Introduction: Background of Protracted Conflict and Displacement in Myanmar

  • Supang ChantavanichEmail author
  • Aungkana Kamonpetch
Part of the SpringerBriefs in Environment, Security, Development and Peace book series (BRIEFSSECUR, volume 28)


After more than 60 years of conflict and displacement, Myanmar is now in the midst of political reform. A new nominally-civilian government and pledged elections in 2015 has raised hopes of a lasting democratic transition after decades of military rule. For the first time in decades, repatriation of refugees in Thailand is being discussed as a real and imminent possibility. This chapter introduces the current state of displacement along the Thai–Myanmar border, providing a background on the conflicts in Myanmar and other factors that have led to protracted displacement of several ethnic groups both within Myanmar and across state borders. The chapter sets the context for the rest of this book, which examines Myanmar as a post-conflict society and the reintegration processes that would need to occur to enable safe and voluntary return of persons displaced by the decades of conflict.


Armed Conflict Armed Group Displace Person Resettlement Program Historical Injustice 
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1.1 Brief History of Population Displacement in Myanmar and Flight to Thailand

Since Myanmar gained independence in 1948, the country has experienced political and armed conflict between the government of Myanmar and various ethnic armed groups throughout the country.1 Especially in the latter half of the 20th century, armed conflict escalated into flows of refugees who left their place of origin to seek safety at the borders of Thailand and Myanmar. Since 1984, waves of various ethnic groups, especially the Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan have sought asylum within Thailand’s borders.

From 1984 to 1986, 12 Karen refugee camps were established in Tak and Mae Hong Son Provinces in the western part of Thailand. The first Karenni refugee camp was established in Mae Hong Son Province in 1989. In the following year, Mon and Karen opposition bases destroyed by the Myanmar Government army resulted in the establishment of a Mon refugee camp near Three Pagodas Pass in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province (Bryant 1997). From 1988 to 1990, significant waves of displacement continued due to the suppression of political protestors and students. People arriving along the border areas were accepted in Thailand as “displaced people escaping from fighting”. These new arrivals were permitted to settle temporarily in shelters along the border. Although Thailand is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and its Protocol of 1967, it agreed to assist the refugees from Myanmar for humanitarian reasons. The significant waves of displacement happened from 1988 onward after the suppression of political protesters and students.

As the armed conflict continued into the 1990s with little evidence that it would soon subside, the situation of displacement on the Thai–Myanmar border became increasingly protracted. UNHCR defines a protracted refugee situation as: ‘one in which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile. A refugee in this situation is often unable to break free from enforced reliance on external assistance’ (UNHCR Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program 2004: 2; Loescher/Milner 2008). This provides a more conceptually rigorous understanding of the nature, political causes and consequences on such protracted refugee situations and its challenges associated with humanitarian protection. The most important factor of a protracted situation is that it is caused by ongoing conflict in the country of origin. Protracted refugee situations are typically characterized by inadequate policy responses of countries of asylum as they tend to establish restrictions on refugee movement, employment opportunities and confinement to camps (Loescher/Milner 2008: 27).

1.2 Current Situation of Refugees at the Thai–Myanmar Border

As of 2014, UNHCR estimates there are 109,992 individuals from 22,560 households living in nine temporary shelters in Thailand (UNHCR and Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage 2014: 14). They represent a mix of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Several efforts have been made to construct demographic profiles of this displaced group, the most recent of which was conducted by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation on behalf of UNHCR in 2014.

The Mae Fah Luang Foundation report indicates that there are at least 10 ethnic groups represented in the camps, namely the Karen, Karenni, Burman, Mon, Shan, Arakhan (Rakhine), Chin, Pa-O, Kachin, and Lisu (UNHCR and Mae Fah Luang Foundation 2014: 15). These individuals originated from Karen, Karenni, and Mon States; and from Thanintharyi and Bago Divisions in Myanmar. Currently, they are living in shelters spread along the border: (1) Ban Mai Nai Soi, (2) Ban Mae Surin, (3) Mae Ra Ma Luang and (4) Mae La Oon in Mae Hong Son Province; (5) Mae La, (6) Um Piem and (7) Nu Po in Tak Province; (8) Ban Don Yang in Kanchanaburi Province; and (9) Tham Hin in Ratchaburi Province.

The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) in its Thailand Burma Border Consortium 2008 Annual Report indicated that some displaced persons from Myanmar have spent more than 9,000 days in the shelters (Thailand Burma Border Consortium 2008). Life in the shelters is monotonous, as refugees are not permitted by Ministry of the Interior regulations to go outside of the shelters or to work. Consequently, they live on assistance provided by international humanitarian organizations.

This was confirmed by a refugee’s own account of his uneasiness and concerns for being confined in a camp for years.


All around in eight directions

Surrounded by mountains

How can one overcome

All these mountains?

Mental suffering,

The feeling of being trapped

When will it be cured?

When will the tears

Cried for the future Dry?

Trapped like bird in a cage

Living in the dark among the mountains

Trying to find a way to get rid of these mountains

Everybody finds a way.

Anonymous, Mae Surin Camp

Thailand Burma Border Consortium (2010:146)

In 2008, CCSDPT and UNHCR mutually developed and proposed to the Royal Thai Government (RTG) a Comprehensive Plan of Action to transition of the activities in the shelters from relief and assistance to development activities, with the aim of reducing refugee dependence on aid and promoting self-reliance for their long-term future (TBBC 2008: 11–12). With this changing paradigm of assistance, more vocational training and capacity building have been provided to displaced persons in the shelters (Chantavanich 2011: 126–127).

Concurrent to the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan of Action, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have been successful in creating a resettlement program for refugees from Myanmar. The Voluntary Resettlement Program started in 2006 and ended recently in 2014. It has resettled more than 100,000 individuals, primarily to the United States and with others accepted by Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Japan (Harkins/Chantavanich 2014: 2). This has been one of the largest group resettlements in the history of refugee resettlement operated by the United Nations. Currently, the group resettlement process has terminated, but displaced persons who are eligible to apply can still do so on an individual basis. Despite the large number of individuals resettled, a significant number of refugees still live in shelters and are not participating in the resettlement program. Some of them did not want to apply and others are not eligible to do so. The latter are newcomers who arrived Thailand after 2006 and thus were not screened or registered by UNHCR and the Thai authorities as had been procedural for displaced persons in earlier groups. In order to prevent resettlement from being a pull factor, when the RTG gave permission for resettlement it stipulated that only persons who were currently registered in the shelters would be eligible. These post-2006 arrivals constitute a large number of residents in the temporary shelters whose options rest in repatriation when it becomes safe to do so.

Repatriation of refugees is another durable solution of UNHCR. By definition, repatriation must be carried out ‘in safety and with dignity’ (UNHCR 1996: 11). Returnees should make their own decision to return voluntarily. In Southeast Asia’s history of displacement, millions of refugees from Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam were repatriated voluntarily in the 1990s with the assistance of the United Nations. A chapter in this volume will investigate the experiences of voluntary repatriation of refugees from these countries.

1.3 Concepts of Post-conflict Peace-Building and Refugee Repatriation

Chimni in his article ‘Post-conflict peace-building and the return of refugees: Concepts, practices, and institutions’ (2003) described that post-conflict societies require a peace-building process. Peace-building processes involve the re-establishment of mechanisms for national protection for citizens as well as rule of law (UNHCR 1997, as cited in Chimni 2003: 198). In the case of Myanmar, these two elements will need to be restored in order to re-establish trust necessary for a successful repatriation. These conditions will be explored in later chapters. Furthermore, Chimni referred to the UNHCR definition of ‘safe and sustainable return’ of refugees as “a situation which assures returnees physical and material security and consolidates a constructive relationship between returnees, civil society and the state” (Chimni 2003: 200). If refugees are to return, various aspects of peace-building must be taken into consideration, i.e., land availability and access, property, and the issue of nationality. As refugees once left with the decision not to remain under the protection of their state of origin, Myanmar, now that the situation has changed, the state is supposed to give them protection if they willingly re-avail themselves of such. Nationality is a crucial condition of such protection (Chimni 2003: 200–209). On top of general conditions like land, livelihood, and nationality, refugees’ immediate safety upon return includes the important conditions of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of armed groups. Disarmament is the collection, documentation, control and disposal of small arms and ammunition. Demobilization is the formal and controlled discharge of active combatants from armed forces or other armed groups. Reintegration is the process by which ex-combatants acquire civilian status and gain sustainable employment and income (UN DDR Resource Center 2006). Reintegration is essentially a social and economic process with an open time-frame, primarily taking place in communities at the local level. Such conditions and the clearance of land mines can significantly encourage spontaneous repatriation (Chimni 2003: 209). The role of the UN Security Council is to ensure that safe and sustainable return is emphasized.

Similarly, Bradley in her recent book on “Refugee Repatriation: Justice, Responsibility and Redress” emphasized the role of the state of origin to take responsibility and provide “just return” to returning refugees. Based on analyses of more recent repatriations in Guatemala, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Mozambique, Bradley described just return as:

Essential demonstration of the state of origin’s remedial responsibility for forced migration, and that just return is best understood as the restoration (or creation) of a legitimate relationship of rights and duties between returnees and the State, such that returnees and their non-displaced co-nationals are rendered equal as citizens…(Bradley 2013: 44).

Just return includes legal, political, as well as moral aspects of responsibility. In addition, redress, as defined by Barkan (Barkan 2001: xix cited in Bradley 2013), is the “entire spectrum of attempts to rectify historical injustices.” It is a challenge to examine how far the Myanmar government can provide a just return to returning refugees who are mainly ethnic minorities with whom it has been in conflict for decades, and redress historical injustices.

1.4 Contents of the Chapters of This Book

This volume is comprised of five chapters. Chapter  2 provides a background on the discourse around ‘sustainable return,’ which looks beyond long-term development and focuses on four kinds of insecurities (i.e., physical insecurity, social and psychological insecurity, legal insecurity, and material insecurity). Repatriation and reintegration are viewed as a durable solution only when these aspects of displacement are addressed in an integrated and effective manner. Based on this framework of sustainable return, the chapter begins with a discussion on the standard of voluntary repatriation in accordance with international principles (including the principle of non-refoulement). It then applies these to a case study on repatriation of refugees from Thailand to Lao PDR in the 1980s. The case study describes the security conditions in which repatriation occurred and highlights the challenges and successes of return in this context, including policies adopted by Lao PDR and the roles of UNHCR and the RTG.

Given the background of conflict and displacement in Myanmar provided in the introduction, Chap.  3 explores the concept of a ‘post-conflict society’ and provides a framework for examining whether Myanmar has shifted into a ‘post-conflict’ state. The chapter begins with a review of the necessary elements of peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction to achieve stability. It identifies three phases of ‘post-conflict’ transition, namely, initial response, transformation, and fostering sustainability, concluding that Myanmar is currently in a ‘transformation’ phase with the potential of becoming a post-conflict society

The Myanmar government’s current efforts towards these aims have included attracting foreign investment and amending relevant laws, and establishing mechanisms for governance and participation through its three-phase peace plan. On the other hand, the government’s policies and supporting institutions for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain inadequate for supporting return. The authors discuss these ongoing challenges and highlight key issues that have yet to be addressed in negotiations.

Chapter  4 explores the various challenges of refugee and IDP reintegration in Myanmar, with a focus on security from armed conflict and land mines, access to livelihood opportunities, rights to citizenship, social welfare, and resource and land allocation. It discusses existing efforts by both government and non-state actors, and identifies gaps in policy and implementation. The authors argue that without a specific reintegration strategy backed by an adequate budget, displacement will continue to be a reality for Myanmar refugees and IDPs.

Beyond the negotiation of ceasefires, the transition into a ‘post-conflict society’ requires the development of legitimate mechanisms of governance and participation, secure foundations of justice and reconciliation, and sustainable structures that improve social and economic well-being.

Chapter  5, the concluding chapter, explores the preferences and decisions of displaced persons vis-a-vis return to Myanmar compared to other durable solutions. The final analysis centers on economic development inside Myanmar, taking into account the role of the international community, and its ability to facilitate employment and sustainable livelihoods for Myanmar people.


  1. 1.

    At the time of Independence, the country was named Burma but the Government changed the formal name to Myanmar in 1989. The official name is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s)  2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Chulalongkorn UniversityBangkokThailand

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