What started as a conflict between ethnic Karen armed opposition groups and the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) in 1949 has evolved into the world’s longest on-going civil war. As the Tatmadaw sought to exert control over natural resources along the ethnic borderlands, ethnic armies fought back to protect their homes. To defeat these ethnic opposition groups, the Tatmadaw have been systematically displacing and targeting ethnic civilians. Millions of people have fled and hundreds and thousands have taken refuge on the Thai-Burmese border.
150,000 refugees, mostly of Karen, Karenni, Shan, and Mon descent, remain trapped on the Thai-Burmese borders 37 years later…
*Note: Terms like Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon, etc are actually umbrella terms to refer to some of the ethnic minority groups. They do not perfectly capture the complexity of how these idigenous peoples self identify. Other umbrella terms for minority groups include the Chin, Akha, Danu, Kayan, Kokang, Lahu, Naga, Palaung, Pao, Kachin, Rakhine, Rohingya, Tavoyan, and Wa.
From the 1980s to 2009, the refugee camps were heavily funded by many humanitarian organizations worldwide. By 2010, NGOs began to shift funding from the refugee camps to repatriation programs. This has been devastating for refugees. The reality is Burma is still too dangerous for refugees to return to, forcing many people to remain in the camps for their own safety. Because of the shift in funding, food rations, the quality of education and health care, and opportunities for employment within the camps have dramatically declined.
Malnutrition, malaria, lack of access to education, drug and alcohol addictions, and an alarming increase in suicide rates threaten the livelihoods of refugees stuck on the border. Refugees are not allowed to leave the camps as they’d be arrested by Thai authorities, but some take a risk in secretly leaving the camps to earn money for food or to pay for their childrens’ education. With resources disappearing in the camps and violence persisting on the borders, the chances of survival for these refugees are diminishing.
The Internal conflict in Myanmar is a product of Western imperialism and colonialism. Before the 1800s, present day Burma was made up of many kingdoms each ruled by different ethnic groups. The colonial era escalated existing tensions between the majority Burman people and ethnic minorities.
Ethnic groups, especially those who converted to Christianity, developed close relations with the British. This served as a root of the increasings tensions between Burman Buddhists and Christian ethnic minorities, pushing more Christians to develop stronger alliances with the British as a way to protect themselves from religious persecution. Burmese expansion towards the borders of the British East India Company eventually led to the Anglo-Burmese wars starting in 1824. The British took advantage of the tensions between Burmans and ethnic minority groups and recruited Christians into their armed forces. By 1886, the British established control over Burma as a British colony.
Throughout this period of time, British colonial authorities and American missionaries built schools and clinics and spread ideas of nationalism and the concept of a ethnic identity among ethnic minority populations. Colonial forces also installed a political system where ethnic minority leaders wielded much greater influence and power as compared to the Burman people, worsening relations with the majority Burmans.
Ethnic nationality groups would once again help the British regime in their fight against the Japanese and Burmese during World War II. In return, the British promised to give ethnic minority populations their own independent states. However, when the Burmese won their independence from the British shortly after the war, this promise was broken as power returned to the Burmese regime..
The persecution of ethnic minority groups heightened, and all efforts for self-determination and equality went ignored by the Burmese government. Armed Karen opposition groups were the first to go to war with the government in an attempt to fight for their own independent state, launching the Karen Insurgency. Other ethnic opposition groups would soon join in on the struggle.
By the 1960s, the conflict worsened after a military coup led to the establishment of a counter-insurgency campaign known as the Four Cuts, targeting ethnic civilian populations and their ethnic opposition armies.
A series of massive attacks by the Tatmadaw in 1984 would lead to the first major refugee outflow to the Thai border, and camps were eventually built to assist these refugees.
On August 8, 1988, nationwide pro-democracy protests emerged and became known as the 8888 uprising. The efforts of the Burmese people were crushed by the military regime and thousands of activists fled from government persecution to the Thai-Burmese border. Burmese people and ethnic national groups began to form alliances as they came to realize their common enemy.
From then on, refugee outflows would continue as fighting persisted on the borders. In recent years, ceasefire agreements had been made between the Tatmadaw and ethnic opposition armies, but the agreements were often broken. Since the start of the covid-19 pandemic and especially after the military coup on February 1st, conflict on the borders have intensified and the military has increased human rights abuses among ethnic civilians, forcing thousands more to take refuge on the Thai-Burmese borders.
The military officially took control in 1962 but increasing international isolation pressured the military to make democratic reforms starting in 2003. For the first time since 1990, general elections were held in 2010. However, they only served as a catalyst for further oppression. The National League of Democracy (NLD) boycotted the elections and instead the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party came into power.
In 2015, the NLD won the general elections by a landslide and Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the State Counsellor of Burma (de facto head of Burma). However, the military still exerted great control over the country. Any amendments to the constitution requires more than 75% of the parliament, but the military holds 25% of the seats. They also have absolute authority in national security, internal security, and border affairs. The Burmese military has continued to violate the freedoms and basic human rights of both Burmese and indigenous peoples.
This year, on the first of February, the military has declared a year-long state of emergency and have accused the NLD of widespread voter fraud from the democratic election in November of 2020. With the country under martial law once again and Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the NLD detained, mass protests emerged, demanding for democracy to be restored.