together as a community is often very important, particularly to new arrivals and the more culturally “traditional” refugees (Dudley 1997).

Each ethnic group has established a refugee committee to provide relief assistance. The refugee committees are responsible for seeking and co-ordinating relief assistance. Each refugee committee maintains an office in the nearest Thai town to the refugee camps. The Mon National Relief Committee (MNRC) maintains an office in Sangklaburi, the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) in Mae Sot, the Karenni Refugee Committee (KRC) in Mae Hong Son. The KRC also maintains satellite offices or personnel in Sangklaburi, Umphang, and Mae Sariang. The KRC and MNRC are not institutionally linked to the KNU and NMSP respectively. MNRC staff may be members of MNSP but not central committee members. This separation is intended to keep the welfare of the refugees distinct from the political fortunes of the parties, e.g. to ensure that refugees are not used for political leverage. In practice, the political parties have little to do with the daily running of the refugee committees and camps.

The refugee committees provide crucial organisational bodies for the RTG and NGOs to work with. The willingness of the RTG and NGOs to recognise the organisational capacity of the refugee groups and work through the refugee committees was crucial to establishing and maintaining high levels of refugee participation in assistance programs (Caouette 1991). NGO relief efforts often attempt to “create” social organisations within refugee communities by selecting people to work in camp administration, food distributions, and the provision of medical and educational services, which then prove to be untenable because they do not draw on, or may even contradict, traditional social organisation (Yu 1995; Cuny 1983). However there are other instances where refugees are well organised, such as the Saharawi refugees in Algeria or Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India, and NGOs and host governments have been willing to work through their organisations, resulting in high levels of refugee participation (Harrell-Bond 1981; Norbu 1994).


Camp Size and Sites

The camps are spread out all along the border and roughly divided by ethnic groups. There are four Karenni camps in Mae Hong Son province with a total population of 11,400. There are three Mon camps on the Burma side of the border across from Kanchanaburi, with a total population of approximately 10,000. The Karen population of 90,000 is spread over 17 camps in Tak, Mae Hong Son, Kanchanaburi, Prachuab Kiri Khan, and Ratchaburi Provinces. (All figures are from May 1997.) The border is over 2,000 km long, with thousands of potential crossing points. Camps have often been established close to wherever refugees crossed. The terrain is generally mountainous and, in places, heavily forested.

The average size of the refugee camps until mid-1995 ranged from 180 to 8,000. Most camps had a population of less than 5,000. Small camp size has been identified as important factor in promoting refugee participation (Cosgrave 1996). The Mon, Karen, and Karenni camps are sub-divided into sections for administrative purposes but the sections are all open. All camps have traditionally been open and they have, generally, had a village-like atmosphere. The lay out of the camps varies a good deal, but in all cases is planned by the refugee communities. Generally communal structures like hospitals and schools are in the middle of the camp. Offices and rice-stores tend to be at the entrance to the camp, or locations that are secure and not prone to flooding. Depending on water supply and decisions made by the camp committee and medical NGOs, water tanks or wells are set up at frequent intervals. Queuing for water is rare as the water supply is generally adequate and accessible. Most camps are located near or even beside streams, which are used for bathing and washing clothes. Although most camps are somewhat over-crowded, in some camps there is limited space to allow people to plant small vegetable gardens or even raise animals next to their homes, although these activities vary depending on the quality of the soil and how strictly RTG regulations concerning cultivation are enforced. Most camps are located far from Thai villages. Some camps are accessible only by foot, usually one or two days’ walk, in rainy season.


Access to Resources

The size, location, and openness of the camps have allowed the refugees to make use of the forest resources, although this varies by location, season, and regulation by local Thai authorities. People build houses out of bamboo with thatch roofs, made of leaves gathered from the forest. This is the traditional method of building houses in villages, although the houses in camps are smaller than in villages. In the camps, houses can be built without cash input, as typically no nails but only bamboo ties are used. Each year or two the thatch on the roof must be changed. Forest products are also a source of nutrition and cash income. Refugees gather edible forest vegetables, such as bamboo shoots, wild beans, and leaves, to supplement their diets. They can sometimes earn cash by selling forest vegetables or leaf thatch. The products are sold to Thai merchants who come into the camps, or to bus drivers along the main roads, who then sell them at local Thai markets.




The camp residents are overwhelmingly farmers from rural areas near the border. Several religions are represented in the camps-Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Animism. The Mon refugees are almost all Buddhist, however the Karen and Karenni refugees include Christians, Buddhists, and Animists. Some camps have significant Muslim communities. The Karenni camps are ethnically the most diverse, with populations of Karen, Shan, and many Karenni sub-groups. The refugees build their own religious buildings and every camp has at least one church or monastery and it is not uncommon to find camps with several different religious institutions. Religious festivals of all kinds, ranging from weekly Christian services to Animist ceremonies, are widely celebrated. It appears the refugees have sufficient resources to celebrate at least modified versions of religious festivals. Traditional family structures and support networks remain very much intact in the camps, and are crucial to refugee livelihoods as well as the maintenance of cultural identity.7

Generally, there have been few social problems reported in the camps. Theft and fighting do not seem to be major concerns. There have been no reports of rape or murder by camp members, although there are occasional stories of conflict with or abuse by Thai villagers or soldiers. However, in the larger camps, camp leaders express concern about gambling and drinking. Older people also worry that young people were not only losing traditional agricultural skills, but also losing respect for their elders and traditional authority (FEMCONSULT 1994). A matter of great concern to many camp leaders and residents is the possibility of girls and young women being drawn into Thailand’s burgeoning sex industry. 8



There are significant occupational differences among the refugee populations. While the refugees come predominantly from rural, agricultural backgrounds, there is more variety of occupations, both before and after coming to the camps, among the Mon. Traditionally, the Mon have engaged in fishing and trading, as well as lowland paddy farming. The Karen and Karenni are mostly farmers. According to the 1995 education survey, while in refugee camps, approximately 40% of the Karenni and Karen refugees and 20% of the Mon refugees surveyed in 1995 did some sort of agricultural work (CCSDPT 1995,1996). Some refugees can find work as daily labourers on nearby Thai farms or forest plantations, depending on how strictly the RTG prohibition on work outside the camps is enforced. Most camps have at least a few small shops where people earn money selling snacks, candles, batteries, clothes, and other sundries. In the larger camps there are significant markets where everything from running shoes to cassette players are sold, although these stores are typically owned by outside merchants, including Thais, who are not part of the registered population. Additionally some refugees work in health, education, and camp administration, though this work is not always remunerated.

The length of time spent in camp and camp moves significantly affect occupation and income. For example, almost 50% of Mon women gave their occupation as housework, whereas only 17% of Karenni women did (CCSDPT 1995). This may reflect not only cultural difference, but also the fact that many of the Mon are recent arrivals, and more long-term residents have also had to move several times. Consequently, they had not had time to establish themselves in work outside the home (CCSDPT 1995). The average income among the Karen refugees was 187 Baht/month, among Karenni refugees 325 Baht/month and among the Mon 309 Baht/month. (US $1 = 25 Baht.) The relative poverty of the Karen refugees is probably a reflection of economic disruption caused by camp consolidations, which took place just before the survey was done in 1995. (It should be noted that all statistics are from a 1995 survey and do not reflect the many new arrivals, camp moves, and growing restrictions on refugee activities in Thailand between 1995 and 1997.)



Levels of adult literacy vary but are generally low, around 60 – 80% at ages 15 and over. Almost 50% of Karen, Mon, and Karenni over 15 have received no formal education. The Karen have the highest levels of literacy and education among the three refugee groups. However, Pwo Karen Buddhist women have the lowest literacy rates on the border. Men tend to be better educated than women, in all groups. Among those who are literate, many can read or write both their native language and Burmese, although there is considerable variation across gender and ethnic group. For example, Mon women, if they are literate at all tend to be literate in both Burmese and Mon, or just Burmese, whereas many men are literate only in Mon. This is due primarily to access to monastic education in Mon villages, traditionally open only to men and conducted in Mon language. Among the Karenni, few literate Karenni are literate in Kayah language (the language with the largest speaker population among the Karenni) due to the fact that Kayah script has only recently been developed. Education structures, as well as religious organisations, have played a crucial role in maintaining cultural identity and community integrity in the refugee communities. Until recently, Thai was seldom taught in refugee camp schools.






The camps are administered under the refugee committees and all assistance is supposed to be channelled through the refugee committees. The refugee committees are responsible for negotiating the location of camps, maintaining records of population figures, assisting in the establishment of administration in new camps, liaison with the NGOs and Thai authorities, producing monthly reports, and, in some areas, arranging transport of supplies to camps. The monthly reports are submitted to the Ministry of Interior, the RTG body responsible for refugee issues, and copied to NGOs. The reports contain camp population figures, a list of relief items received, a map of the camps locations, and a narrative report. The MNRC reports are particularly detailed and analytical. Refugee committees are also responsible for the maintenance of roads to some camps, in co-operation with the camp committees – an important and formidable logistical task.

The refugee committees have placed a great deal of importance on self-sufficiency. For example, some groups have asked for only a portion of the food ration they are entitled to receive (FEMCONSULT 1994). For many years, the Karenni divided their camp population between those who required relief rations and those who did not. Often refugees, particularly new arrivals, will make clear what they can provide for or make themselves, as well as what outside help they require. Women’s committees and youth committees exist in many camps and engage in various forms of social welfare activities, such as raising funds for religious holidays or starting small scale income-generation projects, such as weaving projects.


Camp committees

Camp committees, with a camp leader and section leaders, administer the camps. Camp committees are either elected or appointed by the political authorities; in some cases the camp leader is appointed but section leaders are elected. In addition to the section leaders, others may be appointed to the committee, such as the school headmaster or headmistress or representative of the women’s or youth organisations. All camp committees have some female members, though only one camp, Huay Ka Loke, has a female camp leader (FEMCONSULT 1994). While NGOs have sometimes expressed a desire to see more women, as well as more religious diversity in the make-up of refugee and camp committees, they have not intervened in the selection of committee members. The leadership structures seem to operate according to traditional hierarchies of age and education, as well as kinship ties.

The camp committees are responsible for all aspects of camp administration. This includes the registration of the population, in the case of new camps, or registering new arrivals, births, and deaths in established camps. They are responsible for maintenance and sanitation, resolving disputes and maintaining social harmony, organising transport and referral for medical emergencies, and camp security. Leaders also must ensure that community members follow the camp regulations and impose penalties on those who don’t. Ultimately, the responsibility for accountability and transparency in aid distribution, particularly food aid, also rests with them (FEMCONSULT 1994, 1996).

The time individuals serve as camp leader varies. In some camps there are regular elections or turnover of leaders and committees, in others the same leader stays in the post for a long time. Often camp leaders are people with “traditional” legitimacy as leaders, such as those who are particularly well-educated senior community members, former village headmen, or retired political leaders. When camp leaders are unpopular, there are mechanisms for refugee communities to bring about a change in leadership, though not necessarily through direct elections. Political factors can also play a role: after the emergence of the DKBA (see below), a number of Christian Karen camp leaders resigned out of fear that they would be targeted by the DKBA. In the Karenni camps, the camp leaders are appointed by the Ministry of the Interior of the Government of the Karenni, which is elected by KNPP members. The traditional openness of the camps has also meant that refugees could move from one camp to another if they had a dispute with a camp leader.

The position of camp leader or section leader is often not particularly desirable. There are many pressures, including ensuring the basic well-being of camp residents, distributing supplies equitably, resolving conflicts, negotiating with RTG authorities and NGOs, and ensuring security in the camps. For example in one of the largest Karen camps. However no one could be found to take his place. The camp leadership, particularly in new refugee camps, is often just adapted from village or district leadership organisations. These structures are surprisingly resilient and adaptable. For example during the 1995 offensive, in newly established camps, some groups who had been in Thailand for less than a week had already appointed a camp committee, section leaders, and a camp leader. They had begun to assign house-plots, build houses, build the school and hospital, and had already identified and begun recruiting teachers and medics. The fact that the refugee communities have maintained the camp administrative systems, rather than living under systems imposed by the Thai authorities or relief agencies, has been integral to refugee participation.




Analysts of refugee assistance programs have suggested that refugee “participation,” to be effective and sustainable, must start in the “emergency” phase of the crises, rather than being “introduced” later on (Cuny 1983; Clark 1985). One of the most commonly identified failings of assistance programs is that they are built on the assumption that the social organisation of refugee groups collapses in the process of flight, and programs are created which do not encourage refugee participation or empower refugee organisations (Kibreab 1993). Lack of participation by refugees not only disempowers the refugees themselves but also undermines NGO planned programs (Clark 1985; Jok 1992). Along the Thailand-Burma border, NGO policy has traditionally built on, rather than undermining, the refugees’ community organisation and administrative capacity. Furthermore, the fact that the situation developed relatively gradually has meant that there was no “emergency” phase as such, requiring large initial inputs of material and managerial assistance. Once established the basic systems of refugee organisation and assistance could accommodate new arrivals without major changes in policy, until 1995.

Concomitantly, there has generally been strong co-ordination among NGOs. Refugee participation and NGO co-ordination appear to be distinct issue, but are related. Before the refugees crossed the border into Thailand, there was co-ordination, sharing of information, and some understanding of Burma’s ethnic minorities among NGOs (CCSDPT 1984). As a result of the refugee crises on the Cambodian border, many of the agencies that worked on the Burma border already had considerable experience in the region. From the outset, NGO staff, journalists, embassy staff, and other interested parties met regularly and exchanged information about the situation, particularly in the wake of the uprising inside Burma in 1988 (Caouette 1991). From the outset, NGO staff recognised the resourcefulness, organisation, and self-sufficiency of the refugees (Caouette 1991; USCR 1986). Given familiarity with the situation and the culture and organisation of the refugees, NGOs were able to work directly with the refugee committees and camp administration, rather than impose a structure of their own. The existence of strong NGO co-ordination bodies before the start of a refugee emergency or set up early on has been identified as important factor in sustained NGO co-ordination (Von Bernuth 1996). Finally, through strong NGO co-ordination the precedent of non-intrusive programming and co-operation with the refugee organisations was set early on and shared with new NGOs as they sought to establish programs.

In contrast to many situations NGOs working on the Thailand-Burma border have maintained an institutional knowledge of the local political, social, economic, and cultural dynamics of the situation (de Waal 1988; Jok 1992). Many staff members speak Thai, Burmese, or Karen. There are also local NGOs with good document centres. Monthly co-ordination meetings in Bangkok start with a review of events and political developments inside Burma as well as on the border, and are often attended by 50-100 people. Out of this climate has grown a strong emphasis on refugee self-sufficiency as well as co-ordination among NGOs.

Like the RTG, many NGOs were also anxious to avoid some of the mistakes made initially in the Indochinese refugee camps, such as duplication of effort and the creation of health and education structures of higher quality than those in the surrounding Thai villages. NGOs also wanted to ensure that camps remained small, the refugees as self-sufficient as possible, and that “aid dependency syndrome” not be fostered. When the first Karen refugees arrived and formed the KRC, the Thai Ministry of the Interior (MOI) invited NGOs to provide emergency assistance and restricted aid to essential items. As a result the Consortium of Christian Agencies was formed to provide food and other relief items. The Consortium of Christian Agencies was renamed the Burmese Border Consortium (BBC) in 1989. The RTG mandated from the outset that assistance to the camps was to be minimal, including only staple foods, clothing, and medical assistance, with as little expatriate involvement as possible. This encouraged NGOs to deliver assistance through the KRC and camp committees, rather than creating an NGO administration on the camps. This established the basic model for assistance on the Thailand-Burma border.

Assistance to the camps is co-ordinated through the Co-ordination Committee for Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand; an umbrella group of NGOs established in response to the Indochinese refugee crises in Thailand. Most NGOs working in the camps are members of CCSDPT. Originally a Karen Sub-Committee of the CCSDPT was formed in 1984 and later renamed the Burma Sub-Committee. The CCSDPT acts as a body through which MOI, the body within the Thai government responsible for the refugees, can communicate with NGOs. The combination of RTG and NGO policy, together with the refugee committees, has allowed the refugees to live in small camps with access to resources, under their own administration. Furthermore the refugees have been allowed to assume full control of their religious, cultural, educational, and, to a lesser extent, medical institutions.


Food Aid

Almost all food and other basic relief items are provided by the BBC. The consortium consists currently of five member agencies, which meet monthly. Originally the consortium was designed to pool the resources of member agencies, which undertook to raise money individually from their donors. The program now has a yearly budget of several million dollars and the number of donors far exceeds the current membership. The consortium structure has had important implications for the program. Decisions have been made jointly at meetings, informed by discussion with BBC field workers and field workers from member agencies. The consortium structure has also meant that assistance to the refugees has not been hostage to the agenda of any one donor organisation or government.

The working philosophy of the BBC is to provide relief goods consistent with RTG regulations and living standards in the border areas, minimise expatriate staff, promote refugee self-sufficiency, minimise aid dependency, and foster the preservation of cultural identity among the refugee community (FEMCONSULT 1994). A common criticism of assistance programs that is they do not take into account refugees’ ability and need to maximise their own resources (Cosgrave 1996; Harrell-Bond 1992; Kibreab 1993). Recognising the ability of the refugees to maximise their resources, whether through access to forest products, garden plots, or wage labour, it has always been the policy of BBC to offer a minimal aid package. BBC has never intended to provide a ration that met full protein, caloric, and micro-nutrient requirements. The program is premised on refugee access to additional sources of food and income. Further, the same standard of assistance is offered to all camp communities, and specific groups or individuals are not targeted (FEMCONSULT 1994). Some camps may choose not to accept certain items or full rations, but a great deal of effort has been made to ensure that all camps have equal access to rations.

The food items include rice, salt, and fish paste. Other items include blankets and mosquito nets once a year, as well as sleeping mats and cooking pots as needed. BBC also provides yellow beans to camps where there are a large number of new arrivals, or where medical agencies can demonstrate a nutritional need for them. The BBC food ration provides 16kg of rice per month per adult, 8kg of rice per child, which supplies approximately 1800 Kcal/day. 1 Kg of fishpaste and .3Kg of salt are also supplied per person per month. BBC also provides food for some supplemental feeding programs for pregnant/lactating women and underweight children. An evaluation of the BBC program in 1994 and a re-evaluation in 1996, found that food security in the camps was good, under-nourishment rare, and that the program promoted self-sufficiency and maximisation of resources among the refugees (FEMCONSULT 1996, 1994).

The storage and distribution of the rice is organised by the camp committee. In camps that are not accessible in rainy season, rice must be stockpiled for six months or longer. Rice is distributed at the time of delivery, which is usually monthly. In camps where rice has been stockpiled, it is also distributed every month. A margin for emergencies is maintained in some camps, depending on the season and location. The rations are calculated per person, and each family has a ration book where their total entitlement is stated. The camp committee keeps the same information in a camp ledger. At the time of distributions, refugees are called section by section to the rice store. Camp committee members, or people assisting them, measure out the rations. The amount each family receives is entered in the ration books and camp ledger. Distributions are orderly and great care is taken that measurements are equal and exact. Rice sacks are periodically weighed upon arrival at the camp to make sure they are full weight, when sacks are underweight or the quality of rice poor, rice shop owners make up the difference, generally without question. (FEMCONSULT 1996, 1994)

The food aid program is highly cost effective, with low staff costs and overhead expenses. In 1993, the BBC program cost only $43 per beneficiary per year (BBC 1993). The costs have increased substantially as two new staff people have been added, more materials have had to be provided for some camps, and the price of rice in Thailand has risen substantially. The cost for the first half of the year in 1996 was $85 per person per year (BBC 1996). It is anticipated that the costs for 1998 will be $96 per person per year. Until 1994, two expatriate field workers and an administrator in Bangkok served the entire refugee population (approximately 70,000). In 1995, another field co-ordinator was added and another in 1997. It is anticipated that two Thai field workers will be hired in 1997. BBC field workers purchase rice locally, based on numbers supplied by the camp committees and refugee committees, and arrange transport to the camps, usually through the rice stores. They are also responsible for monitoring the procurement and delivery of supplies.


Accountability, Transparency, and Trust

The entire system of assistance delivery and camp administration is premised on high levels of trust and co-operation between the refugee populations and aid agencies. The onus for end-use accountability rests ultimately with the camp committees. There is a freedom from degrading monitoring systems such as counting heads or marking people with paint during registrations or food distributions (Harrell-Bond 1992). The authors of the 1994 and 1996 evaluations stated that the BBC trust in the refugee communities was well founded, even though “outsiders who have not visited the camps may have some difficulty in accepting such a situation.” (FEMCONSULT 1996) Many refugee assistance programs are predicated on mistrust between refugees, who are construed as inherently untrustworthy by aid agency staff, donors, and host governments (Voutira and Harrell-Bond 1992; Jok 1992). However the strengths of systems based on trust of refugee populations to register themselves and run their own food distributions are have been documented.

Many attempts by NGOs or host governments to “count” and “register” refugee populations are not only disempowering, but also ineffective as a basis for either establishing the real size of the refugee population or meeting the needs of the refugees ( Harrell-Bond 1992; Voutira et alia 1995). Attempts by NGOs or host governments to target distributions, in order to preclude abuses or help only vulnerable populations can also lead to a significant portion of the refugee population simply not receiving enough food. Reynell documents such a situation in her discussion of the “women only” food distributions in the Khmer camps (Reynell 1989). Food distributions that have been organised by recipients themselves have been described as showing a high degree of equity, transparency, and accountability (Buchanan-Smith 1993; James 1992). The system of food aid distribution on the Thailand-Burma border has not only engendered refugee participation and a co-operative working relationship between NGOs and refugee communities but has, arguably, more effectively met the needs of the refugees than a system set up and run by an aid agency alone.

Given the small size of the camps, rice distribution and other public activities are essentially monitored by the camp committees and the refugee communities themselves. Monitoring methods employed by BBC staff, are generally non-intrusive, such as counting houses, checking rice stocks (sacks in/sacks out), camp records, making a note of new houses, or comparing actual versus expected distributions during a camp visit. Systems for monitoring the end use of the rice in the camps that provide accountability, without undermining the trust and co-operation between the program and the camp committees, have been developed. (FEMCONSULT 1996, 1994). The agencies comprising the BBC have maintained that a relationship with the refugee communities based on trust, refugee participation, and self-sufficiency is inherently preferable to a relief program run by an international agency where the refugee organisations become marginalized.

The contribution of such a program to refugee dignity and moral is crucial. The refugees’ pride in their homes, children, and themselves is striking. 9 There is nothing to “reward poverty” (Jok 1996). Relations between BBC, other NGOs, and the camp committees and refugee committees are necessarily consultative, with frequent meetings and discussion about all stages of the assistance delivery process. Additionally, since many relief workers speak local languages, they are able to communicate with teachers, medics, or women’s association members. It is therefore possible to ask questions about the situation or re-confirm information provided by leaders. Finally, until recently, there has never an impression of international staff or the Thai authorities running the camps – weeks could pass in some camps without a visit from NGO staff members.




Educational services in the camps have been organised by the refugee communities, under the administration of the Karen, Mon, or Karenni education departments. Education is valued very highly by all the groups on the border (CCSDPT 1995, 1996). All camps have at least a primary school and sometimes a middle school. The Karenni and Mon each have one high school and the Karen have several. Students from camps that do not have high schools or middle schools board at the camps where these facilities are available. New refugee communities usually build schools within a few weeks of arriving in Thailand. As a formal mandate for education services in the camp from MOI was only granted at the end of 1996, there has been comparatively little assistance from NGOs for education. Every year the BBC and a number of other NGOs distribute basic stationery supplies to camp schools. Other goods and services are supplied to the different populations on an ad hoc basis. There has been an emphasis, among NGOs, on keeping educational assistance “appropriate” to camp settings and the conditions to which refugees will eventually return to inside Burma.

Schools in the camps have been built and staffed by the education departments. All camp schools are built of bamboo with thatch roofs. Work on the school buildings is done by camp members, although sometimes carpenters are hired from within the camp if funds are available or the buildings are particularly large. Teachers are recruited either from the camp populations or from inside Burma. The Mon and Karen education departments have organised yearly training of new teachers as well as periodic continued training for experienced teachers. The Karenni have run a number of English teacher-training courses, but have only recently introduced general teacher training. Throughout most of the refugee crises, training has taken place without any input from NGO staff or international teachers.

The education survey, not surprisingly, pointed to a number of important problems with education in the refugee camps. In all three populations, but particularly among the Mon, enrolment is low and student drop out rates are very high. Rote learning, an emphasis on language study, and the over-riding importance of exams have contributed to the high failure and drop out rates. Many children also drop out because their families need their labour. Lack of training, low or non-existent salaries, and difficult work conditions leads to high turnover rates among the teachers. Most teachers have only a high school or middle school education. Camp moves have been very disruptive of education and have contributed to the high drop out rates. However the high levels of motivation of many teachers and the high value placed on education have sustained the education systems.

NGO funding for education work is reviewed and co-ordinated through the Education Working Group of the CCSDPT Burma Sub-Committee, which meets monthly. A similar working group co-ordinates the activities of medical agencies. The refugee groups send proposals to the Education Working Group that generally include a description of the need, the proposed project, the implementing body, and a budget. The proposal is reviewed at the meetings and it is decided which NGOs, often more than one, will provide funding. Generally the refugee groups implement the projects, requiring only cash inputs from the NGOs, except in the case of training. Proposals pertain to such diverse projects as the printing of ethnic language textbooks, teacher training programs, or building supplies for schools. Agencies attempt to keep educational support even across the different populations but it is widely recognised that this is not always possible. The working group provides an example of how NGOs can respond to needs articulated and projects initiated by community groups. The medical agencies necessarily followed a more standard “relief” model, with considerably more managerial and material input, although there was also a strong emphasis on training among the medical agencies. (For a more detailed discussion of this issue see Demusz 1997b).




While there have been many advantages of the system of camp administration and assistance on the Thailand-Burma border, there have also been significant drawbacks. The acute limitations of protection without UNHCR involvement have become all too apparent since 1995, as will be discussed in the next section. Secondly, there has been little attempt to address the structural inequalities in the refugee communities through development programs. Assistance on the border has always been equally available for all camp residents and considerable effort is made to ensure that all populations receive equal amounts. However, there has been little discussion of how to address the economic inequalities among some refugee populations. This is in part because of the strict limitations of the RTG mandates, but also because of the desire on the part of NGOs to empower the refugee communities, with little critical examination of power relations or differences in living standards within and among the communities. Further, vulnerable groups as they are usually defined, such as single parent households, widows, unaccompanied minors, or the disabled have been cared for by the larger populations. The vulnerability of less visible groups, such as poor families or minority populations within camps, such as Karen in Mon camps, Mon in Karen camps, or Muslims in predominantly Christian or Buddhist camps has seldom been examined. Since the refugees depend on pooled labour and resources, including the borrowing of household goods or food, such minority populations may not have access to such resources. These questions pose a policy dilemma for NGOs. An alternative would have been NGO implementation of development, income generating projects, or training programs from the outset, which might have addressed the inequalities in the camps, without undermining the refugee organisations.

In some groups there is considerable economic stratification, probably reflecting family wealth or status which existed before people came to refugee camps. According to the education survey, 16% of Mon and Karenni families reported no cash income, the mean income was about 300 Baht a month, and 10% of the population earned 750 Baht or more a month (CCSDPT 1995). Those who are economically better of, politically well connected, or religiously affiliated with powerful groups (these factors are not necessarily synonymous), have often had disproportionate access to resources. They tend to be better educated and speak English. Therefore, they have often been able to raise money or find supplementary supplies, either for their own families or for their camps, through personal connections. CCSDPT and individual NGOs have always encouraged co-ordination and provided briefings to interested NGOs, individuals, or donor groups. Nevertheless individuals or donors have sometimes given uncoordinated assistance. This is particularly noticeable in the area of education, among the more prosperous, predominantly Christian Karen camps. Certain schools have been able to access outside resources and have received disproportionate amounts of assistance. There has been improvement in the wake of the education survey, the documentation of educational assistance in all the camps, and concerted efforts by NGOs to ensure equity.




The combination of RTG policy, refugee organisation, and NGO response created a situation along the Thailand-Burma border in which refugees enjoyed relative autonomy, access to resources, and cultural independence in a situation of relative stability and security. NGO programs, particularly food assistance, could be run in a non-intrusive, cost-effective way, designed to encourage refugee self-sufficiency. Much credit goes to the RTG for allowing the refugees to remain in relatively small camps with access to some outside resources. However, since 1995, circumstances have changed drastically. Security in the camps has deteriorated, refugees have been forcibly repatriated, and the RTG has imposed restrictions on refugee activity in Thailand. These changes have increased the refugees’ dependence on relief assistance. Refugee protection and the provision of asylum in Thailand have emerged as the most pressing issues.




The DKBA and the Fall of Manerplaw

One of the most significant events along the border in the 1990’s was a split within the ranks of the KNU and the formation of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army (DKBA). At the end of 1994, several hundred KNU soldiers split from the KNU and formed, with the help of SLORC, the DKBA. The split, ostensibly along religious lines, had its roots in the significant economic and political inequities between Buddhists and Christians within the KNU. Christians had greater access to economic opportunities and promotion under the KNU administration. In KNU schools, there are serious disparities in educational attainment between Christians and Buddhists. The KNU leadership was aware of the discontent within among the rank and file, the majority of whom were Buddhist, but took few effective steps to address the problems. The split severely weakened the troop strength and morale of the KNU, quickly leading to the fall of the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw. Manerplaw had not only served as the headquarters of the KNU but also the centre of opposition activities along the Thailand-Burma border. The emergence of the DKBA has had enormous implications for the refugees, political opposition based along the border, and NGO assistance programs.

With the KNU troops driven out of their base areas along most of the border, the refugee camps were open to attack from the Burma side of the border. Many Karen camps were, or still are, less than ten kilometres inside Thailand. The DKBA was intent on both carrying out vendettas against individual Christian KNU leaders and driving the Karen refugee community back to Burma. The DKBA and SLORC clearly perceived the refugee camps as support bases for the Christian KNU leadership. The DKBA quickly became the biggest threat to security on the border. Since early 1995, the DKBA, with SLORC support, has carried out dozens of attacks on the refugee camps, roads, and Thai villages. Dozens of refugees and Thai villagers have been killed or kidnapped, five camps have been completely burned down and a number of others partially destroyed millions of Baht in cash or property belonging to Thai villagers or refugees has been stolen. The DKBA has frequently threatened to kidnap refugee medics and doctors or expatriate NGO staff.

In addition to the threat to physical security, the atmosphere of fear and distrust created by the DKBA attacks has been tangible. SLORC is a known enemy, whereas, the DKBA is unpredictable. As former KNU soldiers, the DKBA soldiers know the terrain and camps well enough to launch quick, devastating attacks, and retreat into Burma. Further, the fact that the DKBA was made up of ethnic Karens meant that the people in camps didn’t know who might be a DKBA family member and who was not. Many Karen were bitterly disappointed by a split that pitted Karen against Karen. Many KNLA soldiers are said to have deserted rather than fight against other Karen. The atmosphere in the Karen refugee camps in 1995 underwent a palpable change. People talked of continual fear and growing distrust within the camp communities. This fear affected, and still affects, many aspects of day to day life. For example, parents were afraid to send their children to school for fear of attacks on the camp. People do not want to take on positions as camp committee members or medics, for fear they will be targeted. NGO staff can no longer stay over night in certain camps.

Security has also become a critical issue in the Karenni and Mon refugees. In January 1997, Karenni Camp #2, located less than an hour’s walk from the border, was attacked by forces from inside Burma. Two refugees were killed. The Mon refugees have also become increasingly vulnerable to attack by the Burmese army. The refugees at Halockhani have been living on the Burma side of the border since 1994 and vulnerable to attack by SLORC troops stationed at Three Pagodas Pass, twenty minutes drive away in dry season. The camp was attacked once in 1994 and has been visited by SLORC troops on a number of occasions. Most recently, 100 SLORC soldier camped in the camp for several days while meeting with their Thai counterparts to decide on border demarcation. Their presence caused great fear and tension within the camp community. Other Mon camps that were forced to move to the Burma side in 1996 (see Repatriation, below) are also vulnerable to attacks from Burmese army battalions based only a few hours walk away.




Mon Repatriation

In the wake of the Mon cease-fire in mid 1995, the Mon refugees came under intense pressure from the Thai authorities to “repatriate” during the 1996 dry season. The Mon camps simply moved to the Burma side of the border but in essentially the same settlements they were in on the Thai side. As it was, all but one of the Mon camps were already on the Burma side of the border. Ironically, just as camps were being forced to move to the Burma side of the border, several thousand new arrivals came to the camps. The camps are still assisted by NGOs because they are far from reaching food self-sufficiency. There have been some limited attempts at rice growing and other agricultural activities in the areas around the camps.

The Mon repatriation is unsatisfactory on many counts: there was no UNHCR or other mandated international monitoring; there has not been an end to the human rights abuses in their home areas; there has been no political resolution to the conflict; no guarantee of continued NGO access and assistance; the refugees have not returned to their homes but have stayed in camps near the border; and there is no international protection. The refugees have made clear that they are scared to go farther back into Burma. Many of them have not planted rice for fear that they will be forced to move again or because SLORC troops are too close to the available agricultural land. Although the Mon refugee camps are on the Burma side of the border, this by no means constitutes a “durable solution” to the Mon refugee situation. Since the Mon “repatriation” there has been growing concern among the refugees and NGOs that the Mon repatriation will serve as a model for the Karen and Karenni refugees. There is considerable fear that the refugees will be pushed back across the border in late 1998 or even 1997 once there has been a nominal halt in the fighting (Burma Issues 1997). (For a more extensive discussion of the Mon repatriation see JRS-AP 1996.)


Refoulement during 1997 Dry Season Offensive

In February 1997, Thai soldiers refused to allow approximately 200 Karen men and boys fleeing fighting in Burma to enter Thailand, forcing them back across the border into the areas from which they had fled. The soldiers put the women, children, and older people belonging to the same group on trucks, brought them to another area of the border, and also forced back into Burma. Only immediate international condemnation forestalled further pushbacks during the fighting between January and March 1997. Several other populations, new arrivals or groups of refugees from camps that had to move due to fighting, were forced back and forth across the border several times within the same period. Several thousand Karens tried to enter Thailand near the Mon camp at Halockhani but were denied permission.

Additionally there were numerous other instances of refoulement during the first half of 1997, including 1,000 Karen refugees in the south in the end of June, 300-400 Mon in the beginning of June, and 430 Shan in May. The Thai authorities maintain that since there is no active fighting, anyone entering Thailand from Burma is an “illegal immigrant”. Even temporary asylum in Thailand has become uncertain.




By mid-1995, the need for sustained international protection for the refugee population along the Thailand-Burma border was obvious. The events of 1997 have further demonstrated the need to preserve the refugees right to asylum in Thailand and protect refugees from refoulement by the Thai military. However, the mechanisms for increased international protection, specifically a UNHCR presence, have not been in place. The result has been an ad hoc, mixed response by the RTG, NGOs, the international community, and, to certain extent, UNHCR.


The Thai response has demonstrated increasing ambivalence toward the refugee population. On one hand the RTG must show itself to be providing at least minimal protection for the refugees in order to stave off international criticism, while attempting to move toward their own goal of a speedy repatriation and end to the refugee presence on the border. The result has been only an increased assertion of RTG control over the refugee communities, with erratic military protection. The RTG military response to the DKBA incursions has been mixed. The Thai military, while stationing more troops along the border, has for the most part avoided engaging the DKBA and Burmese troops. The RTG has preferred to portray the attacks as an internal Karen issue. However, the Thai military has come under not only international but also stinging domestic criticism for their reluctance to defend the border against attackers from Burma. Not only are the incursions a blatant violation of Thai sovereignty but also many Thais have been killed in DKBO attacks. On some occasions, Thai troops have successfully defended camps.


Amalgamation, camp moves, and increased RTG control

Since the early-mid 1990s, the RTG has sought to assert more control over the refugee camps in a number of ways. There have been increasing restrictions on NGO movements, such as the implementation of a camp pass system for NGO workers in 1995, more MOI requests for reports, and increasing bureaucratic obstacles to sending supplies to camps. Furthermore, the Thai authorities have established offices in some camps, notably the bigger camps like Mae La and Ma Ra Ma Luang. In these camps there is theoretically a Thai “camp commander” in charge of the camp. The RTG has also implemented a system of registration in several camps. The RTG authorities have carried out registration drives only sporadically in the past.

One response of the RTG to the DKBA incursions has been to amalgamate small camps into large ones. In mid-1995, five camps were combined with Mae La camp, creating a camp of 25,000 people, by far the largest on the border. In 1997, a number of other camps were consolidated and the RTG has stated on numerous occasions that they wish to consolidate still more camps, although the policy has yet to be implemented. In some of the older camps, camp markets have been closed down, camps have been partially fenced, and movement in and out is restricted. Increased numbers of Thai militia, answerable to local district offices, have been deployed in and around camps.10 These measures have been carried out in the name of protecting the refugees, but they also allow the RTG to control directly the camp populations. An obvious response to the attacks from the Burma side would be to locate the camps well inside Thailand. However, this option has been politically unacceptable to the RTG, as the government fears this would encourage the refugees to stay in Thailand and render repatriation logistically, and politically, thornier.

In Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi provinces, Thai military opposition to and control of the refugee population is most pronounced. The camps in these provinces have been designated as “temporary shelters.” Refugees have not been allowed to build houses but only bamboo platforms with a roof of plastic sheeting, which is insufficient protection in both dry season and rainy season. Rice is distributed every few days instead of once a month, and the local militia maintains a large presence and plays a role in camp administration. In addition, the camps are very over crowded and, unlike in other camps, there are long lines for water and bathing places. The medical NGOs have warned that there is high potential for epidemics. Furthermore, the camps are closed, the refugees are not allowed to go out of the camps, and access by NGO personnel is limited.

Although policies have been implemented differently in different areas of the border, the RTG has clearly asserted far more direct control over the new refugee population in Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi. This has been done both in the name of refugee protection, and/or keeping the new camps essentially “temporary” in nature. Bad living conditions are assumed to be a deterrent to new arrivals. Overall this change in policy has been interpreted as a product of the RTG’s close economic ties with Burma. The severity of the RTG response to refugees fleeing into Ratchaburi and Kanchanaburi provinces in particular is attributed to the economic importance for both countries of the Yadana gas pipelines (Burma Issues 1997; USCR 1997). The gas pipeline is being built to bring gas from fields off the coast of Burma to an electricity generating station in Thailand and will pass through this area. The RTG seems to view the refugees in this area as an impediment to the completion of the project. Even in other areas of the border, camp moves, increasing restrictions on refugee movements, and bad living conditions are also aimed at indirectly forcing refugees back to Burma. With every camp move, a certain number of families have left the camps, either to return to Burma, or to join the hundreds of thousands of illegal Burmese workers in Thailand. 11


NGO assistance programs, particularly the BBC program, have had to change significantly in response to the deterioration in security and the increased restrictions on the refugees since 1995. The BBC program was premised on the refugees’ ability to take care of many of their own needs. Camps had to be small enough for the local environment to sustain the population, located in or close to forested areas, and, most importantly, open. The consolidation of camps, the deterioration of security, and restrictions on refugee movements has undermined the refugees’ ability to meet their own needs. In camps where refugees are not allowed to cut bamboo or gather wood, or go out of the camp at all, the BBC has had to provide building materials, cooking fuel, and supplementary food stuffs, such as yellow beans and cooking oil, in addition to the regular rations. Furthermore, the increase in refugee population combined with the restrictions on refugee movements and administration has meant that BBC, as well as other NGOs, have had to hire more expatriate and Thai staff. The increase in NGO personnel has meant a more obvious expatriate and Thai involvement in the provision of assistance.


Particularly frustrating to the refugees and NGOs, is the tepid response of UNHCR to the situation. The DKBA incursions, the Mon “repatriation,” the refoulement of refugees, and the denial of asylum in Thailand have prompted calls for a greater role for UNHCR on the border. The refugee groups have repeatedly issued statements calling for a UNHCR presence and protection on the border (KRC 1997). However, the RTG has consistently refused to grant UNHCR a mandate to provide assistance and protection on the border. When asked by the KRC to allow UNHCR to work in the camps, an official from the Thai military replied that the situation did not warrant a UNHCR presence because the refugees were “victims of fighting inside Burma and not victims of warfare” (quoted in Burma Issues 1997). While UNHCR has periodically issued statements concerning the refugee situation and made visits to the border, they have generally been cautious in their involvement and appear reluctant to push the RTG too hard for a mandate. To their credit, in 1997, UNHCR staff members have been constantly visiting the border.

At the time of the Mon repatriation, UNHCR tried to extend their mandate in Burma to monitor the returning Mon refugees. While UNHCR has a mandate to monitor the return to Burma of the Rohinga refugees from Bangladesh, SLORC turned down their request to monitor the Mon.12 Even more worrying has been apparent UNHCR silence, or even collusion, in cases of refoulement or repatriation. When a group of Mon were sent back over the border in early June 1997, UNHCR was present as an observer. However given the fact that there were serious questions about the “voluntariness” of the repatriation and no possibility of monitoring on the Burma side, UNHCR’s own guidelines for repatriation were clearly not followed (JRS-AP 1997).

Even without official Thai permission, there remain numerous steps UNHCR could take to enhance their presence in the refugee camps. More regular representations to the RTG and local Thai authorities, more frequent consultation with the refugee communities, and a sturdier partnership with NGOs would increase UNHCR’s protection role. UNHCR co-operation and co-ordination with NGOs has been limited and there are a number of measures UNHCR could take to foster a more productive relationship. It has sometimes been left to NGOs to provide de facto protection to refugees, something they are neither mandated nor equipped to do. On numerous occasions in 1995 and 1996, UNHCR only looked into a given situation at the urging of NGOs. (For a detailed discussion of UNHCR’s role on the Thailand-Burma border and UNHCR/NGO partnership, see McCann.) “International protection” has often been provided only by the speedy response of foreign embassies, governments, or human rights organisations, combined with timely media coverage of a given situation. UNHCR has been criticised and compared unfavourably to NGOs in the Thai English language press for their perceived inaction.

A potentially thorny issue has been the relationship between assistance and protection. UNHCR has made plain that, in practice, a protection role often accompanies the provision of relief assistance. This implies that to fulfil a protection mandate on the Thailand-Burma border, UNHCR might assume responsibility for some services in the camps and/or take over the assistance programs in the camps. Consequently, NGOs have at times been ambivalent about UNHCR involvement, as they do not wish to see refugee participation and autonomy sacrificed to a more highly bureaucratised camp administration run by UNHCR.


The changes in the camps since 1995 have not only necessarily led to increased refugee dependence on assistance but also placed considerable strain on refugee organisations. The refugee and camp committees have in the past been able to manage the camps and maintain low levels of social conflict in part because the camps were relatively small and conflict could be resolved within the community itself. With the establishment of larger camps, camp leaders have reported more social problems, such as drinking, gambling, and the uncontrolled use and sale of medicines in the markets. In large camps it is considerably more difficult for the camp leaders and NGOs to maintain an overview of distribution and equity of access to relief services and goods.

The numerous camp moves and “temporary” status of some camps also have a great impact on refugee communities, both economically and socially. Camp moves mean greater food insecurity because families often lose access to forest resources, garden vegetables, or livestock in the process. While increased rations from BBC can address food insecurity, there is also a clear loss of moral. Refugees stop tending flowerbeds and crops, or repairing their homes when they learn they have to move. Education of children is disrupted, leading to higher dropout and failure rates, and greater age heterogeneity in classes (CCSDPT 1995). Refugees must also expend a lot of energy moving and building new homes, creating health risks. Camp moves are associated with higher incidence of disease, particularly malaria. Finally the collective loss of control and autonomy is a drain on the morale of the refugees, as well as NGO staff. Increased Thai militia presence, registrations, Thai camp administrations, and other controls may mean increased security but also sharply curtail the refugee autonomy, participation, and self-sufficiency that have been defining aspects of the situation.




Given the massive displacement on the Burma side of the border, the lack of security in the camps, and the RTG’s growing ambivalence about providing asylum to refugees from Burma, there is, arguably, more of an “emergency” along the Thailand-Burma border than at any other time since 1984. The combination of RTG policy, refugee community organisation, and NGO response created high levels of refugee participation and autonomy. However, since early 1995, many of the circumstances that gave rise to this system have changed completely. In the current emergency, protection has become the single most important issue.

As early as 1986, USCR warned that the RTG attitude towards the Burmese refugees would harden and called for the RTG to grant UNHCR a protection mandate (USCR 1986). Subsequent developments have shown that, just as creating “participation” once an assistance system has been established is difficult, creating mechanisms for international protection in an already long-running refugee situation is problematic. Given the massive changes between 1995 and 1997, it is clear that an assistance program handled by NGOs and refugee organisations, without UNHCR or other international protection, is no longer sufficient. International protection is required.

However, there is a perceived dilemma between protection and refugee autonomy and participation. More international protection is assumed to entail a greater role for people from outside the camp communities, whether NGO staff, Thai militia, or UNHCR staff, in the day to day running of the camps and assistance programs. However, the situation can also be viewed as an opportunity for all parties to combine successfully effective protection with strong refugee participation and autonomy. With adequate consultation and flexibility, it will be possible to introduce greater international protection while maintaining high levels of refugee participation. In concrete terms this will require constant consultation and co-operation with the refugee committees and experienced NGOs by UNHCR, demonstrating UNHCR’s willingness to work with localised assistance and administration systems.


Ultimately, much depends on the policies of the Thai government. Sustained international pressure is required to persuade the Thai government to continue extending asylum to refugees from Burma, refrain from refoulement and forced repatriation, and allow at least a greater role, if not official mandate, for UNHCR. The RTG, as host country government, has the most direct power over the conditions in refugee camps within its borders. In other situations where refugees have enjoyed autonomy and controlled their own assistance programs, such as the Tibetans in India or the Saharawi in Algeria, the support, or at least tolerance, of the host government has been essential. Successive Thai governments and local Thai authorities have shown themselves to be tolerant, if not sympathetic, to refugees from Burma. It is to be hoped that such tolerance can be renewed, at least until there is some mechanism for international protection on both sides of the border, or even lasting peace in Burma.

























1. All refugee population figures and camp locations are provided by the Burmese Border Consortium and date from May 1997.

2.The NGO I worked for was involved in both food assistance and education programs. For a good description of a medical agency program, see Demusz, “The International Rescue Committee’s Burma Border Program: Mae Hong Son Office Program History – The First Five Years 1992-1996.”

3. The RTG has not allowed refugee camps to be established along Thailand’s border with Shan State, roughly between the area just north of the town of Mae Hong Son and the town of Mae Sai. This has generally been interpreted as the RTG’s reluctance to draw attention to this area, which, on the Burma side of the border, is a major area of drug production.

4.Statistics provided by Karen Human Rights Group at information meetings in Bangkok, June, July 1996. See also reports by KHRG from these months.

5.UNHCR referred to the border populations as primae facie refugees in correspondence from the Acting Representative in Thailand to the Burmese Border Consortium in 1994.

6.Although the first refugee camps were set up after 1984, in fact individual Mon, Karen, and Karenni families affiliated with the NMSP, KNU, and KNPP had been living in Thailand for years. Some then moved into refugee camps, once the camps were established. There are also numerous families or whole villages from the Burma side of the border who have quietly settled in the border areas and acquired legal “hill tribe” status in Thailand.

7.Personal observation, my statements concerning camp life and camp communities stem from personal experience while visiting camps and discussions with camp leaders, medics, teachers, and other residents.

8. Over the last ten years, the number of Burmese women entering the sex industry in Thailand has grown immensely. A significant portion, if not a majority in some areas, of the sex-workers in Thailand now come from Burma. Border towns such as Mae Sot not only have a large local sex industry but are transit points for many Burmese women and girls who enter brothels in other cities and towns.

9.This pride is evident everywhere in the camps, from the flowers families have planted outside their houses, to the remarkable hospitality extended to guests.

10. Local Thai militia has always been theoretically responsible for protection of the camps and border villages, but in practice there has been little or no militia presence in many camps.

11. It should be noted that RTG policy still varies a great deal from one area of the border to the other. The area under the control of the 9th Infantry Division, often called the 9th army, in Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi provinces appears to be the most consistently problematic for the refugees and NGOs.

12.The repatriation of the Rohingas, including the role played by UNHCR, has been widely criticized as involuntary, or at least very badly implemented.


















BBC Burmese Border Consortium


CCSDPT Committee for Coordination of Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand


DKBA Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army


KNLA Karen National Liberation Army


KNPP Karenni National Progressive Party


KNU Karen National Union


KRC Karen Refugee Committee


MNRC Mon National Relief Committee


MOI Ministry of Interior

NGO Non-governmental Organization


NMSP New Mon State Party


RTG Royal Thai Government


SLORC State Law and Order Restoration Council


USCR U.S. Committee for Refugees


UN United Nations


UNBRO United Nations Border Relief Operation


UNHCR United Nations High Commission for Refugees
























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