Dear Friends and Colleagues:
I wanted to report to you on a recent trip to Thailand and Laos. It was a long trip, so I will provide two separate notes. The first will focus on the Thailand portion of the visit from June 10-12 and, in particular, the situation of Burmese refugees in Thailand.
As you may know, political repression in Burma has resulted in a decades-long exodus of Burmese, including ethnic minorities, to Thailand and elsewhere in the region. There are now roughly 140,000 refugees in nine camps along the Thai-Burma border, primarily from the Karen and Karenni communities, but also including smaller numbers of Mon, Chin, Kachin, Shan and other ethnic groups. In addition, there are an estimated two million vulnerable Burmese residing elsewhere in Thailand. And while the Thai authorities have made clear that local integration is not an option for this community and have occasionally pushed back border crossers, the Thai Government has generally maintained a policy of tolerance and refuge for the Burmese. The United States strongly supports such an approach, and it is therefore incumbent upon us to provide financial assistance to the many organizations that are assisting Burmese communities in Thailand.
On my first day in Thailand, June 10th, I met with a range of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organization (IO) representatives, as well as senior Thai officials, including Tawin Pleansri, the Secretary General of the National Security Council, and Theerakun Niyom, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I first emphasized our strong view that the elections in Burma, whenever they do occur, are not likely to create safe conditions for return of Burmese who are now in Thailand. I stressed that judgments on the feasibility of return must be made based on the reality of conditions on the ground, and not on whether or not an election has taken place. I also encouraged Thai officials to work with donors in exploring increased livelihood opportunities for Burmese refugees in Thailand. On all these issues, my Thai interlocutors clearly understood and appreciated our concerns, and we will sustain an intensive dialogue on these issues in the months to come.
With the assistance of Yuri, an interpreter with the International Organization for Migration (IOM),I spoke with Talemu, a 68-year old Burmese Karen. Though she has lived in Mae La Camp for the past six years Talemu told me she does not want to return to Burma due to the ongoing threats and abuse by the Burmese regime.
Photo by Hoa Tran, PRM Program Officer, Mae La Camp, Tak Province, Thailand. June 11, 2010.
On June 11th, I traveled to the Thai-Burma border, and visited the Mae La camp near Mae Sot. Although the U.S. government has been able to modestly increase its support to the camps through funds provided by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), overall assistance has been reduced, with adverse impacts on nutrition, health, medical care, psychosocial services, efforts to combat gender-based violence, and sanitation. Foreign exchange fluctuations are one cause, but another is a reduction in support from the European Commission – and we will be exploring ways to address this shortfall in the weeks and months to come.
In Mae Sot, I had the chance to visit with Burmese representatives of support and advocacy groups. I also met with Dr. Cynthia Maung and visited a clinic she runs for non-camp Burmese in the Mae Sot area and beyond. The clinic has a critical role to play in addressing the awfully difficult circumstances confronting Burmese in the border areas, which are a direct result of the deplorable state of politics and governance in Burma. Of course, the ultimate solution is genuine political dialogue and national reconciliation in Burma, but until that occurs, the work of individuals like Dr. Cynthia is absolutely critical to the protection of vulnerable people.
While PRM is the primary source of U.S. government support of camp-based Burmese, our colleagues at USAID have supported Dr. Cynthia and other community-based health care and social programs to help the Burmese on both sides of the border. PRM and USAID, together with other donors and our NGO partners, will continue to work closely together on these critical issues in the months to come.
I met with representatives from the Burmese community to hear about their views on democracy, human rights and the situation in conflict zones in eastern Burma.
Photo by Hoa Tran, PRM Program Officer. Mae Sot, Tak Province, Thailand. June 12, 2010.
Finally, near Mae Sot, I had the opportunity to visit the U.S.-supported refugee resettlement processing facility operated by the International Organization for Migration. During my visit, I was privileged to view and participate in cultural orientation classes sponsored by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) for refugees who are about to resettle in the United States. It was very moving for me to be with refugees about to begin new lives, and inspiring to witness the dedication and commitment of IRC staff and IOM colleagues to preparing these individuals for the challenges ahead.
As promised, I will shortly send a note on my mission to Laos.
Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration