An Escape Along the Thai Border: Burmese Refugees

By: Siri Wieringa and Kaylene Moulton

Burma is home to one of the longest running secret civil wars in the world. Lasting over 50 years, the country has been run by a succession of military governments (Bowles, 11). The violence that has been tearing Burma apart has caused citizens to flee the country. “Nearly one million people have fled Burma for relative safety of Thailand over the last two decades” (Lang, 369). Many go to refugee camps along the border of Burma in Thailand. “At the beginning of 1994, 72,000 refugees lived in 30 camps, of which the largest housed 8,000 people; by mid 1998, 110,000 refugees lived in 19 camps, with the largest housing over 30,000 people” (Bowles, 11). Refugee camps along the Burmese and Thailand border have become more and more prevent as the years have gone on. “About 142, 000 Burmese refugees reside as a ‘temporarily displaced people’ in one of the nine official refugee camps, while an estimated two million live and work outside the camp, either legally registered as migrant workers or more likely illegally”(284).

Established in 1984, the first Karen camp was not far from the borer town of Mae Sot. By 1986, 12 Karen refugee camps had been established with a total population of 18,000 people (Bowles, 11). Camps are located in all different types of terrains. “Some camps are located on main roads or near Thai villages, many are in remote areas (Bowles, 12). The arrangement of the camps vary depending on the size. “In some camps, houses are built in rows facing a main road through the center of the camp. Larger camps are sub-divided into sections. Communal buildings, like hospitals and schools, are located in the middle of the camp” (Bowles, 12). The refugees are given the opportunity, due to the location, to gather firewood and food from the surrounding forest. Some camps allow refugees to sell their gatherings to earn cash (Bowles, 12).

Smaller camps allow cultures to be maintained unlike larger camps where cultures are disrupted. “The small size of the camps and the style of administration allowed each group to maintain their cultural traditions and social structure, despite the displacement” (Bowles 13). Larger camps however, have caused social issues and tension within the camps. “With the establishment of larger camps, social problems have become more significant. While increased rations can address food insecurity, there is also a loss of morale. Tensions rise as soon as there are rumors of camp moves. People stop tending to their homes and the education of children is disrupted leading to higher drop-out rates” (Bowles, 14).


Transnationalism is a term that has been created to define the social movement and growing interconnectivity between people of different countries. In refugee camps for example, economics, social significance of boundaries, and relationships between cultures are an active role in transnationalism.

Refugees from Burma face the challenge of being forced from their homes and yet still have the need to take care of themselves and their kin while in the camps in Thailand. They will then face a: “lack of secure legal status; there is usually no welfare system for either locals or refugees; and they are still in close proximity to their country of origin”(283). The long lasting armed conflict and insecurity in Burma encourages strategies of risk diversification such as migrating elsewhere. Thailand then becomes a great place to go because a language is shared on the  border and the economy is stable with informal labor markets.

Transnational activity is sometimes hindered or heightened depending on the status of where the refugees are, but the reasoning behind it is to save ties with the homeland. “The level of development, and the policies of both countries influence the type of transnational activities” (283). The mixture of refugees in Thailand consists of Thai, Karen and Burmese people. Although they all are considered to be labeled “refugees”, there are significant inequalities among the different groups that can help or hinder transnationalism. “All demographic variables (like age and religion) have an impact, next to personal skills and preference, but ethnicity is a particularly important factor in this case” (285).  The Karen from Burma are closely related to the Karen from Thailand as they share the same language (which eases the Karen refugee’s integration). The Burmese people on the other hand, are still disliked for historical reasons: “The Burmese army destroyed the former capital of Thailand, Ayuthaya, in 1767, after a long line of mutual plunder and conquest, which resulted in a historic antipathy between the two people” (285). This results in the Karen refugees having a stronger transnational network to rely upon than other ethnicities.

Transnationalism takes on different forms, but has three main degrees to which it is successful. First, there are economic transnational activities. This form is centered around the fact that refugees who have left Burma need to still financially support their family and friends back home: “Those who manage to establish contact with the family left behind and have a relatively stable but necessarily legal-source of income, tend to remit money” (286). By sending money back to Burma, refugees have found a way to take care of their parents without being physically present and can still live up to the obligations of their culture. This system is very informal, is not under any government control and is mainly processed between people who know or are related to each other.

The next form of transnationalism is socio-cultural engagement. By connecting with friends and family from home, refugees can facilitate change within their home country through exchanging new ideas and practices. “They can transfer new values and beliefs, such as norms for interpersonal behavior, standards of age and gender appropriateness, and norms about the roles of politicians”(288). This form of exchange has power to influence social hierarchies and old mind-sets back home. Apart from new ideas they also exchange new learned practices such as weaving, sewing and construction techniques learned in Thailand.

A third form of transnationalism is community engagement. “Migrants can set up specific development projects in their home community or they support local initiatives financially, by sending collective remittances” (289). These are typically to provide general support, but it can also develop during times of crisis: “After the passing of cyclone Nargis in May 2007, for example, support networks were stet up by Mon, Karen and Burmese refugees to help the affected people inside Burma” (290). Times of crisis show that transnationalism is flexible to changing contextual conditions.

The fourth form of transnationalism is cultural transnationalism. Diaspora (the movement, migration, or scattering of people away from an established or ancestral homeland) organizations arrange cultural activities to maintain connection to the home country (site) Some of these activities include traditional festivals, national holidays and ceremonies which enable refugees to recover a past and visualize a future if they can ever find a way to go back home.

Another form is political transnational engagement. “The home country can be targeted in a ‘direct way’, by supporting rebel movements, but it is also possible to try influencing the country of origin in an indirect way, by turning attention to the political institutions of host countries” (291).  An example of a direct confrontation group would be ‘the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors’ (VBSW) who have sometimes claimed to responsibility of bombings.

The safest way to reveal human rights violations in Burma is to flee the country, because there is no freedom of speech or political organizations inside Burma. By providing information to the outside world and keeping that information on the international agenda, visible change occurs. However, once Burmese refugees are in Thailand, they face a difficult choice of how to be activists for change. One option, is to stay within the refugee camps with protection and the second option is to live in a city from where international activism is possible but where they run the risk of arrest and deportation, just like illegal immigrants.

The camps can hinder the activism of the refugees and can also cause a loss of culture. However, these camps are the only option for the Burmese refugees to see a future of freedom and no war. There has been some cause of social constraints while some groups can find a new life in Thailand with different Thai groups. Refugees in Thailand can be engaged in economic, social, cultural and political transnational activities despite the degree of constraint put on them. Hopefully overtime their story will become an international issue that can be resolved and possibly return to a peaceful home country.

Works Cited
Bowles, E. (1990). From village to camp: refugee camp life in transition on the Thailand Burma border. Forced Migration, 2, 11-14.
Brees, I. (2010). Refugees in transnationalism on the Thai-Burmese border. Global Networks, 2, 282-289.
Lang, H. (2002). Fear and sanctuary:Burmese refugees in Thailand. South East Asia Program Publications, 369-370.

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