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Burmese in Thailand hold little hope for elections

Burmese migrants in Thailand believe the elections will do little to change life back home. Military-run Myanmar will hold its first election in two decades on 7 Novenber, 2010
(Alisa Tang/IRIN)

On 7 November, Myanmar is holding an election for the first time in 20 years, but Burmese migrants and refugees in Thailand say the polls will not change anything back home and only strengthen the military government.

"I don't believe in the election, and I don't want to vote," said Saw Win, 42, a migrant labourer who recently moved to Mae Sot, a border town that has become a gateway for Burmese migrants.

"Even though there are going to be elections, they are only doing it for themselves," he said, echoing sentiments expressed by many in Mae Sot. "We don't believe in the current government. We want peace for Myanmar. We want everyone to be equal and for there to be justice - and we want it to be easier to find work."

The military junta has ruled since 1962, conducting military offensives against armed ethnic minority groups and civilians, leading to a humanitarian crisis along the border with Thailand.

With the first wave crossing the border in 1984, more than 145,000 refugees are now living in nine camps in western Thailand. An additional 1.6 million Burmese are in the country as migrant labourers, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Those who have already crossed over see no future back home.

"Things won't change. The election has already been planned, and they already plan to win," said Tay Win, a 51-year-old migrant labourer. "I don't want to go back to vote because you can't vote what you want, you have to vote what they say. And I don't want to go back because here with my income, I can survive. There, I can't."

While Burmese refugees in Bangladesh - ethnic Rohingyas who have been allowed to vote - see a glimmer of hope in the polls, the ethnic Karen in Mae Sot are not convinced.

"The Karen Refugee Committee sees the election as fake because not all political parties can participate, and not all the people have the right to vote," said Saw Wingate, vice chairman of the KRC, which represents the refugees in the camps. "All the activities and the process are to protect the military government so that they can continue to be in power."

A "deeply flawed" election


Brennon Jones/IRIN
A Burmese refugee family in Mai La camp on the Thai border with Myanmar who are soon to be resettled in the United States. Thailand. February 2008.
Vendredi, février 29, 2008
Burmese in Thailand hold little hope for elections
A Burmese refugee family in Mai La camp on the Thai border with Myanmar who are soon to be resettled in the United States. Thailand. February 2008.

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Thailand has more than 145,000 Burmese refugees

Although the election is part of Myanmar's seven-step "roadmap to democracy," the government barred voting in several townships home to ethnic minorities - in Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon and Shan states, and in the Wa self-administered division -because "they are in no position to host free and fair elections".

Politicians around the world have criticized the polls. "Burma will soon hold a deeply flawed election, and one thing we have learned over the last few years is that democracy is more than elections," said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called for the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners, and urged Myanmar to move towards dialogue and national reconciliation.

Worries along the border

In Thailand, there has been much election anxiety, with the Thai foreign minister talking about repatriation - later retracting the statement and paying a visit to the largest refugee camp .

Nonetheless, such comments from senior Thai officials have triggered fear.

"People have fled from conflict areas, and they know it is not safe to go back. They know the Burmese troops are still coming in and will torture, arrest and kill them," said Naw Htoo Paw, of the Karen Women's Organization, which works with IDPs in Myanmar and refugees in Thailand. "They are scared when there are rumours about repatriation."

Fearing they will be forced back, some refugees have even left the camps to blend in with the million-plus other Burmese in Thailand, said an aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, the Thai government and humanitarian agencies have prepared for another possible wave of refugees. 

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Thai civil and military officials, and NGOs held a "District Preparatory Coordination Meeting" recently to identify six sites along the border - mostly temples and schools - where an influx of Burmese could be sheltered, and to decide which agencies would meet needs such as food and medical services.

The aid worker said authorities were preparing for the possibility of 3,000 new refugees, and possibly up to 10,000.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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