The young Myanmar lady and her family now dwell among the thick grasses of a Thai riverbank, caught in a limbo between a country that doesn’t want them and one whose military may murder them.
Hay, like hundreds of others escaping escalating violence in Myanmar following a military takeover in February, fled to neighboring Thailand in hopes of a safe haven that did not exist. Her and her family’s lives would be jeopardized if she returned to Myanmar. Yet, she claims, Thai officials encourage them to do this at least once a week, fearful of losing their connection with Myanmar’s governing military.
“We sobbed and explained why we couldn’t go back home when they told us to go back,” recalls Hay, who lives in a small tent on the Moei River, which separates the two nations. To avoid punishment from authorities, the Associated Press has withheld Hay’s entire name, as well as the complete names of other refugees in this article. “Every now and again, we cross back over to Myanmar’s side of the river.” But I haven’t been back to the village in a long time.”
According to conversations with refugees, humanitarian agencies, and Thai officials, despite international refugee regulations prohibiting the repatriation of persons to countries where their lives are in danger, Thailand has deported thousands of people fleeing rising violence by Myanmar’s military back home. As the combat in their home towns rages and recedes, Hay and other Myanmar refugees have been forced to bounce between both sides of the river.
“It’s like ping-pong,” says Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, which has long provided food, housing, and other assistance to Myanmar refugees in Thailand. “You can’t keep crossing the border back and forth.” You need to be in a place where things are steady….. And Myanmar is currently devoid of any form of stability.”
Myanmar’s military has killed over 1,700 people, detained over 13,000, and tortured children, women, and men since taking power last year.
Thailand, which is not a member to the UN Refugee Convention, demands that Myanmar’s refugees return freely to their besieged nation. Thailand also claims to have followed all international non-refoulement regulations, which state that no one should be sent to a country where they will be tortured, punished, or harmed.
“As the situation on the Myanmar side of the border eased, Thai officials permitted their voluntary return to Myanmar,” says Tanee Sangrat, a spokesman for Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Thailand remains dedicated to supporting people in need and will continue to follow its long-standing humanitarian legacy, including the concept of non-refoulement.”
Many individuals entered illegally while there was no fighting, according to Somchai Kitcharoenrungroj, governor of Thailand’s Tak region, where thousands of Myanmar refugees have sought safety.
“We had no choice except to send them back,” Somchai explains. “We never refused to support them when they faced danger and crossed here.” We met all of their basic requirements in accordance with international human rights standards.”
“We also detected several crossing here illegally last week,” he said, “and we sent them back.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 500,000 people have been displaced within Myanmar and 48,000 have fled to neighboring countries since the military took power. According to the UNHCR, roughly 17,000 Myanmar refugees have sought sanctuary in Thailand since the takeover, according to Thai official sources. According to the Thai-Myanmar Border Command Center, just about 2,000 people live on the Thai side of the border.
“UNHCR continues to firmly recommend that refugees escaping Myanmar’s war, widespread violence, and persecution should not be forced repatriated to a country where their lives and liberties may be jeopardized,” the organization stated.
The majority of individuals escaping border skirmishes between the military and ethnic minority armed groups must wade over rivers separating the two nations, carrying their goods and newborns on their shoulders. Those who arrive in Thailand are not permitted to live in the region’s decades-old refugee camps, which hold 90,000 people who fled Myanmar years before the takeover.
Instead, they’ve been consigned to overcrowded livestock barns or shaky tarpaulin and bamboo tents. Despite Myanmar’s military taking seizing communities, destroying homes, and planting land mines, refugees and relief groups claim Thai officials send them back once combat stops.
“I’ve seen some of them forced to get in a car, get down near the river, and cross to the other side,” says Phoe Thingyan, secretary of the Overseas Irrawaddy Association, a Thai charity organization.
Ethnic minority armed groups have been fighting the central government in Myanmar’s border areas for decades in a drive for more autonomy, with further violence following the military takeover. Despite periodic pauses, witnesses say the violence near the Thai border is currently at its worst in decades. Gunfire, bombing, and fighter planes have been heard from Thailand at times, and the booms have caused houses on the Thai side of the river to tremble.
The river’s life is bleak and terrifying.
“It’s not far from the fighting zone,” adds Karen Human Rights Group member Naw Htoo Htoo. “In the improvised tents, the elderly and children are uncomfortable…. COVID-19 is a virus that causes symptoms in addition to the weather.”
Myint, 48, and her husband and three children evacuated the Karen tiny hamlet of Lay Kay Kaw, near the Thai border, in December. Thailand’s officials returned them. With few other alternatives, Myint and her family joined a group of about 600 people living along the river on Myanmar’s side.
Heavy rains inundated their camp in February, and Myint is worried that the approaching monsoon season would exacerbate their already dire position.
“I believe the refugee camps will have significant difficulties,” she predicts. “All we can do is make our makeshift tents a bit more durable.”
Hay’s tent on the Thai side of the river provides almost no shelter from the scorching heat, bugs, or heavy showers.
The family misses their house in Lay Kay Kaw and their maize fields. Hay and her husband took their 3-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son and escaped through a hail of bullets on Dec. 16. When they arrived at the river, the fighting was still near enough that they realized they couldn’t stay on Myanmar’s side. As a result, they trekked across the sea to Thailand.
“We want to return, but we don’t have a home,” she adds.
There are no toilets and no means of income. Despite the fact that food and other supplies are in short supply, Thai authorities have blocked foreign NGOs and the UNHCR access to the refugees.
“The Thai authorities have stated that they have the resources to respond, and that international non-governmental organizations and the United Nations would not be granted access,” says Thompson of The Border Consortium. “The Thai authorities are attempting to keep this a low-key, basic response.”
The majority of the relief has come from Thai community organisations in the area. The Overseas Irrawaddy Association’s Phoe Thingyan says his organization provides 1,000 boxes of rice to the refugees every morning and evening, but he had to approach the Thai military for permission to receive donations.
“The Thai military is bent on controlling the situation, controlling the narrative,” he adds, “because they plainly have political stakes in what’s going on in Myanmar.” “They have a tight relationship with the Myanmar junta.”
The Thai governor, Somchai, seemed to allude to this when he remarked of the refugees that Thailand repatriated, “When the war ceased, they had to go back.” “Otherwise, it may be a delicate subject for both countries’ relationship.”
Those that remain in Thailand find themselves in a state of legal and physical limbo, subject to abuse. According to one Myanmar refugee in Thailand who talked to the Associated Press, “police cards,” which are unofficial documents that allow displaced persons to escape arrest or deportation, are acquired monthly for an average of 350 Thai baht ($10) through intermediaries. A photo or symbol on the card indicates that the bearer has paid the most recent monthly bribe.
Without the cards, refugees face increased pressure from Thai officials, as well as the possibility of incarceration.
“They’ll take you to the police station and examine your paperwork and test your urine for drug usage,” says the refugee, whose identity has been changed for security concerns by the Associated Press. “Police intimidate individuals, and using the cards is the simplest way to prevent this.”
The administration “categorically rejected” any extortion or bribery, according to Tanee, the Foreign Affairs spokeswoman.
Though Win and his family pitched their tent on the Thai side of the river at first, Thai officials quickly deported them. The chemistry student now crosses the river in chest-deep water on a daily basis to fetch food, clothing, and other donated supplies from the Thai side. He then turns around and returns to his Myanmar campground, where he stays with roughly 300 other migrants, including children and the elderly.
They are eking out an existence, but just just. He claims that the one thing he truly desires is the one thing he cannot have.
“All I want to do now is go home,” he adds. “I’m not interested in anything else.”