Last week, Thai and Burmese Officials agreed at bilateral meetings to repatriate illegal Burmese migrants. The plan has some 100,000 ethnic Shan people here wondering how they might be affected.
Published in The Nation (Bangkok) on Monday, January 14, 2002
Story and photos by Daniel Gawthrop
One afternoon last May, at a temporary shelter for displaced persons in the Fang district of Chiang Mai province, I stood by and watched helplessly as 48 ethnic Shan migrants were rounded up like cattle by Thai immigration officials.
This downtrodden group of mostly women and children had gone through no end of hardship to arrive at this Thai schoolyard sanctuary. First they fled torture, rape and slavery at the hands of Burmese soldiers in their own villages. Then they crossed the border to avoid gun battles between Shan State Army rebels and Wa forces loyal to Rangoon. By any definition of the term that includes flight from life-threatening danger, these people certainly qualified as “refugees”.
But Thai authorities didn’t see it that way. Instead, two Immigration officers separated the Shan from the 629 other ethnic villagers in the schoolyard, fingerprinted them like criminals, and then loaded them onto a truck to be sent back to the border.
This scene came back to me with haunting clarity last week, as Thai and Burmese officials sat down for the sixth meeting of the two countries’ Joint Commission. During discussions on the repatriation of Burmese refugees, Thailand offered to return 100,000 or more “illegal migrants”—mostly ethnic Karen displaced by decades of fighting between the junta and rebel armies. Rangoon agreed to take back many of them. The only sticking point was that Burmese officials first wanted the two countries to define who should be considered “displaced”.
For complex reasons of diplomacy that have a lot to do with rebel insurgency, the cross-border trade in methamphetamines and Bangkok’s ongoing war of public relations and political brinkmanship with Rangoon, the Shan are not officially part of the refugee equation. Ironically, an ethnic group with ancient links to the Thai people has been excluded from a process which, until recently, accorded the Karen and other ethnic minorities fleeing war conditions with basic humanitarian assistance.
Much of the problem lies with Thai policy: Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, and the Thai language itself has no word for “refugee”. During the 1970s and 80s, successive Thai governments set up camps in response to mass migration by ethnic Karen. But by 1996, when the Burmese junta began a forced relocation programme in Shan State, Thai policy had shifted towards allowing fewer displaced people across the border.
Thus, despite documented evidence that thousands of Shan villagers have been tortured, raped or killed by Burmese soldiers since 1996, Shan villagers who flee to this country are referred to as “economic migrants” or “migrant workers” rather than as “refugees”.
As my trip to Fang last spring revealed, not even flight from armed combat—a standard prerequisite for refugee status defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—has been enough to put the Shan on an equal footing with the Karen and other ethnic groups.
My visit to the Fang shelter was arranged by an NGO representative I’d met a few months earlier while doing research on the Shan. Noi (not her real name) is part of a Chiang Mai-based organisation that brings food and clothing to Shan migrants in Northwestern Thailand.
In mid-April, when renewed skirmishes broke out between pro-junta Wa soldiers and Shan State rebels in the mountainous border region just west of Fang, some 677 ethnic hill tribe villagers ended up at a temporary site for displaced persons at an elementary school southwest of Fang. Most of the site’s residents were Palung villagers from the Thai side of the border. But when it was learned that 48 of them were from Shan State, Noi thought it might be worth paying them a visit.
Using a road map drawn up by one of her colleagues, my companion and I find the site after taking the two-hour bus trip from Chiang Mai city to the dusty little town of Fang, about 25 kilometres southeast of the Thai-Burmese border on Route 107. Just outside the business district we hop on motorbike taxis and take a 10-minute ride west up a country road.
The site, established by the Fang district township with help from the army, is set up as a quadrangle of large tents surrounding a school playing field. At the reception centre we are told that the Shan are staying in a single tent directly across from us.
The group’s designated leader is a quiet, 24-year-old woman named Sripong Laikham. Sripong arrived here on April 26 with her six-year-old daughter and 43 others. They were received from a temple in Banian village in Fang’s Monpin sub-district after making the several days’ trek across the border. Another three Shan people arrived a few days later.
Sripong says she decided to take her daughter and leave her village of about 100 households in Shan State because she could no longer work safely in the rice fields. Turning her eyes away, she tells me through an interpreter that Burmese soldiers frequently came to her village to rape the women and recruit the men as porters of weapons.
“Many of us who came here are poor,” Sripong explains, speaking in the northern Tai dialect. “Others used to be wealthy, with lots of money and rice crops, but the Burmese soldiers took it all and burned their houses down.”
On the way to the border, she recalls, her group encountered soldiers from the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is loyal to Rangoon. After a brief interrogation, she says, they were allowed to pass through.
Others haven’t been so fortunate. On March 2, about a month before Sripong fled Burma, 14 villagers making the same trek for freedom got within 10 kilometres of the Thai border when they stumbled upon a group of Burmese soldiers from the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
According to a report by the Shan Human Rights Foundation, the villagers hadn’t used a guide because the man leading them said he had taken the same route a few years before without any problems. What he didn’t know was that the road had been closed two years earlier by Wa troops and was now part of a secured area lining a methamphetamine factory.
SPDC Light Infantry Battalion No. 246, led by a Captain Maung Thaung, was there to protect the factory—now guarded by Wa soldiers—from the curious. The Burmese army soldiers reportedly beat them all to death and buried them not far from the factory.
Sripong had another reason to come to Thailand: her older sister, 25-year-old Nalu Yanna, has lived here in relative safety and comfort for about six years. Despite all this time in the country, the best Nalu can get is a renewable one-year work permit from local authorities. The permit allows her to earn Bt50 a day (men earn Bt55 a day) working at a fruit orchard in Mae Ai district.
When I speak to her, Nalu seems happy. She breaks into a wide grin as she talks about Thailand, even though she has no rights here. At least there are no Burmese soldiers to threaten her. She also has enough food to eat and, once in a while, even saves enough money to purchase beautiful Thai silk and cotton fabrics she could never afford in Burma. For Nalu, working for Bt50 a day in a pesticide-soaked environment as an indentured servant to a Thai landowner is, relatively speaking, paradise.
As we’re talking, a three-year-old boy beside us in the administration tent bursts into laughter as his 22-year-old mother, Ying Lungvi, throws him a ball. Ying tells me her son was born in the orange orchard where she works. Like most Shan children born in Thailand, he has no identification papers for either country. Making eye contact with this stateless boy, who seems as bright and cheerful as any three-year-old, I can’t help but wonder what will become of him. His radiant smile when I take his photograph makes everyone around him smile, too.
But there are no smiles the next day when my companion and I return to find two Thai immigration officials preparing to evacuate the Shan. Sripong is in tears as she pleads with one officer to let them stay. She thinks her people are being handed over to Burmese authorities. “No,” the officer reassures her, “We’ll just leave you at the border.”
But the process going on behind them in the administration tent seems ominous. Another immigration officer wearing rubber gloves attends to a queue of Shan people holding their identity papers. When each person reaches the front of the line, the officer grabs a hand and separately presses each finger, firmly, onto a pad of black ink.
A PEOPLE DISPOSSESSED
After leaving the camp, Noi, my companion and I hop on motorbikes and take a long ride into the country through vast, rolling hills of jungle and orchards of orange and lime trees. Several times along the way, we spot farm workers on stepladders in trees or carrying baskets of oranges to pickup trucks. All these people are Shan, I am told.
At the end of our journey, we reach a hillside village where the headman invites us into his modest home of bamboo and cement to describe life in Shan State under the constant shadow of the junta.
Sitting down on rattan mats in his living room, we are served hot tea and bowlfuls of sunflower seeds and mixed nuts as he tells us his story. The village headman is one of the few Shan migrants to Thailand to have attained Thai citizenship since 1996—the result of good connections, community involvement and a combination of patience and street smarts in dealing with the Thai bureaucracy. But by sheltering dozens of Shan migrants in his village, he’s breaking the law.
Before the relocation programme, he recalls, Shan villages were entirely self-sufficient. There were enough homes on enough land, with plenty of orchards, rice fields, and cattle, to keep everyone well fed for generations. “Many of us who came here were not poor,” he says. “Back home, we had about 20 to 30 rai of rice fields, and between 100 and 300 cattle. We had two-storey houses built of teakwood.”
But by the end of 1996 and early 1997, he explains, the first relocations forced everyone into the cities. The villagers took with them only what they could carry. Those who returned home for more found that their belongings had been stolen and that all the houses—except those made of teak or with zinc roofs—had been burned down. Ten days later, Burmese soldiers would round up the villagers who had owned these more valuable homes and give them the choice of selling the teak and zinc roofing or rebuilding their homes in the city.
“The villagers had no place to live, no land to work on. They were threatened not to travel further than three miles in any direction, or they would be shot,” the headman says. “Some tried to sneak back to their villages. They rode carts to bring back their rice crops, but when the Burmese soldiers found them they were killed, their carts burned and their cows taken away. The bodies of the dead villagers were left to pile up at the scene.”
A month after my trip to Fang, on the first international Refugee Day (June 20), a senior policy analyst from the US Committee for Refugees, Hiram Ruiz, called for the Thai government to provide temporary assistance, including access to basic human services, to the Shan. But the Thaksin administration, like those before it, has not responded.
“There’s been movement of Shan for years between Thailand and Myanmar [Burma], and among the Shan you have different categories of person coming here,” explains Janvier de Riedmatten, UNHCR’s deputy regional representative, who I spoke with in Bangkok before the trip to Fang.
“You have people coming here to work, available usually in the orchards. You have people also who are moving for the fighting that takes place between different factions involved with drug trafficking, and then you have also persons who are coming to [escape] human rights violations, or forced relocations without the means to survive relocation.” (Hundreds of Shan have also been forced to come to the border because of the ongoing relocation of Wa people from the north near the Chinese border into southern Shan State.)
Another problem in categorising the Shan is that, according to the Thai press version of the government’s position, the majority of Shan migrants are simply ambitious, enterprising peasants who are only crossing the border to seek better employment prospects in Thailand.
“[Government officials] also say that if these people are being displaced because of fighting, it’s mainly fighting related to drug trafficking, and they don’t want the UNHCR involved,” says de Riedmatten.
Kham Harn Fa, a spokesperson for the Shan Human Rights Foundation, just wants the government to let relief workers do their jobs. “If we could get some cooperation from local authorities—even if they don’t openly recognise [Shan migrants] as refugees, but allow NGOs to help—that would solve half of our problems. We can’t even bring sick people to clinics, because they’ll be arrested if immigration finds out.”
Sidebar One: The Kurds of Southeast Asia?
Burma’s Shan state, which borders northern Thailand, has an area of 62,500 square miles and a population of 10 million people. Shan (“Tai” or “Thai Yai”) in centuries past formed part of the Siamese community. The name “Shan”, which the Burmans gave them, is actually a corruption of “Siam”.
According to Bertil Lintner, an expert on Burmese culture and history, the Shan people are more closely related to the Thais and Laotians than to any other ethnic group in Burma. Historically, Shan State was run as a kingdom and later ruled as different princedoms.
Shan became a protectorate of the British Crown during the colonial era until the end of WW II. On February 12, 1947, Shan State unified with Burma proper to gain independence from Britain by signing the Panglong Agreement.
Although the Shan chiefs, known as Saophas, had insisted on a clause allowing the right to separate from the union at any time after 10 years, that clause was missing from the final draft. The omission would have tragic consequences.
Shan State might be completely unknown in the outside world if not for the mythical status accorded its most famous drug lord. Chang Shi-fu, or Khun Sa, was the king of a global opium/heroin empire in the Golden Triangle during the ’60s and ’70s. But by the mid-1980s, he was a marked man.
After a lengthy jail stint and various battles with both Burmese and Thai forces, Khun Sa re-emerged in 1984 as the head of a unified army, the Muang-Thai Army (MTA). The MTA grew in strength over the next decade until April 1994, when Burma’s State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) began a campaign to wipe it out.
In January 1996, Khun Sa and most of his troops surrendered to the SLORC. Those who didn’t joined other Shan resistance groups such as the Shan State Army and the Shan State National Army, which had ceasefire agreements with the SLORC. Under the leadership of Major Yawd Serk, these armies consolidated to become the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA) and began heading north to Larng Kher.
By February 1996, SURA rebels had beaten all SLORC attempts to block their passage and had penetrated central Shan State. The following month, the SLORC responded with a drastic programme of forced relocation in an attempt to forestall any local support for the SURA rebels and force the Shan soldiers to surrender.
Covering an area of 5,000 square miles, the total effort involved nearly 22,000 households from 605 villages in eight townships. All told, about 100,000 people were forced at gunpoint to leave most of their belongings behind and move to one of the 45 relocation sites approved by the junta.
Apart from state-sanctioned killings, relocation instantly rendered once-prosperous people destitute. Farmers who were forced to abandon their crops, animals and equipment suddenly found themselves on barren, useless land often located on an empty lot by the roadside. Except for the lucky few who had relatives in town to live with, most had to build their own makeshift huts on the sites. Living conditions were squalid and unsanitary. Children were often seen begging by the roadside. Before long, malnutrition and disease took their toll.
Shan supporters don’t mince words when asked what they think motivated the forced relocation by Burmese troops.
“Their stated intention was to wipe out the rebel group,” says Kham Harn Fa of the Shan Human Rights Foundation. “Their unstated intention was ethnic cleansing of the Shan people.”
Sidebar Two: Junta policy soaked in blood
Extrajudicial killings were a regular occurrence during the forced relocation of Shan villagers carried out by Burmese soldiers between March 1996 and early 1998:
- Most villagers were given three to five days to leave their homes. Anyone caught returning to their villages without prior permission, even those foraging for food near relocation sites, faced summary execution (including a woman blown up with a grenade for collecting bamboo shoots in a field, three men shot dead for fishing in a stream, and six men shot dead for collecting wild honey in the forest);
- Group executions occurred even after villagers had been given permission to return to their farms to collect rice. On one occasion, 56 people from two groups that had been relocated to Kun Hing were massacred after they were stopped on their way back their villages;
- In one patrolled area, 26 headless cadavers were displayed on a roadside as a warning to villagers not to stray from their relocation sites;
- Relocation sites were no safer: in 1997 alone, 664 people were reported killed in nine relocation areas. Between 1996 and 1993, one relocated township recorded 300 killings;
- Typical SLORC atrocities included the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl who was stopped while taking hay to cattle in a field near her village (her relatives were threatened with death if they tried to bury her body).
(Source: Dispossessed: Forced relocation and extrajudicial killings in Shan State: Report of the Shan Human Rights Foundation, April 1998)