Border Thailand/Myanmar – When an evening thunderstorm rolled through a border town in Thailand in May, a group of Myanmar families celebrated the start of the rainy season together from their compound. men chewed betel and drank tea from the porch; Children ran around until their clothes were soaked; A woman in a sarong took out shampoo and washed her hair.
While enjoying the break from the sweltering heat, it was a temporary respite for the families, who are all refugees.
They come from very different backgrounds: politicians and community organizers, civil servants who refused to work under military rule, and ordinary citizens drawn into the pro-democracy movement. Their stories agree that they all fled their homes after the military coup last February, entered Thailand irregularly, and appealed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for humanitarian protection.
Unable to return safely to Myanmar or reside legally in Thailand, which does not recognize refugees living outside camps, they are among 288 Myanmar refugees who have since been referred by UNHCR in Thailand to third-country governments for resettlement Early 2021 according to UNHCR online database. This number may also include refugees who entered Thailand before the coup, fleeing previous waves of persecution and violence.
The relocation screening process does not have a set timetable, and some of the families Al Jazeera spoke to said they started the process more than a year ago. While they wait, they rarely venture outside their premises due to their undocumented status.
As they watch the changing seasons together, mourn what they left behind and anticipate what lies ahead, they have forged steadfast friendships.
“We came here, met and became a community,” said Saw Htoo, a Baptist reverend from Myanmar’s Karen ethnic minority. “We have things in common, which makes it easier to address our issues.”
He and other refugees mentioned in this report were identified under pseudonyms and their whereabouts were kept secret for security reasons.
In the 17 months since Myanmar’s military took power, it has sought to purge the country of dissent and crush widespread opposition to its rule. Soldiers and police have shot hundreds of nonviolent protesters, while the military has responded to the growing armed resistance movement by attacking communities with bombings, artillery fire and arson.
Nearly 800,000 people have fled their homes since the coup, according to a monthly United Nations Humanitarian Update released in June, which identified 758,000 people displaced within Myanmar and 40,000 who entered India.
The report makes no mention of refugees in Thailand; In response to emailed questions, Morgane Roussel-Hemery of UNHCR Al Jazeera’s Thailand office said there were no refugees from Myanmar living on the Thai side of the border, according to the Thai government as of June 22.
She added that the Thai government directs the country’s refugee aid at the border, where it introduced standard procedures last March that stipulated that all refugees should be housed in “temporarily safe areas” under the administration of the Thai army.
Although 20,000 people were housed in those areas as of June 22, all returned to Myanmar “after the fighting reportedly subsided,” Roussel-Hemery said, citing the Thai government. UNHCR was not given access to assess the refugees’ protection needs before their return, she told Al Jazeera.
Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights have reported that Thai officials have at times pushed back refugees from Myanmar and blocked their entry across the border; the Thai government has denied these claims.
The situation has deteriorated since the last week of June, when heavy fighting broke out between the military and armed resistance groups near the Thai border. Since then, the Myanmar military has repeatedly attacked the area from the air, causing civilian and militant casualties.
UNHCR’s Roussel-Hemery told Al Jazeera that between June 29 and July 4, the Thai government counted 1,429 people from Myanmar who fled to Thailand, of whom 802 were in “temporarily safe areas”.
UNHCR declined to respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for information on the number of “urban refugees” or people living outside camps, instead emphasizing that their safety is primarily the responsibility of the state.
“Dismantling a Raft”
But as the urban refugees are not recognized and counted by the Thai government, they remain in a precarious situation. Al Jazeera spoke to three of them about why they came to Thailand and how they are enduring their current situation while awaiting possible resettlement.
One of them is Thida, who joined a crowd of protesters in Yangon with her husband in the weeks after the coup and went into hiding in May, fearing arrest. In October, when Thida was eight months pregnant, the couple decided to leave the country.
They hid in a village near the border for a week before entering Thailand in the rain, carrying their belongings on their backs. “It was very difficult and I kept slipping. It’s so lucky my baby survived,” said Thida. “When I got here I was so happy that I started crying because I knew I wasn’t going to die.”
For Saw Htoo, the moment of emigration came last March. His wife, a hospital administrator in Mandalay, was among hundreds of thousands of officials who had refused to work under the military administration; Weeks after the military began arresting people joining the strikes, the couple decided to leave town with their elementary-school-age daughter.
Over the next eight months, they gradually made their way more than 800 kilometers (497 miles) southeast in search of safety and a place to send their daughter to school, and by November they sold their belongings and crossed Thailand. “We left everything in Burma and fled,” Saw Htoo said. “There’s a Burmese proverb that says ‘take down a raft’.”
They hid in close quarters with other families for about four months before moving into their current accommodation. “By then we had moved about six or seven times and we were starting to go crazy,” he said. “Go from place to place [my daughter] always asked: ‘When do we have to move again?’”
Now his daughter spends her time in the room she shares with her parents or plays with the other children on the premises, including Ko Ko’s daughter. Ko Ko, a prominent figure in Myanmar’s Muslim community and an activist promoting social cohesion between Muslims and Buddhists, had also run an online news channel focused on Muslim issues in Myanmar. Although he shut it down within days of the coup, he knew he wasn’t safe. “I always expected someone to come and knock on the door to arrest me,” said Ko Ko of Naypyidaw City.
But it was his brother, a university lecturer, who got into trouble first. Last May, the military issued an arrest warrant for him for refusing to work under their administration, and the two brothers decided to flee to Thailand. “I thought that in a month or two this would be here [regime] everything would be ready,” said Ko Ko. “I thought the military would fall and then I would go home and get back to work.”
But the crisis in Myanmar only worsened, so three months later the brothers brought their parents, wives and four young children with them instead. The families faced a difficult journey — first camping in canvas tents in the rain, then wading the waist-high Moei River at night and trekking through muddy hills and fields — before they were reunited with the two brothers.
“One strange thing is that children usually cry in the rain, but my baby was so scared that he didn’t cry,” said Ko Ko, whose daughter was only months old at the time. His father, on the other hand, is in his seventies and uses a cane to walk. “My father told me that he had never experienced anything like this in his entire life,” he said.
‘We are a family’
In the months since the resettlement screening process began, families have taken up a variety of activities to while the time pass. At sunrise they walk and jog in circles; At sunset they play badminton and chinlone, a traditional Burmese sport. During the day, women crochet scarves and hats in anticipation of snowy winters, while Saw Htoo teaches his daughter and his neighbors’ children basic English and math classes, incorporating skills like counting nickels and dimes. “I don’t have an educational background and I don’t know the methodology, but I try to teach the children as best as I can,” he said.
Although Ko Ko and his family have no income, they often cook meals to share with the other families. “I decided that I would help others here in any way I can. Now it’s become like we’re family,” he said. “Although we have different ethnicities and religions and come from different places, we all experience the same life.”
But he and other interviewees said the survivors’ grief, guilt and fear descended on them. In March, following clashes between armed forces and local resistance groups in Khin-U township in Myanmar’s north-western Sagaing region, military forces set fire to hundreds of houses, forcing Thida’s parents to flee to Yangon. “After I come [to a third country]”I’ll be safe, but my parents are staying behind,” she said. “I can’t even think about what’s going to happen to them.”
Saw Htoo is worried about his wife, who is now pregnant, and his daughter, who has been out of school for more than two years. “We cannot think about what to do tomorrow because our resettlement time is not certain,” he said. “We don’t have a backup plan. Sometimes a refugee is just a refugee.”
To deal with this, he turns to his Christian faith and the biblical story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. “I just pray to God, ‘Guide us in Your will,'” he said. “[The Israelites] Went to the land of milk and honey for 40 years, and halfway through the journey they took manna from heaven every day. I have this feeling right now.”
Drawing on his Muslim faith, Ko Ko is focused on giving his children the opportunities he never had. “Two-thirds of my life has already passed, so I’m not thinking about myself, just my children,” he said. “I hope that my children can achieve what I could not and that they reach their full potential. I try to do that when I come to a third country.”
This article was supported by an ARTICLE 19 grant through Voices for Inclusion, a project funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.