Christopher J. Walker reflects on the lives of Myanmar political activists, sheltering from the Tatmadaw as exiles in Thailand.
Editor’s Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in an ongoing series, Chronicle of a Coup, comprised of reports written from within Myanmar by Christopher J. Walker (a pseudonym), a longtime resident, which together sketch one person’s first-hand account of the weeks and months following the February 1, 2021, military coup. A selection of his reports will be posted weekly, every Friday. A chronological archive is also available here.
Tea Circle is grateful to Christopher for sharing his personal account of life under military rule in Myanmar. Recognizing that his voice is one of many, we encourage other authors to submit their own accounts.
The forgotten ones, Part 2 – Thailand | June 16, 2021
For Part I of this post, please click here.Embed from Getty Images
A Myanmar political fugitive, newly arrived in Thailand as a refugee—usually alone, short of money, with few contacts, and generally unwanted by the Thais—faces a profoundly daunting and uncertain future. Fortunately, on the Thai side of the border is a significant community of sympathetic ex-patriot Burmese who will help on this next stretch of the journey. They will often take responsibility for settling refugees into a safe house and teaching them the dos and don’ts of survival in exile.
Another option is to seek protection in a UN- or INGO-supported refugee camp. But these camps are typically overcrowded and the living conditions often appalling. Once in a camp there is little hope of proceeding further, as evidenced by the tens of thousands who have languished in them for years, or for decades. For some of the younger refugees, a camp is the only home they have ever known, behind fences topped with barbed wire. If democracy is ever restored in Myanmar, the inmates might go home, but for now there is nowhere else for them to go.
Thailand is not, nor has it ever been, a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) policy that provides certain safeguards for those seeking refugee status. As a 2016 UNHCR report entitled “Global Strategy Beyond Detention” explains, “Refugees and asylum-seekers may be treated as illegal aliens unless they have a valid visa issued pursuant to the Thai Immigration Act. Absent a valid visa, they may be subject to arrest, prosecution and detention on immigration charges, irrespective of their status with the UNHCR.” Even if certified by the UNHCR, there is no guarantee that a refugee in Thailand will be safe from arrest or deportation. Thailand, like Myanmar, is governed by a self-appointed military regime—birds of a feather.
Given their lack of legal status, one of the first things that refugees need to acquire is a “police card,” which costs anywhere from US$4 to $30, and must be renewed monthly. Whatever minimal protection that such a card affords is strictly at the local level; it’s of no use beyond the boundary of the local police precinct. But should refugees be stopped by police, it might protect them from incarceration. However, since Thai authorities are not bound by the 1951 Refugee Convention, local police are free to adjust the rules at their discretion. Having a card is not a legal requirement, but is, in Mae Sot, an enterprise that supplements the income of police officials. Higher-ups at the provincial level are, no doubt, aware of this scam and, while denying that it exists, probably share in the proceeds.
I heard about two Burmese exiles in Thailand who, like hundreds of others, were waiting to have their application for refugee status approved by the UNHCR. On the anniversary of their wedding day, as is the custom in much of Burma, they wanted to offer a donation for the benefit of others less fortunate. They chose for that purpose a nearby refugee camp outside of Mae Sot, which was beyond the local protection of their police cards. Imprudently, they left their safe house and drove off with an obliging friend who had a car. As they neared their destination, they were stopped by police who asked to see their visas, which they didn’t have. Instead, they presented their police cards. The officers quickly pointed out that their cards were not legal in the area they now were. They were taken not to a police station, but to a police housing compound. There the policemen attempted to extort from each of them “fines” of 6,000 Thai baht, nearly US$190. Their driver, a Burmese man who had a legal Thai residency permit, negotiated a deal on their behalf: 6,000 baht for both and they were free to go.
Once a Burmese exile has found a temporary shelter in Thailand, the next stop on the Underground Railroad is an application to the UNHCR to be recognized as an official refugee. This process is excruciatingly long and emotionally draining for those who have been forced to abandon everything, including family, friends and possessions, and flee for their lives. The process takes at least six months, sometimes more than a year.
Initial involvement with the UNHCR consists of two or three interviews, usually conducted through an interpreter. But given the many and diverse languages spoken in Myanmar, the interpreters are frequently incapable of understanding the dialect or native language of the applicant. The interviewees, usually too shy and often too traumatized to speak up, are left to answer questions that they have not properly understood. One wrong answer, however, can result in an application being rejected, and deportation back to Burma becomes a not impossible result.
Along with the initial interviews come security checks. The exiles, likely having escaped Myanmar with nothing but a backpack, and with a history of active political resistance, fear that they might not be accepted as legitimate refugees. They have little understanding of the reasons for some of the questions and imagine that a wrong answer will mark them as criminals in the eyes of their interrogators.
If the interview process is successful, next comes the paperwork, the unfamiliar English-language notices and forms that must be completed, most of which are barely intelligible even to the few who have some fluency in English. The anxiety of inadvertently providing incorrect information resurfaces. People fleeing for their lives seldom stop to gather supportive documentation. Excavating seemingly irrelevant, and often painful, details from memory while living in the shadows as a fugitive, is in itself stress-inducing. In addition, applicants must provide health histories, undergo physical exams and acquire the vaccinations necessary to travel to a third country. They have no choice, however, but to suffer through this indeterminate process while simultaneously enduring the emotional toll of existing in an interminable state of lockdown in a safe house or refugee camp.
During the worst days of the COVID-19 epidemic, people in many countries had their first experience of indefinite house arrest, the psychological toll of being locked down at home day after day. They might then have the merest inkling of life as a fugitive. Refugees’ time is not spent wondering what they will do to occupy the long months before them. In their camps and tiny apartments, often with no cooking facilities, and possessions limited to what can fit in a small bag, they consider instead where their next meal will come from, or when they might hear pounding on the door by local police who, in all likelihood, do not wish them well.
Activist refugees often obsess about the aftereffects of the actions that forced them to flee, how those actions might have rebounded with deadly consequence upon their loved ones back home. When Burmese soldiers are on the hunt for a so-called “terrorist,” they often arrest family members who are held hostage until their quarry surrenders. Exiles have many lonely hours to second-guess the results of their acts of resistance against their country’s oppressors and to ponder the acute dangers that they might have inadvertently inflicted on their families.
Most Myanmar exiles have never been abroad, and do not want to abandon their homeland. But now, with their lives at stake, and in the UNHCR system, they have to face the prospect of a future, perhaps in a third country, that they can barely imagine, much less comprehend. Thoughts of adjusting to a foreign nation, wondering how they will survive where the language and culture are alien, loom before them. In their thousands—mostly alone, some young, some old, some with small children—they sit in their shrunken confines, waiting, waiting, waiting for some news from the UNHCR, waiting for some acknowledgement that they have not been forgotten.
Many can barely withstand the rigours of their open-ended isolation. Week by week and month by month the psychological pressure intensifies. To escape the unrelenting monotony, some impulsively leave the relative safety of their camp or temporary safe house and are nabbed by Thai police. At best, they will need to pay to be released; at worst, they will be imprisoned or deported as illegal aliens. Some can wait no longer, give up, and simply vanish. Maybe they end up somewhere in Thailand, working illegally, or, out of a debilitating homesickness, return to their loved ones in Burma in spite of the deadly peril. I know of one young woman in Thailand who is having an extremely difficult time emotionally. She is overwrought with concern for her parents back home. After many months in limbo, she is considering giving up on her UNHCR application and returning to Burma, although she would be in enormous danger if she did so. Her case is not out of the ordinary.
Another torment activists undergo is the shame of abandoning their political resistance and fleeing to escape being killed by the Tatmadaw. Frequently, they are too traumatized to fight on. They leave behind friends and colleagues whom they fear might shun them. As a result, even when safely abroad, they take pains to remain aloof, feeling guilty that they have abandoned the cause.
At every stop on the Underground Railroad these forgotten ones pay a heavy price for their struggle for freedom against a cruel, illegitimate regime. They deserve our understanding, not judgment; our compassion not, disdain; and our deepest gratitude for the noble sacrifices they have made. May they one day return to a free and democratic Myanmar.
Christopher J Walker (pseudonym) has called Myanmar home for a number of years. He thanks his friend and editor Mathieu Lukas for his assistance in preparing these reports for safe and timely publication.