Spirits were high among the select group of Burmese refugees waiting in the stifling midday heat to catch a brief glimpse of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, affectionately known simply as “The Lady”, during her historic visit to Thailand’s largest refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border.
Security was tight at the Mae La camp as more than a thousand refugees were allowed into a barricaded area on 2 June, where they lined up along a dirt road leading to the camp clinic to welcome the column of vehicles surrounded by armed militia escorting Aung San Suu Kyi, who took her seat in the Burmese parliament in May after being kept under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years.
“I have never seen her before so that is why I am here to see her,” said Ma Tway Yee, 47, who fled her home last year when fighting broke out between government forces and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.
“I think if there is peace in Burma I would really like to go back to my village, but not now, because there are military base camps in my village,” the mother of 10 told IRIN.
Fellow camp inhabitant Ah Zeet agreed. “It’s about more than just security. There are also the political issues – as long as they have not been resolved, we cannot safely go back. There has to be guarantees of our safety if we are to return.”
Myanmar’s first nominally civilian government in decades has instituted reforms including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, allowing the formation of labour unions, lifting media restrictions, and the entrance of the pro-democracy National League for Democracy (NLD) into Myanmar’s government.
NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was not allowed to use a loud-speaker to address the refugees. But, standing on a chair to make herself visible, she was allowed to speak briefly to the crowd of well-wishers and supporters at the clinic.
“Someday you will be able to go home – I will try for that. People in the front row have to tell the other people that,” she shouted to make herself heard above the crowd. “I will do what I can to help to fill in the health and necessary needs in the refugee camp.” Much of her speech was lost in the shouting and cheers from the people gathered around her inside the fenced hospital yard.
Many of the ethnic leaders were disappointed that meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was surrounded by Thai security personnel, did not take place, and several key stops in the Thai border town of Mae Sot were skipped, including the Mae Tao Clinic, which serves the Burmese refugee population, the vast majority of whom are ethnic Karen.
Security was particularly tight Visitors from neighbouring camps hoped they would all benefit from the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s visit. “I hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to see the difficult conditions that the people in the refugee camps face here. Even the children that were born in here have no right to travel, so I hope that will give… [her] something to think about,” said Saw Mort, who was recording the visit for the Karen Student Network.
According to the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an umbrella group of NGOs working along the border, there are more than 140,000 Burmese refugees, mostly ethnic Karen, living in 10 camps along the 1,800km Thai-Burmese border, including more than 53,000 unregistered people.
In eastern Myanmar, particularly in Karen state, healthcare and education standards are rated among the worst in Asia.
The sprawling camp of Mae La houses close to 50,000 people. Naw Bee, 47, was preparing dinner for her family of five children. “If I go back it would be good to have a job, and my children need an education. Right now, if I go back to the village I have no farm to work on.”
Like Naw Bee, most of the refugees in the camp were forced from their homes during attacks by Myanmar’s former ruling military junta.
The government has long had a contentious relationship with its ethnic minority groups, which account for about a third of the country’s more than 54 million inhabitants. Fighting broke out more than 60 years ago, after the country gained independence from Britain.
Despite ongoing peace talks between the government and most ethnic groups, fighting in northern Kachin State between Burmese government forces and the Kachin Independence Army continues, and tens of thousands remain displaced nearly a year after a 17-year-old ceasefire was broken.