Burmese Exiles Find Refuge in Thailand — But for How Long?

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Ed Cropley / Reuters

Former Burmese political prisoner Bo Kyi speaks to reporters in February 2008 in front of photographs of last September's monk-led protests in Burma

They pawned their possessions for enough cash to masquerade as government officials. Thiha Yarzar and Aye Min Soe were former political prisoners living in Rangoon who, at the end of 2008, decided their pasts were likely to land them back in prison. Forbidden from traveling outside the capital without official permission, they wore "rich-looking" clothing, imitation jewelry and austere expressions on their faces; and instructed their hired driver to tell soldiers stationed at roadside checkpoints that they were officials from Naypyidaw, the administrative capital. "'Would you like to see their IDs?' our driver would ask the soldiers. 'No, no, let them through!'" Thiha Yarzar recalls. "The soldiers were afraid to make high-ranking officials wait." When they reached the border, the runaways illegally crossed into Thailand by boat, standing apart in their getups from the migrant workers sharing the voyage.

Today, living in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, they bump into old associates — as well as former foes, like Aung Tin. In Burma, his job had been to infiltrate student groups and report their activities to the government's intelligence wing. To blend in, he grew his hair long and imitated the speech of young activists. Eventually, he faltered in his duties — "I started to think they weren't doing anything wrong" — and himself had to flee from authorities after they got wind of his disloyalty.

Indeed, Mae Sot has absorbed a colorful mosaic of migrants and anti-government exiles of various stripes from its military-ruled neighbor to the west. Walk through one of the town's main markets and you'll catch vignettes of life across the border: longyi-clad men smoking hand-rolled cheroots, women wearing yellow thanaka face cream, vendors pitching their product in one of Burma's many languages. Its restaurants, shops and factories are staffed by Burmese, most of whom are undocumented and perform menial work for wages well below standard pay for Thai citizens. What was a dusty frontier town just a decade ago has evolved into a substantial trading post and unofficial headquarters for Burma's political dissidents, rights advocates and a slew of other NGO groups serving the refugee community.

This is the Mae Sot that Za Wa Na, a monk, encountered when he arrived at the beginning of this year. In 1993, he had been charged with treason and unlawful association for having met with a U.N. special rapporteur to discuss rights issues in Burma. The end of his 16-year sentence was no homecoming. A visit to a friend or relative would put military intelligence officers on their tail, tainting them with a stigma that was impossible to erase. "Everyone who spoke with me got in trouble with the authorities," says Wa Na, who is now 50. Cho Mar Htwe, 54, is another new arrival. After her 11-year sentence for carrying dispatches between political opposition groups, her future in Burma was untenable, she says. "When I got out of prison, there was so much fear that my sister dared not see me." She fled to the Thai border with one change of clothes, no goodbyes to friends or family, and, like scores of ex-political prisoners before her, landed at the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, or AAPP, office.

At its headquarters on a Mae Sot back road, AAPP does not hide its work: posters of the iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi hang on the walls alongside a dry-erase board tallying Burma's current jail population of political prisoners (2,137). In 2000, Co Bo Kyi and a few associates with similar backgrounds founded the organization to serve as a buffer for newly arrived political exiles and office for a team of democracy activists. Like many runaways who come to his organization for help, Bo Kyi first became involved in political activism in the late 1980s when widespread grievances with the military regime's plummeting state-run economy was joined by outrage over the junta's refusal to step down after Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party swept the 1990 national elections.

Bo Kyi, who served more than seven years between two jail stints in the '90s, says his life in Thailand is undoubtedly an improvement over whatever future the junta had planned for him in Burma. As a U.N. recognized refugee, however, Bo Kyi and others like him are still illegal residents in Thailand, which has not signed the U.N. convention that recognizes the universal rights of refugees. He says he's been detained by Thai police on a couple dozen occasions but released each time by paying a bribe, calling on help from Thai friends or eliciting sympathy from the officers by explaining his history.

Still, living in Thailand has presented the 45-year-old and his cause the kind of exposure that would be impossible from inside Burma. Since founding AAPP, he has met with U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and the heads of state of Norway and the Czech Republic. "In Thailand we have some freedom," he says. "But we also have no answers about our future."

That simmering concern amongst political exiles — and the some 150,000 Burmese refugees in camps along the border — heated up this month when Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya said the November 7 election in Burma, the first in two decades, warranted preparations for repatriating the Burmese asylum seekers residing in Thailand. "I am going back to Bangkok and one of the first things I will be doing is to launch a more comprehensive program for the Myanmar people in the camps, the displaced persons, the intellectuals that run around the streets of Bangkok and Chang Mai province, to prepare them to return to Myanmar after the elections," the minister told an audience in New York on September 28. After this triggered alarms in the press, Thailand's foreign ministry said Kasit Piromya's remarks had been misinterpreted, adding that any such repatriations wouldn't be carried out until "the situation in [Burma] becomes conducive."

In Mae Sot, such qualifications haven't offered much reassurance. In the last few years, strong condemnation from rights groups and foreign countries didn't prevent Thai authorities from turning back to sea Rohingya "boat people," deporting ethnic Hmong back to Laos, or pressuring ethnic Karen fleeing fighting to return to Burma. Critics say the upcoming election in Burma is a ploy by the junta to legitimize its power by ruling through plainclothes proxies, and few believe the newly branded government will assume conciliatory behavior toward its old political opponents. "Part of a monk's discipline is to be patient and offer forgiveness, even to those who hurt us," says Za Wa Na. But he expects no such reconciliation from his former captors, whether they are wearing military or civilian uniforms.