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Time to Go? Potential Closing of Refugee Camps Along Thai-Burma Border

23 May, 2011

by Shannon Carr, Master of Applied Anthropology (MAA) Student at Macquarie University

Note by Jaap: This is the first in a series of blogs by MAA students on their research conducted within the framework of the course. With these blogs we want to showcase to a wider audience the often wonderful results and relevant insights gained during MAA research projects. 

Thailand has just announced plans to close all nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, sending over 150,000 refugees back across a border littered with land mines and army factions to a country that is unstable and unsafe. Many of them no longer have a home due to the fact that their villages have been destroyed. How can this be right? This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ill treatment of Burmese refugees in Thailand, for a country known to have sent boat refugees back out to sea to die with no food or water and transport refugees in the back of a truck packed so tightly that many suffocated.

The Thai authorities have not yet set a date, and aid organizations and the UNHCR are stating that repatriation must be strictly voluntary, that no one should be forced back across the border into Burma. The Thai and Burmese governments are in talks over the potential closing of the camps.

I was alerted to this announcement while doing fieldwork with Burmese refugees here in Sydney. My research is looking at the treatment of Burmese refugees in Thailand, both in the country and in the refugee camps. I am doing research for the Master of Applied Anthropology course at Macquarie University. This news alarmed me, and certainly the entire Burmese community here in Sydney, many of whom are still trying to have their loved ones brought out of the camps and over to Australia. If this happens, most of them will be affected as loved ones are pushed back into the warzone.

Photograph from Jack Dunford (2004),

Twenty Years on the Border.

Bangkok, Thailand: Burma Border Consortium.

One Burmese friend of mine, who has been in Australia for quite a long time now, had quite a bit to say about this. “My friends on the border, they have headache and cry. They worry they will be sent back”. He, on the other hand, does not believe that this will happen. The refugees are too vital to the Thai economy, he said. He went on to explain how the border area houses factories owned by Thai businessmen and staffed almost 100% by Burmese refugees who work for almost nothing. Foreigners are not allowed to own businesses, and as such, Burmese pay Thais to put their names on the businesses. Should the refugees be sent home, the factories would lose their staff and potentially close down. Very few Thais would be willing to work there for such low pay. The Thai economy, then, would lose millions of dollars. Politically, he explained, the government would never get the support of the factory owners, and while they turn a blind eye to the exploitation of the Burmese workers, they know how important they are to the Thai economy.

So why would the Thai government even consider sending so many refugees back to Burma considering the circumstances and the detrimental affect it would have on the Thai economy? The relationship between the two countries has always been rocky ever since the first Burmese attack on what was then called the Kingdom of Siam in the 1500s. The modern governments have been trying to maintain good ties through trade and mutual support, and Thailand even supported the entrance of Burma into ASEAN, despite international outcry. Burma, at times, has accused Thailand of supporting rebel troops who take refuge in the camps and periodically attack the Burmese military. Could this be an attempt for Thailand to show its cooperation with the Burmese government by returning its people, and more importantly, delivering the ‘rebels’ into the hands of the military?

US Puts Pressure on Burma’s brutal military

to stop the slaughter as sanctions loom.

Mail Online 05 October 2007.

The country of Thailand has a very unique culture, one that they have always wanted to preserve. The Thai government has very stringent rules about naturalization and becoming “Thai”. Being Thai has always been important, following Thai culture, mastery of Thai language; none of “being Thai” is observed in the refugee camps, with few refugees even being able to learn Thai language. The fact that none of them would pass the naturalization laws means that they are outside of Thai norm, and thus are not subject to the same rights and freedoms of Thai people.

The Thai government is there to protect its own people, yet has been under the burden of housing millions of refugees on all borders in the past century, with refugees coming from Laos, Cambodia, and Burma as a result of many Indochinese conflicts. At this point, it is possible that while still wanting to respect human rights, Thailand has become weary of its humanitarian burden and is ready to protect the “Thainess” of its culture from refugees, and at the same time protecting its own relations with the Burmese government from the necessarily politicized environment of the camps, where there are many refugees who have or are still involved in militant activities against the Burmese government. Thailand would be looking out for its own security and protecting itself from the invasion of Burmese, just as they had to in the past. Thailand and Burma’s unsteady history creates a basis for this fear of invasion.

Thailand’s military culture has always allowed for the use of force when opposition calls out, and has been seen multiple times over the past three or four decades with violent crackdowns against its own people during mass demonstrations, whether peaceful or not. If strength and force can be used against their own people, it is not a far cry to pushing out those who may not culturally belong in Thailand; those who create a heavy burden on the country and who originally were meant only to be temporary residents but have now been forced to create permanent settlements. (For more about Thai military crackdowns through an anthropological lens, an excellent book is Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand by Alan Klima).

Will Thailand actually go through with this, or is it just for show, an empty threat? It would be foolish for the Thai economy if the government goes through with this, and it would be a death sentence for many of the refugees.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 May, 2011 7:19 pm

    Shannon, thanks for being the first to contribute to this series and thanks to Jaap for helping to get the work of MAA students out there. I just wrote a long comment on this post but a server error meant that I lost it all — gah, so frustrating!

    Anyway, the gist of what I was saying is that I really liked the post and I think it raised interesting issues about the ambiguous position of Burmese refugees in Thailand. E.g. are they a “burden” on the Thai state? Or are they in fact an economic resource? And how is it that these multiple constructions can co-exist? The other thing I liked was the way you connected the views of your informants with events in Thailand. This seems to be an interesting part of the research: how do transnational imaginaries of refugees form, and why is it that the politics of Thailand have such a profound effect on people living in Sydney? It will be great if you can unpick some of the elements of this diasporic consciousness.

    A couple of caveats I’d make regard your use of “Thai culture” as a way of explaining possible reasons for the decision to repatriate refugees. It’s important to remember, I think, that there is no such thing as Thai culture in this hard and fast sense and anything that we call Thai culture has been produced by a particular elite as part of an explicit project of nation-building. The Thais have been so successful in this project that academics often buy into and use it to explain things. However, I think it’s the existence of the notion of a unified Thai culture that itself needs to be explained.

    So rather than focusing on “Thai culture” I think we need to consider the current policies towards Burmese refugees in light of contemporary political developments. There is a strong revival of nationalist sentiment in Thailand surround uncertainties over the future of the monarchy and struggles between different factions in society — e.g. between the so-called “red shirts” and “yellow shirts”. Is the approach to refugees the result of attempts to generate nationalist sentiment? The Burmese are often used as a political football in Thailand — a bit like asylum seekers in Australia — as “symbolic pollutants” of the national body politic who threaten to overflow its boundaries and destroy its purity. What is lost is the fact that various Burmese groups have always been part of Siam/Thailand and some, such as the Mon, have been instrumental in creating the current form of Thailand’s most elite form of Buddhism, one of the primary symbols of national identity. This paradoxical situation is something your focus on the ambiguities of the refugees helps to point out: they are economic insiders, a vital aspect of the national economy, and yet they are political and cultural outsiders, denied citizenship and used to define the boundaries of the nation-state.

    However, anything we can say about the Thai state’s motivations for dealing with refugees in a particular way is going to be speculation. The real strength of your work is the ethnography, and it’s important to bear that in mind. In the end what matters most is not the reasons for the Thai state doing what it’s doing, which we can never know for certain, but the impact this has on your informants, and this is what you can capture in your ethnography. Hopefully this will be what comes out most strongly in the final version of your thesis.

  2. Shannon Carr permalink
    26 May, 2011 10:11 pm

    Hi Jovan, thank you for your insight! Your comment gave me a lot to think about, and actually I hadn’t even considered the idea of the “red shirts” vs. “yellow shirts” as possibly being a factor in that as well. You are very right, we will never truly know why, and so the ethnography will be the strength that comes out of this. I really enjoyed your comment, and I will definitely use the insights to strengthen my research.

  3. 26 May, 2011 10:44 pm

    You’re most welcome. I’m really glad you got something out of the comments. I almost decided not to bother rewriting them after I lost them the first time! All the best with the thesis!

  4. 5 November, 2013 12:54 am

    Hello. I am university student in Thailand. I am doing a research paper on the closure of Thai-Burma refugee camp. I do wonder one thing after I have read through your article, how the refugee contribute to the Thai economy? I mean do these refugee allowed to go out of the camp and work for Thai people such as in the factory or the restaurant ?. Because what I heard is that they cannot go out of the camp so how they can go out and earn some money and be a part of Thai economy?
    Thank you in advance

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