Monday, July 24, 2017

Refugees on the Thai border commemorate king’s passing

As Thai citizens mourn the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Karenni refugees at the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp held their own commemorative event last week, honouring the monarch who had offered them shelter when they fled their war-torn homeland.

Refugees at the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp on the Thai border commemorate the late Thai king. Photo: SuppliedRefugees at the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp on the Thai border commemorate the late Thai king. Photo: Supplied

Inside the Mae Hong Son province camp, which was opened by Thai authorities two decades ago, around 2000 refugees gathered on October 20 to express their condolences.

The isolated camp is home to some 14,000 refugees, most of whom are ethnic Karennis who fled their homes in adjacent eastern Kayah State during fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in the early 1990s.

Despite their remote location, and only intermittent access to those outside the camp, the camp was struck with nearly unanimous grief at the news of the king’s passing.

“It is not easy for us to be aware of all of what is happening. There’s no TV and not so much contact with the outside world, but [when we learned of the king’s death] we were sad,” Ko Luiz, a secretary from the Karenni Refugee Committee, told The Myanmar Times.

In the heat of the afternoon, around 500 students bearing portraits of the king gathered at the stage assembled in a large open space.

Amid the massive crowd dressed in black, cameras from Thai TV channels could be spotted. Thai military officers from the Mae Hong Son province were also in attendance, appearing to approve of the events.

“We feel very sad too,” said Peter Paul, 21, a student at the camp. “He had the kindness to allow us to stay here.”

While King Bhumibol was perceived as being empathetic to the plight of the Myanmar refugees along the Thai border, many fear their situation has now gained a renewed precariousness. Thai authorities have yet to address the status of refugees, or if there will be any change of policy.

“The king showed us love, care and understanding. But now, we are a bit worried about what is going to happen next for the refugees,” said Ko Luiz.

After speeches by the Thai authorities, the Karenni Refugee Committee presented their condolences to the Thai people on behalf of the residents of the camp and expressed their gratitude toward the late king.

“His Majesty was a remarkable king who dedicated his entire life’s leadership to service and love for the people of Thailand. His kind-heartedness enabled the granting of asylum to the ethnic people who fled civil war in Burma and allowed us to temporarily stay, and seek protection and security in the Kingdom of Thailand,” said Mahn Saw, chair of the Karenni Refugee Committee.

The ceremony at Ban Mai Nai Soi followed messages of condolences and events held by the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Karen National Union at their respective headquarters along the Thai border.

The Ban Mai Nai Soi ceremony ended with candle lighting and prayers. Buddhist prayers for the king were followed by Catholic and Baptist prayers and songs.

Myanmar has announced plans to repatriate refugees along the border with Thailand after bilateral talks. The voluntary returns to eight states and regions are expected to start taking place next week. Refugee camp committees say infrastructure in Kayah State is still insufficient to support the repatriations, and many fear landmines, but funds from international donors have increasingly dried up as Myanmar began to liberalise in 2011.