Saturday, February 18, 2012

Burma Refugees Struggle Under Minimum Support

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Photo: Banyar Kong Janoi
Forced to leave their homes after brutal military attacks against minority groups, millions of displaced Burmese have spent years in refugee camps.

Amid cautious signs of government reform, they are anxious to return home.

But with uncertain futures waiting back home, many decide to stay in the camps instead.

As international donors tighten their belts, they are surviving on the bare minimum. Banyar Kong Janoi takes a look at the harsh reality of Burma’s refugee camps.
25-year-old Chae Mae is weaving with four other women in a workshop at the Mae Hong Son refugee camp.
“I have nothing to do at home so I come here to work, earn money and learn some new skills.”

Chae Mae is paid around 25 US dollars for two month’s work. The money usually goes toward buy ingredients to cook meals.

Sewing is the only job available in the camp and she doesn’t mind working for more than 8 hours a day.

The camp is located near the Thai-Burma border and under Thai law, refugees are not allowed to work outside the camp.

Prae Mae, 45, says that deciding to stay or go home is a challenging decision for her family

“I want to back home but going home is not easy because we have nothing left in Burma: no land to plant crops for our food, and no pod for cooking, no place to live. But staying here is also a struggle because I am the only one who can make some money from this sawing and feed all of my children.” –

Prae Mae has been living in the camp for more than a decade with her four children.  Her sick husband died when they arrived in the camp.

They left Burma in fear of army brutality, Prae Mae continues.

“At that time, the soldiers arrested so many people. I don’t know why they did that. We were so afraid to live in our home and decided to leave to Thailand, all of us from the same village. Five years ago my oldest son went back home to collect some of our belongings, but he got arrested by the Burmese soldiers. They killed him.”

The sewing project is run by the Karenni National Women’s Organization to empower women and children living in the camp.

Rosy Htwe, the spokesperson of the group, says the project has been running for more than a decade.

“We want to create jobs for unemployed mothers and children in the camp to get some money. At the same time, we want to provide some clothes for them. They can work for us and we can lend them some money to produce a piece of cloth on their own. By this they’re making some money.”

It’s a small-scale project with around 30 people involved, out of more than 10,000 refugees inside.

The organizer wants to expand the project, but it’s not possible says Mahm Saw, the director of Karenni National Refugee Committee.

“Every time we think of ways to stand on our own financially, there’s always an obstacle. For example we want to produce bricks in a large scale, but this will affect Thai local business. The same goes if we want to raise animals or grow vegetables. Plus we don’t have the land to do that.”

Some refugees are not hiding in Thai camps but inside Burma.

Thousands of refugees are living across the border of Mae Hong Son.

They also rely on international donors who are tightening their budgets.

There are around 300 people in this camp, with 80 children enrolled in the primary school inside the camp.

Ko Han Aung, the camp’s school principal says, it’s hard to maintain the school.

“We still have some money to run the school this year. But I don’t know what will happen next year onward. We have been thinking over the past years how to keep the school if we don’t receive any budget. We now produce key chain from plastic and grow vegetables as part of vocational learning, and we sell them.”

Although they have found small ways to survive, it won’t last long, he adds.

“We depend mainly to our donor support because we cannot get profit quickly from growing vegetables. They are long-term crop productions. It will take 3 to 4 years from now.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Burma Refugees Fear of Coming Home

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Photo: Banyar Kong Janoi
Burma has promoted a series of political “reforms” to the international community - and given new hope to 1 million Burmese refugees, one of the world’s largest refugee populations.

For years they have been living in frontier camps and hideouts across Burma’s borders driven out by conflict.

But despite peace talks between the government and several rebel groups, sporadic fighting continues.

Banyar Kong Janoi traveled to Mae Hong Son province on the Thailand-Burma border, the site of several large camps and asked refugees when they plan to go home.

An officer at a refugee camp in Mae Hong Son is calling out people’s numbers in front of a long queue of refugees.

They are waiting for charcoal to cook meals.

Basic supplies for refugees have been reduced by 30 percent this year, making life tough.

But they are not allowed to work outside the camp because it’s illegal under Thai law.

Last year 23-year-old Shay Reh secretly went to the Thai town of Chiang Mai to earn money, so his wife could get medical care to deliver their child.

“When I arrived in this camp, they gave us everything, like rice and cooking oil. But later on, they didn’t give us enough support so we had to find jobs outside the camp. Unfortunately, I don’t have a work permit and I don’t speak Thai so I was arrested while working in a factory.”

The police released him after two months in jail and he came back to the camp empty-handed.

Now he relies on only the aid provided by international donors.

And donors are not giving more fund, says Sally Thompson, the Deputy Director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium.

“Most of our donors have straight lines in terms of funding so we are getting the same support that we got last year. But we face increasing commodity prices and also we continue to see new arrivals coming to the camps. So in actual Thai Baht terms, we have been spending the same amount for the last three years but what that Thai Baht is actually able to buy has gone down. So, yes, we have been now forced to make cut, significantly cut for 2012.”

In the past, refugees received 15 kilograms of rice for each person, plus some beans, salt, chili and charcoal.

Now, they get less – 13 kilograms of rice and beans, but no salt or chili.

And donors are thinking of shifting their funding to inside Burma.

“They like to think that the time for refugees is coming toward an end, toward hopefully a period when they will be able to go back to Burma. And donors would like to put their money in the country to try to address some of the many humanitarian needs inside Burma. So they are reluctant to increase funding to refugees at the time they feel they should be increasing support inside the country.”

Thousands of people leave Burma every year. The number increases every time political tension rises between ethnic rebel groups and government troops.

Along the Thai-Burmese border, about 5,000 people are fleeing from the war to refugee camps.

15-year old Deh Reh arrived in the camp six months ago with hundred other people fearing that Burmese soldiers would take them to join military.

“We were afraid that Burmese soldiers would come and take us to join military and send us to Shan State, so we decided to leave our home. And we travelled to the border to reach the camp here.”

The Burmese government has held peace talks with ethnic armed groups across the country, but sporadic fighting still continues.

The Thai government, meanwhile, hopes to send the refugees home.

The push to return the refugees intensified when Burma’s President Thein Sein was sworn in last year.

But the Thai government promises not to use force, and says it will wait until it is safe to return.

And it’s still far from safe now, says Mahm Saw, director of the Karenni National Refugee Committee.

“If there’s no fighting going on in our area, we will consider going back. Even there is no fighting, it takes us some time to go back safely because there are landmines everywhere. Besides, the international community should continue supporting us for at least
3-4 years. At the moment, we can’t think of going back home.”

Children are playing outside Shay Reh’s bamboo house.

He has been living here for a decade with his wife, and now their one-year old daughter.

He has no idea when he will go back home.

“We can’t go back even if the Thai government sends us back, because local authorities there already know us. If there are safety guarantees for our return, we might go back; otherwise I am sure they will torture us.”

A Promise of Media Freedom in Burma

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Photo: Banyar Kong Janoi
Download Burma’s president this week pledged to establish a "healthy democracy". He made the comments during a visit to Singapore where he asked for help to modernise the country's economy.

One area that is under going rapid change in Burma is press freedom.  The government is easing restrictions on the press and is in the process of drafting a new media law.

Recently a group of government officials, journalists and members of civil society gathered in Hong Kong to discuss the transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy.

Banyar Kong Janoi went to speak with some of the delegates about media reform in Burma.

For the first time in years or decades people in Burma can now freely surf websites from exile media groups such as the Democratic Voice of Burma…they can also check-out the BBC and CNN sites.

And newspapers are now allowed to publish photographs and reports about the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

These are things that would have been unthinkable just one year ago.

Ma Myint Su works with civil society groups in Rangoon.

“We have seen many developments but in my opinion, I would say this is relaxation; it is not a real change yet. Some things are easier than in previous years but we still need permission from local authority to do things.”

Burma is said to have the world's most heavily censored media.

More than 50 journalists have been put in jail for their work in the past ten years.

But last October the head of Burma's powerful press censorship department called for greater media freedom in the country.

Tint Swe said censorship was incompatible with democratic practices and should be abolished in the near future.

Now the government is holding workshops on the role of media in a democratic society with Burmese journalists and exile media such the BBC and Voice of America Burmese services and the Mizzima News Agency.

The government also says they are in the process of drafting a new media law.

U Ye Htut is a spokesman for the Burmese government.

“The ministry of information has drafted it. Now, the attorney generals office is reviewing the draft. If the attorney general gives it his approval, we will send it to the parliament. To achieve a democratic society, we will create the new law freely and openly under the constitution. According to the president’s speech, if we are moving towards a democratic country we need the media to play a role as the fourth estate. Therefore the media should not only have freedom but they should also take on responsibility. That’s why we are drafting a media law which grants freedom but also makes the media responsible for the betterment of our society.” 

By ‘responsible’ he says the media must be fair and balanced.

In the past, journalists have been arrested and jailed for charges under the electronic act.

“The electronic is not under our control. It’s under the ministry of Communication, Posts and Telegraphs. However, I understand they are also reviewing this law and thinking about amending it because we have to amend all laws which contridict our new constitution.”

But changes to the electronic act and the media law are being done behind closed doors. Information about the details of the new laws have not been released.

But U Soe Thein a Rangoon-based editor from Thought & Vision Magazine says some parliamentarians have approached him for his input.

“They came and ask our opinion about what the media law show be like but the actual drafting committee, the information ministry, has never consult with us. I think what will happen is after drafting the law the upper house and lower house will read the law and compare it to our opinions and demands and then will make a decision whether to pass it or not.”

He says at the moment the situation is far from free and fair.

“Compared to era before the new government came to power now is a lot more relaxed but we still have to have everything approved by the censorship board before publishing. Some times, our stories are edited and some are cut altogether. So as long as that censorship is imposed on us we don’t have  a free press in Burma.”

A Burmese student in Hong Kong who wants to stay anonymous says it is too soon to say if Burma is changing.

“The government officials say they have changed but they are very clever at selecting the right words. I am not sure whether their words will transform into action. We have to wait and see if the upcoming by-election and next term election will be free and fair.”