KAREN STATE, Myanmar – As Myanmar’s foreign minister and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the U.N. General Assembly this week in New York, many saw her presence as a step in the right direction for the southeast Asian nation that is undergoing political transition.
While international support for the Nobel laureate remains strong, Suu Kyi has garnered criticism for her handling of refugee issues in Myanmar.
The most well-known of these issues are the Rohingya refugees. At least 800,000 Rohingya were made stateless in 1982, and today at least 250,000 live in neighboring Bangladesh and 140,000 are stranded in displacement camps inside the country. Some human rights advocates were dismayed by the humanitarian award that the leader received earlier this week, despite her reluctance to speak out more stridently on the Rohingya issue.
Yet, Suu Kyi’s contemplation of mass returns of displaced people from other ethnic minority groups should equally concern the international community.
In June, Suu Kyi met with Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan to discuss the repatriation of the over 100,000 refugees along the Thailand-Myanmar border. Although a concrete timeline was not specified, a reciprocal visit by Deputy PM Prawit took place shortly after, to “speed up” the process of checking documents of refugees for potential returns, according to media reports. Statements following the meeting suggested that “processing” of the refugees for return would begin as soon as possible.
Rumors of returns have been echoing through the refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border for many years. Political instability in Thailand over the past decade has led to several changes of government, and each successive takeover has led to renewed efforts to return refugees.
Before the so-called reform period in Myanmar, a comprehensive peace deal between the military dictatorship and non-state armed groups was out of reach, so the impetus for returns came mainly from the Thai authorities. But now, with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy forming a government majority and a wider-ranging peace deal signed in 2015, there is a stronger rationale for returns.
International human rights law and standards stipulate that conditions in the country of origin must be such that refugees feel that they are able to return to their homes “voluntarily, in safety and with dignity,” following displacement. Any reasonable assessment of the situation in Karen state in eastern Myanmar – where most refugees in Thailand are from – indicates that the current climate in Karen does not meet the basic precondition for returns.
If it did, the number of internally displaced people and refugees returning to Karen would have been much higher already. There are some 400,000 registered refugees from Karen in Thailand, and another 600,000 who are unclassified. Between 2013 and 2014, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) estimated that spontaneous returns to Karen state numbered 3,000. While UNHCR is not able to completely monitor all returns due to the nature of the security environment in Karen state, even if they were double that number, it would remain a small fraction of the total currently living in Thailand, reflecting a widespread reluctance to return.
So, what are the factors that can contribute to safe, stable returns? There are obviously many, but the most important are the security environment, the political landscape and housing, land and property issues.
Although the Karen National Union (KNU), the political representation of the Karen ethnic group, signed a peace deal with the government, Karen state remains heavily militarized. Clashes that took place between the Burma army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) in Karen state as recently as September 9 have forced an estimated 3,800 people from their homes.
A decades-long, chronic conflict between the KNU and government forces has made peace agreements fragile at best, and most refugees are suspicious about the stability of peace deals. Meanwhile, there were reports this week that state army officers met with displaced people to persuade them to return to their homes. Such disingenuous moves on the part of the government in the face of recent clashes do not allay the already ingrained fears of civilians.
The signing of the KNU peace deal as part of the nationwide cease-fire agreement was meant to lead to a political dialogue to form of a new administration in Karen state, but this has not yet happened. Given that only eight non-state armed groups have signed the nationwide cease-fire agreement, the stability of the cease-fire remains uncertain. The security environment is further complicated by the unresolved issue of mine contamination, which would stop returning civilians from accessing their homes and land in rural areas.
Further, issues of restitution and housing, land and property rights remain unresolved in Karen state. Myanmar’s National Land Law has yet to be drafted, and the National Land Use Policy on which it will be based is disconcertingly vague about the rights of returnees. The judiciary is not currently equipped to deal with the number of potential restitution claims that returnees would file. In the absence of conflict resolution mechanisms, continuing feuds over land and housing may drive further conflict and undermine the peace process.
Well-planned voluntary returns are of course a welcome idea for the refugees. But it is premature for Suu Kyi and her government to begin discussions of expedited returns before the basic issues of security, livelihood, housing, access to property and the judicial process are addressed. The new government would do well to avoid messages of expedited processing lest they provoke the fears of forced or rushed returns of refugees that ignore international legal standards. Such returns would not be sustainable and would only result in further instability inside the country and added challenges for humanitarian aid to reach returnees stranded in remote areas.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.