U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Myanmar

Burma More than 184,000 Burmese refugees were living in neighboring countries at the end of 1996. They included 40,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh; 5,000 Rohingya in Malaysia; 89,975 Burmese of various ethnicities and 2,360 former students and pro-democracy activists in Thailand; 7,000 Kachin in China; and more than 40,000 ethnic Chins and pro-democracy students in India. Some 350,000 Burmese often considered economic migrants, but whose motives for leaving the country may have included fear of persecution, were living without documentation in refugee-like circumstances in Thailand. Lack of access and information made it difficult to establish the number of internally displaced persons in Burma, but estimates of their number ranged from 500,000 to 1,000,000. Human Rights The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and its army, the tatmadaw, seized power in 1988 when they crushed the democracy movement and jailed most of the leaders of the party that had been democratically elected to rule Burma, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Since coming to power, SLORC has been considered one of the world's most repressive regimes; the tatmadaw has reportedly doubled in size, to as many as 400,000 troops. In a surprise move, SLORC released Suu Kyi in July 1995. According to Human Rights Watch/Asia, the human rights situation in Burma deteriorated in 1996, and "political arrests and repression dramatically increased, while forced labor, forced relocations, and arbitrary arrests continued." During the year, SLORC twice denied entry visas to UN Human Rights rapporteurs, arrested hundreds of members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, and broke up student demonstrations that were the largest since the 1988-89 pro-democracy uprising. SLORC also stepped up its use of forced relocations, a major cause of internal displacement in Burma, to tighten its control over the population. Beginning in early March, it forced the evacuation of some 450 villages in central and southern Shan state, uprooting an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people. SLORC forcibly relocated 10,000 villagers in Kayah state in June, and more than 25,000 in Karenni state between May and July. SLORC troops forced families to walk for days in the middle of the rainy season with little food. As many as 150 people, mostly children, reportedly died during the relocations in the Sha Daw area of Karenni state. SLORC troops scored some victories against insurgent groups affiliated with ethnic minority groups. In January, the Karenni National Progressive Party lost one of its last strongholds. In July, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that included a provision that directed the president to impose economic sanctions on Burma if SLORC's human rights record deteriorated. Rohingya Refugees/Returnees Some 10,000 Burmese Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh during the year, even as Bangladesh carried out its controversial repatriation of Rohingya. Some 23,000 Rohingya were repatriated from Bangladesh in 1996. At the end of 1996, fewer than 30,500 of the original 250,000 refugees who fled to Bangladesh during 1991 and 1992 remained there. USCR returned to Bangladesh in June to assess the repatriation and to document conditions for the newly arrived refugees. A USCR site visit report in July said that while UNHCR asserted that it was adequately monitoring the well-being of the returnees in Burma, critics of the repatriation expressed concern over UNHCR's positive assessment. The critics questioned whether UNHCR was adequately able to monitor the returnees given the small number of UNHCR protection staff in Burma, the agency's difficulty in reaching remote areas of the region, and its use of interpreters who NGOs feared may have to answer to the Burmese authorities. The fact that between one quarter and one third of the Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in 1996 appeared to be former refugees who had repatriated to Burma in recent years further fueled concern about the degree to which UNHCR had been able to guarantee the safety of returnees, to monitor their well-being, and to assist their reintegration. Local and international humanitarian workers acknowledged that economics played a large role in the new refugees' flight, but argued that the Rohingya were poor in large part because the Burmese authorities abused them and prevented them from leading normal lives. Other Burmese Refugees During the year, tens of thousands of Burmese refugees fled to Thailand to escape forced relocations, other SLORC human rights abuses, and fighting between the tatmadaw and insurgent groups. More than 20,000 of the new refugees were ethnic Shan who fled to Thailand at the beginning of the year. They fled a relocation program initiated by SLORC after some members of the Shan Moi Tai Army (MTA) broke away from the MTA and started a new insurgent group. The split in the MTA came after its leader, Khun Sa, an alleged drug lord indicted in the United States on heroin trafficking charges in 1989, agreed to a cease-fire with SLORC. SLORC undertook the relocations to prevent villagers from assisting the breakaway fighters. Thailand forced back some of the refugees and prevented many others from entering refugee camps, obliging them to join the ranks of undocumented aliens. Another 88,600 Burmese ethnic-minority refugees, mostly ethnic Karen, Karenni, and Mon, were already living in refugee camps in Thailand at the beginning of the year. The Thai government did not recognize the Burmese in the camps as refugees and did not permit UNHCR to extend them protection, but did allow international and local NGOs to assist the refugees. USCR estimated that by the end of the year, there were 112,000 Burmese ethnic-minority refugees in Thailand. During the year, Karen Buddhist dissidents, who in 1995 broke away from the mostly Christian Karen National Union insurgent group, continued to attack Burmese refugee camps in Thailand, reportedly along with SLORC soldiers.
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