Following the demonstration by refugees in Mae La camp in Tak Province on 14 December, Move Forward Party (MFP) MPs and representatives and NGOs urged a fair investigation that also addresses the root causes that turned a peaceful protest violent in one night.
Refugees gather in Mae La camp on 14 December. (Source: Facebook/ Mae La Information Team)
On 15 December, Kris Panniam, MFP’s Tak MP candidate, said that according to the MFP media team, the camp has been brimming with discontent over its operations on the ground.
Kris said that the camp has allowed some refugees to find jobs outside the camp, while the refugees and camp authorities have also been cooperating in buying and selling goods, some, according to rumour, even including donated materials.
An influential group of officials and refugees had emerged, which oppressed the other camp residents, causing difficulties when the camp was trying to make important arrangements like a quarantine procedure in the camp to control Covid-19 infections.
He demanded the Thai government investigate the matter as soon as possible and punish those who are behind the incident.
Pratchaya Punhakit, another MFP candidate MP in Tak also said that according to his sources the protest was triggered by the authorities kicking a refugee for not wearing a face mask as they were riding a vehicle home. The refugee’s friends who went to help were also harassed.
Pratchaya underlined the issue of the influential group of officials and refugees who, he has heard, have stolen good quality donations while leaving a small remainder for the majority of refugees. One officer was also alleged to have allowed sexual harassment of refugees.
“These issues that were being talked about, whatever the degree of truth, both the UN and the Thai government, who have oversight of the refugee camp, must investigate the issues of influence, extortion and rights violations that have taken place, including the case of physical assault that happened recently,” said Pratchaya.
What happened on the night of 14 December?
On the night of 14 December, Mae La camp, Thailand’s largest refugee camp housing over 43,700 refugees, saw a demonstration by over 30,000 Karen refugees. According to BBC Thai, the demonstration was a protest against the camp authorities for detaining and beating 4 refugees after they came back from work outside the camp.
A volunteer official at the camp, however, stated that the refugees gathered to show their discontent with the camp’s policies of restricting entrance to the camp and face-mask regulations.
The protest was at first peaceful with refugees seen banging bamboo and their properties to express dissatisfaction. But the authorities' belongings, including vehicles, were later set on fire. 7 checkpoints and merchandise stalls were also razed, causing 200 officials, including the Assistant District Officer, to flee for safety.
The protest died down after several hours.
Damaged car and facilities after the protest. (Source: Facebook/ Mae La Information Team)
Pornsuk Kerdsawang from Friends Without Borders, a civil society organization working on refugee issues, said that the discontent between the refugees and camp officials has been aggravated during the Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown policy in all camps that limited the daily flow of people and goods in and out had affected the refugees' livelihoods and economic conditions.
Pornsuk also urged the responsible government authorities to investigate the situation thoroughly and without bias. The investigation should also look into the issue of discontent within the camp and the cause of it.
She also urged the authorities to review the camp lockdown policy that does not actually solve the infection problem, but worsens residents’ livelihoods instead.
“Under lockdown, villagers cannot go out to work. Although Thai law does not allow refugees to go out to work, before Covid-19, each camp usually used some kind of compromise, because in reality, it is impossible not to let people out and there is the issue of outside assistance decreasing every year. The food in the camp is not enough.”
“But now all exit is banned, which means the villagers cannot go out for work. The refugees were grumbling about having no money, some kids had to quit school because their parents had no money for it. Meanwhile, living costs in the camp increased, but they can’t go to work. It must be considered how the refugees would live. And they say that lockdowns can’t prevent Covid-19 because there have been reports from inside the camps all the time that, despite the lockdowns, infections spread inside the camp anyway,” said Pornsuk.
Manop Keereepuwadol, an MFP MP who is a Karen-Thai citizen, also said that the protest on Tuesday was the result of the decades of discontent over corruption and restrictions within the camp. He also urged a thorough investigation into the matter.
“I want the root cause of the problem to be seen. All those that are living here have fled the heat to seek the cold. If it wasn’t more than they could take, if there was no cause, they would not stand up and fight. There are causes that make people who are oppressed rise up. … For them to rise up and fight like this must come from something that’s gone wrong in the administration inside the camp as a major reason,” said Manop
Following the fall of Manerplaw in 1995, the headquarters of the Karen National Union (KNU) and the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), the armed groups that oppose the Myanmar military government, hundreds of thousands refugees, mainly Karen, fled across the border to Thailand.
In the 30 years since, camps have been set up in the border provinces to house the refugees temporarily. Tens of thousands had moved on to third countries while an insignificant number returned to Myanmar.