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An unflinching look at the face of suffering

by Richard Humphries

FEAR AND SANCTUARY: Burmese Refugees in Thailand, by Hazel J. Lang. Cornell Southeast Asia Publications: Ithaca, New York, 2002, 240 pp., $24 (paper)

An army column enters a small farming village without warning. The soldiers have been taught that everyone there is a potential enemy. Should any villagers flee in fear, that can only indicate guilt. Punishment is meted out on the spot without pity.

The lower ranks must live off the land, so villagers’ food is seized, valuables are confiscated, and, in the event of slim pickings, extortionate taxes levied through the village headman. Perhaps a villager or two will be interrogated or tortured and someone’s daughter or wife compelled to provide sexual services. For the military, suspicions can rarely be allayed, but “good behavior” might mean carrying gear and ammunition for the column as it moves on, or perhaps a lengthy labor assignment, at no pay, for the benefit of the officer corps. And the village itself might have to move forthwith and relocate to an area where they can be better watched and fulfill their role as helots.

This is the harsh reality, the fear, for many of the ethnic minorities who try to survive in Myanmar near its 2,401-km border with Thailand, and the reason why they flee. Myanmar has been at war with itself since 1948 and continues to bleed. Arguments over justice, basic freedoms, ethnic diversity and the nature of the state have rarely been conducted in a calm, give-and-take manner. More often than not they have been viewed through the barrel of a gun.

Hazel Lang succinctly states that “refugees are defined by the fear they flee from and the sanctuary they seek.” And there are now several hundred thousand so defined as a result of that conflict. Lang looks to explain the crisis within a broader context to ascertain its nature and causes and to highlight the power relationships involved, especially at higher levels, and the changing responses being made by Thai authorities. As such the book, essentially a case study with an emphasis on the Mon ethnic group, is of strong practical value for aid workers, diplomats, journalists, and other observers wanting to understand the background and dynamics of this and other similar conflicts.

For indeed the nature of war has changed, as Lang points out. During World War I, uniformed combatants accounted for some 90 percent of fatalities. Today’s prevalence of low-intensity guerrilla conflicts has led to that ratio being reversed. The Maoist dictum of the people being the seas now means the sea is targeted for draining.

Lang by no means excuses the ethnic minority armies who have also been guilty of obfuscation and egregious human rights violations. Nonetheless, it remains true that the overwhelming measure of responsibility lies with the Myanmar Army, whose tactics force significant populations to seek an uncertain sanctuary in foreign lands. Since 1968, the Myanmar borderlands have been color-coded by Myanmar’s Army as part of its counter-insurgency “Four Cuts” program (food, funding, intelligence and recruits). White is for controlled areas, brown for contested, and black for insurgent-controlled. The last is essentially a free-fire zone, but woe be it to villagers who live in either brown or black.

The book is particularly strong on the sanctuary issue and is based not only on a vast amount of research, but also, at a more personal level, by access to Thai military or government personnel and others in a position to know. Lang outlines the roles of many of the players in this unfortunate drama: refugees, activists, Thai government and military authorities, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose role, somewhat controversial, has increased in the last several years.

Thailand does not recognize the international conventions governing refugees, and prefers to use terminology like “illegal immigrants” and “displaced persons fleeing fighting” to describe refugees. Bad experiences with the Cold War-driven Cambodian refugee situation of the 1970s and 1980s has meant Thailand is, at best, a reluctant host. And where some minority armies, like those of the Karen, who still fight, and those of the Mon (now in a tenuous military ceasefire with the authorities in Yangon) were once seen as useful buffers against either communism or Myanmar, many Thai policy makers now view them as impediments. One determining factor is access to natural resources (oil, gas and teak) of which Myanmar has many and Thailand has few. Another is Thai officials’ resistance to their country remaining a permanent haven.

Bearing the brunt of this are the refugees, who live in camps along the border, or even more uncertainly and less legally in Thailand’s cities. There have been cases of refoulement (forced repatriation) and, worse, of cross-border armed attacks on unprotected camps in Thailand, bringing into question the very notion of sanctuary. And Lang’s description of the life in Bangkok’s notorious Immigration Detention Center makes for very unpleasant reading.

Still, she notes that in many cases where Thai officialdom has refused to ratify international conventions in principle, it has often sought, more importantly, to observe them in practice. Also, refugee policy as a whole is evolving as circumstances change. There are different power centers in Bangkok and along the border, and “local arrangements” have often been possible. Sometimes the proverbial blind eye has been of more use to a refugee than a U.N. document naming them “a person of concern.”

In her conclusion, Lang, citing Myanmar democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, mentions the Myanmar word for refugee, dukka-the, which translates as “the one who has to bear suffering.” Her book achieves what it sets out to do, explaining the whys and the hows of that suffering, despite the difficulty of the task and its inherent sorrow.