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Myanmar: Refugees still on the run
NewsNotes, March-April 2010

The following article is a section from this larger piece originally published by the Inter Regional News Service.

A year ago, the world was shocked by images of boatloads of ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar being pushed out to open sea off the Thailand coast to fend for themselves with little food or water.

The plight of the Muslim Rohingya boat people from Myanmar's northern Rakhine State galvanized international attention, and highlighted a refugee crisis that seemingly has become part of the region's geopolitical make-up.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Myanmar is the largest source of refugees in Southeast Asia; globally, it ranked 13th behind Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia at end-2008.

In what is described by the UN and specialists as one of the world's most intractable refugee situations, people have been fleeing Myanmar for more than a quarter of a century.

Ethnic conflicts

Analysts say the root causes of Myanmar's refugee exodus lie in the ethnic and political conflicts since independence in 1948 from the British.

Myanmar, with an estimated population of 57.6 million, is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Southeast Asia.

About two-thirds of the population are ethnic Burmese, while the remainder are Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chinese, Mon and Indian, as well as the Akha, Chin, Danu, Kachin, Kokang, Lahu, Naga, Palaung, Pao, Rohingya, Tavoyan and Wa peoples. There are about 135 ethnic sub-groups, according to the government.

The minorities live mostly in the hills and mountains bordering Bangladesh, China, India, Laos and Thailand, while the Burmese are found in the central alluvial plains and major towns and cities.

The military, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962, has sought a centralized, unitary state, while ethnic groups want a federal structure and greater independence and autonomy, as well as greater recognition of their cultures.

"The root problem is that the government does not recognize ethnic aspirations and appears to want total military victory. Nothing will improve if that's what they want to do," said Jack Dunford, executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which provides food and shelter in nine refugee camps in Thailand, one of 18 NGOs working in the camps.

While several armed ethnic groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the government, there are long-running insurgencies in the country's border regions by groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU).

The insurgencies, the government's counter-insurgency strategies and growing militarization have seen civilian populations increasingly bearing the brunt of the conflict and fleeing.

Forced labour by the military, the forced relocation of villages, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, arbitrary detentions, and discrimination against ethnic minorities are all cited as concerns in Myanmar by the UN and international rights groups.

Regional action urged

Burmese refugee populations are mainly found in Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India, though some Rohingya travel as far afield as Saudi Arabia.

The refugees are vulnerable to human traffickers and people smugglers. Where there are no refugee camps, they receive little support and are routinely subject to detention, discrimination, harassment and exploitative working conditions, rights groups say.

None of the main asylum countries in Asia is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, leaving Burmese refugees with little protection or recognition of their rights.

Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for UNHCR, said many Asian countries lacked national refugee legislation, with the result that legitimate asylum seekers and refugees are instead treated as migrants in breach of immigration laws.

Countries "feel the right place for them is in an immigration detention centre. So they quite often put people in detention who we think are asylum seekers and refugees," she said.

With few prospects for change in Myanmar's domestic politics, rights groups have long urged regional governments to exert political pressure on the military government to reform.

"Burma has been like a pressure cooker and the international community has worked [hard] over the past few decades to ease the pressure minimally," said Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the rights group, Altsean-Burma. "There hasn't been the political will to fundamentally resolve the root causes that have pushed people out of Burma."

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar, has maintained a policy of "constructive engagement" with the country and does brisk trade with it.

Myanmar, rich in natural resources such as oil, gas, and timber, also counts regional superpowers China and India among its allies, helping to buffer international criticism.

"We need to understand holistically that all of these things are connected, that working with the regime for short-term gain or trying to accommodate the regime's misbehavior for the sake of geopolitical interests entails the cost of receiving asylum seekers and hosting them," said Stothard.

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