Mae La Camp in Tak, Thailand

The ongoing refugee crisis at Thailand’s border

Terese Gagnon and Hayso Thako

Terese Gagnon and Hayso Thako

Terese is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Syracuse University. Her research examines Karen food, seed, and political sovereignty across homelands and diaspora. She is co-editor of the book Movable Gardens: Itineraries and Sanctuaries of Memory.

Hayso is currently a PhD candidate at Department of Peacebuilding, Payap University, Thailand. He has been working with refugee community and community-based organizations along the Thai-Burma border for the last 20 years. His research interests include refugee and IDPs, ethnic education and border issues in Thailand and Burma.

In the protracted struggle following the Myanmar coup, Thailand has an important role to play by continuing its legacy of accepting refugees. Will the Thai government show benevolence to refugees by welcoming them and scaling back its support for the Myanmar junta? The ongoing humanitarian crisis at Thailand’s border throws this decision into sharp relief.
Thailand has a track record of straddling the line between an outward appearance of limited (“hybrid”) democracy, and authoritarian military rule. Now, eight months after the 1st February 2021 Myanmar coup and ensuing intense violence against civilians, Thailand is at a critical juncture. Thailand is Myanmar’s most important neighbor, as the Southeast Asian Nation shares Myanmar’s longest border, and as Thailand’s leaders and companies have invested heavily in Myanmar. In addition, the countries’ militaries have a decades-long history of working closely together, even as Thailand has partnered with ethnic administrations in Myanmar’s borderlands. As such, Thailand has a crucial, yet still largely undetermined role to play in the ongoing struggle for power following Myanmar’s coup. One important way Thailand will influence the outcome of the coup, as well as security and stability in the region, is through its decision regarding acceptance and treatment of refugees. Since late March 2021, roughly 70,000 civilians in Karen State, located in Myanmar’s southeastern borderlands, have been displaced by the Myanmar military’s aerial bombings and ground attacks on their villages. Thailand has, thus far, largely declined to accept these refugees, and has limited the passage of aid to these displaced people.

The unresolved tragedy of armed conflict and displacement

Beginning on March 27th 2021, the Myanmar military has carried out aerial bombing of civilians in Karen State’s Mutraw District, close to Myanmar’s border with Thailand. Targets have included schools, hospitals, and mines as well as civilians’ homes and agriculture, with the aim of destroying villagers’ livelihoods. In addition, Myanmar forces have repeatedly shelled Karen villages. Tens of thousands of civilians in Karen State, like in other ethnic minority areas throughout the country, have been displaced and remain in hiding. The number of people displaced from their homes is likely to increase as the conflict continues and possibly escalates following the National Unity Government’s call on September 7th 2021 for a “Peoples’ Defensive War”. Recently, attacks by the Myanmar military in Karen State have expanded to target not only border areas controlled by Karen Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) but all districts of the state. This reflects the situation unfolding across the country, in which people from ethnic states, including Kachin, Shan, Chin, Mon, and others, along with residents of central Myanmar are increasingly becoming displaced due to fighting in their areas.

This spring, airstrikes by the Myanmar military on Karen villages increased following the Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) capture of a Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) base overlooking the Salween River. From this base, Myanmar soldiers had been firing on boats carrying aid to the displaced people. The intensification of airstrikes caused thousands more Karen villagers to flee. Meanwhile, those already in hiding from previous airstrikes were in danger of running out of food and supplies as the heavy monsoon began.

The forced migration of Karen civilians along the border briefly caught international headlines in late March 2021. At that time, 3,000 refugees fleeing bombings on their villages sought refuge in Thailand but were pushed back at the border by members of the Thai army. Following this, the Tatmadaw bombed multiple times near Ei Tu Hta Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camp. Although Ei Tu Hta has existed as an IDP camp for decades, many newly displaced people took sanctuary there since March. The residents of Ei Tu Hta went into hiding following these strikes. In the wake of these bombings, roughly 3,000 refugees fled to the Thai side of the border for a second time. Initially they were allowed to stay there informally. They were not accepted as refugees and aid workers were prohibited from assisting them. However, these refugees were sent back to the Karen side of the border later and aid was not permitted to pass to them. Since then, the living conditions of forcibly displaced people on the Karen side of the border remains remains highly tenuous, with many still hiding in the jungle and lacking adequate food, shelter, and medical care, and with attacks near the border continuing. Thailand’s cooperation is critical for refugees getting access to cross-border aid.

Even those displaced people who are very close to Thailand fear air attacks by the Tatmadaw. Indeed, it seems Myanmar fighter jets flew into Thai airspace to drop bombs on targets in Karen State. Such violations of Thai airspace, along with videos showing Thai soldiers delivering bags of rice to Myanmar soldiers who had their supply routes cut, undermine Thailand’s claims to be maintaining neutrality. In addition, live ammunition from fighting on the Karen side of the border struck a civilian on the Thai side of the border. The lack of security and ongoing fighting has forced Thai citizens living along the border to flee their villages.

Thailand has a protracted humanitarian crisis on its doorstep.

Meanwhile, nearly one-hundred thousand refugees from Myanmar are already living in camps in Thailand, which have existed for over thirty years. Due to the recent escalation in fighting in Karen areas in Myanmar, it will not be safe for them to return home soon.

For decades Thailand has played an important role in welcoming refugees from armed conflict and violent crackdowns in Myanmar. However, Thailand is not a signatory of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention. It remains to be seen whether the Thai government will continue its legacy of showing benevolence to refugees by accepting and providing temporary shelter to these tens of thousands of newly displaced people.

Mae La Camp in Tak, Thailand
Mae La Camp in Tak, Thailand, one of the largest of nine UNHCR camps in Thailand where over 700,000 refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons have fled. @Wikimedia Commons

Concerns for refugees

Providing sanctuary for people in need is a universal impulse. However, in Thailand a concern is emerging that there might be separate camps created for the purpose of housing different populations of people fleeing across the border. Thai authorities indicated in meetings with humanitarian groups that there could be separate camps created for members of the Civil Disobedience Movement, protestors, refugees from ethnic areas, etc. While there is no evidence that this is happening at present, any discussion of dividing refugees by groups is ominous. It could indicate that the Thai government has the intent to cooperate with the Tatmadaw by returning certain refugees. Such a move is ardently opposed by humanitarian groups on the border and should be just as strongly rejected by the UNHCR in Thailand. A demand from humanitarian groups on the border is that there be more information shared about the camps being created for new refugees.

There are nine camps already on the Thai side of the border, technically called “temporary shelters”. Some residents of these camps have been in Thailand for over thirty years. Many were born and grew up in the camps. The Myanmar military has historically seen the camps in Thailand as a rebel outpost or a “rebel family” and in the past even launched cross-border attacks there. For this reason, among others, Thailand likely does not want to anger the Tatmadaw by creating camps for new refugees. However, we argue that Thailand should understand that a possibility for a stable and peaceful future in Myanmar does not exist under the Tatmadaw’s rule. Rather than appeasing the junta, Thailand should build inroads with the National Unity Government and continue to engage with ethnic administrations as they have in recent years. Thailand should draw on support from its regional and international partner countries to welcome refugees.

Since 2014, the Thai government has been pushing for existing camps to be closed and for their refugees to be repatriated. However, the current residents of the nine camps along the border will not be able to return home soon due to the newly intensified violence. It is important to note that violent conflict never stopped in Karen and many other ethnic areas of the country even during the ceasefire period. Before the coup, when it was assumed that Myanmar was moving toward democracy, the UNHCR also promoted repatriation. This effort has resulted in the gradual decrease of aid to refugees on the border including less rations, and less support for every aspect of life. As such, many of the NGOs that operated on the border in past decades gradually moved most of their operations and funding “inside” Myanmar and away from the border in the years leading up to the coup.

This has led to the present situation in which camp residents are living in an impossible situation. They have no freedom of movement or right to work or own land. They lack sufficient housing materials, healthcare, and other essential services, and are not permitted to forage in the forests that surround the camp. Many refugees struggle for their daily needs. Yet, they are still unable to return to Myanmar.

The recent heavy fighting on the Myanmar side of the border, especially the aerial bombings of villages throughout Karen state clearly illustrates that it is not possible for current refugees to return home soon. Therefore, provisions should be made to guarantee them a dignified life, including freedom of movement and the right to safe and legal work in addition to adequate aid for the camps. Recently the UNHCR has reiterated to Thai authorities the message of the humanitarian umbrella group, The Border Consortium (TBC), that refugees should be allowed to work legally outside the camps. If the Thai government were to agree to this, it would be an important step towards ensuring that refugees are able to provide for their daily needs safely and legally.

In addition to this, we suggest that the UNHCR and international governments should commit to funding sufficient humanitarian aid at the border. If the UNHCR and international governments make serious commitments to provide humanitarian aid to refugees, including reopening resettlement routes, Thailand will only need to provide the land for them. Moreover, if the Thai government allows camp residents freedom of movement and the right to work legally and with dignity, they will not have to use their police to provide security for the camps.

Possible paths forward

In the eight months since the Myanmar coup Thailand has not shown its position clearly. Some of the Thai government’s actions have indicated their cooperation with and support for the Myanmar coup regime. However, these have mostly been low-stakes actions to appease their neighbor. Thailand’s leaders may be unwilling to take more visible actions to support the Myanmar junta in their attacks on civilians.

Currently the Tatmadaw’s attacks along the Thailand-Myanmar border are threatening not only the lives of villagers in Karen State but also the safety of Thailand’s own citizens. The civil war that the Tatmadaw is intensifying is threatening Thailand’s security and the security of borderland populations. If Thailand were to welcome refugees, they would be helping to maintain security at their border while showing benevolence to people greatly in need.

Due to the intensifying fighting throughout Myanmar, there is a strong possibility that more forcibly displaced people will soon seek refuge in Thailand. We suggest that Thailand needs to be prepared to receive these refugees, and to offer humane living conditions for them when they arrive. This includes freedom of movement and the right to work legally outside of the camps.


Terese Gagnon and Hayso Thako


Received: 29.05.21, Ready: 11.10.21. Editors: Dawn Chatty, Robert Ganley

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