With a population of five to seven million, the Karen are Burma’s largest ethnic minority, but their numbers have offered no protection against persecution by the Burmese. This mistreatment has been going on for centuries, and entered a new phase after Burma won its independence from Britain in 1948. Unlike many other groups in Burma, the Karen had remained loyal to the British during World War II and were supposed to have been rewarded with autonomy when Britain pulled out; instead they were left to battle for that themselves. Fourteen years after the British withdrawal, the Burmese army took control, setting up an isolationist state run under a bizarre ideology compounded of militarist, socialist and Buddhist principles. In 1988, opposition to this junta peaked with a series of pro-democracy demonstrations that were suppressed by the slaughter of thousands.
In subsequent elections an overwhelming majority voted for the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. In response, the military placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest (where she remained until 2010) and declared all opposition parties illegal. The disenfranchised MPs then joined the thousands of ordinary citizens who, in the face of the savagery of the Burmese militia against the country’s minorities, had fled east to jungle camps along the Thai border and beyond, into Thailand itself. Common tactics employed by the Burmese army against minority groups include the forcible razing and relocation of villages, systematic murder, rape and robbery, and the rounding-up of slave labour.
Despite positive steps in a nationwide peace process, which has seen numerous ceasefires signed since late 2011, clashes continue to erupt between government forces and armed factions of some minority groups. The Karen people, whose homeland state of Kawthulay borders northwest Thailand from Mae Sariang down to Three Pagodas Pass, are among those affected. Despite signing a ceasefire, the Karen National Union (KNU), which has an armed wing, was involved in skirmishes with Burmese government troops as recently as March 2012. (The Karen are distinct from the Karenni, or Red Karen, whose homeland is north of Kawthulay and borders Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province.)
As a result of these conflicts, as many as one thousand Burmese are thought to flee across the Thai border every month, the majority of them Karen. For many years Thai government policy has been to admit only those who are fleeing active fighting, not human rights violations. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and has no legal framework for processing asylum seekers. The hundreds of thousands who have left their homeland because of politically induced economic hardship – forced labour, theft of their land and livestock, among other factors – must therefore either try to enter the refugee camps illegally, or attempt to make a living as migrant workers. There are between two and three million migrants from Burma currently in Thailand. Without refugee status, these exiles are extremely vulnerable to abuse, both from corrupt officials and from exploitative employers. In Mae Sot, for example, where Burmese migrants are a mainstay of the local economy, many of them are reportedly paid as little as B70 a day (less than half the regional minimum wage) to work in the worst jobs available, in gem and garment factories, and as prostitutes. Demands for better wages and improved conditions, however, nearly always result in deportation.
Reactions in the Thai press to Burmese refugees are mixed, with humanitarian concerns tempered by economic hardships in Thailand and by high-profile cases of illegal Burmese workers involved in violent crimes and drug-smuggling (Burma is now one of the world’s leading producers and smugglers of methamphetamines, also known as ya baa, or Ice, much of which finds its way into Thailand).