War in Burma/Myanmar: IDPs and Refugees Struggle for Existence

The war in Burma/Myanmar, which had already been ongoing since 1948, intensified after the 2021 coup that displaced the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

Antonio Graceffo reporting from the border

The war in Burma/Myanmar, which had already been ongoing since 1948, intensified after the 2021 coup that displaced the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. In October of 2023, fighting escalated further when several armed resistance groups formed an alliance and launched coordinated attacks against junta forces. These attacks successfully cleared the Tatmadaw (the Burmese government army) or the State Administration Council (SAC) from positions around the country.

An estimated 2.7 million people, primarily from the country’s 135 ethnic minorities, have become internally displaced persons (IDPs) or have sought refuge in other countries, particularly Thailand and Bangladesh. Nearly one-third of these individuals have been displaced since the October offensive began.

Burma’s Shan State, Karen State, and Karenni State all share borders with Thailand, while Shan State also borders on China. Due to significant Chinese investment in the region, it has become a focal point of some of the most intense fighting, resulting in the largest displacements of people. When villages come under attack, residents often flee to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, which vary from small clusters of families residing in makeshift shelters crafted from bamboo and plastic tarps to semi-permanent camps accommodating populations in the low thousands. The Burmese government restricts international aid to these camps, leading to severe shortages of food, medicine, and even water.

IDP camps also lack protection from the UN or the international community, leaving them vulnerable to regular bombing by the Burmese army. Farming within the camps is nearly impossible, and with no job opportunities nearby, families are left to endure hunger and uncertainty.

Some IDP camps are situated close enough to the Thai border that family members may attempt to sneak into Thailand illegally. Their goal is to find work in construction or agriculture, intending to send money back home for the care of their children, who are often left with grandparents in the IDP camp. In many of these camps, there is an imbalance in the age demographic, with a significant number of elderly and young inhabitants. Additionally, it is common to find mothers alone with their children in these camps, as many fathers are looking for work across the border in Thailand.

Undocumented workers often fall victim to human trafficking, sex trafficking, and exploitation. Those who manage to find work typically face low wages and irregular employment. In a makeshift camp for undocumented Shan in Thailand, residents revealed that they were drawn to the area by the promise of work on garlic plantations. They earn just 300 baht per day (equivalent to less than $15) and work for only about ten days per month. If caught, local authorities impose fines equivalent to a day’s wage. From this paltry income, they support themselves in Thailand, while sending money back to the IDP camps in Burma.

This year, the fighting has been very intense. Ethnic resistance armies are working hard to clear government forces out of the border areas in Karenni and Karen States. The situation in Shan State is also tough, but it is more complicated. Despite the Shan being the majority, there are about 17 ethnic minorities in Shan State, each with their own armed groups. The Shan majority itself is divided into various factions supporting the government, the rebels, or themselves. Because of this, more people are crossing the border, and Thai authorities are getting stricter. Periodically, they close the border or send people back.

IDPs crossing the border into Thailand lack legal status. A small percentage may be accepted into the UN refugee camps and come under UN protection. Inside the UN camps, there are good schools and even universities for young people. Moreover, there is physical safety, as well as food and medical care for all. However, only a small percentage—about 2%—of Burmese living in Thailand fall into this category. The vast majority are undocumented and depend on local authorities turning a blind eye.

Lung Lao, a 56-year-old Shan man, and his wife, Pa Nang, aged 52, recently arrived in a makeshift camp in Thailand. He explained why they came: “Life in my hometown, Murng Kung Township, Loi Lem district, Southern Shan State, is terrible. We are unable to continue living there because of the pressure from different armed groups. Soldiers come to us 3 or 4 times per month demanding money, food, and recruits.”

According to Lung Lao, during the month of February, soldiers from The Shan State Progressive Party (SSP)/Shan State Army (SSA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) came to his house, issuing an ultimatum. He recounted the soldiers’ warning that if he did not send his son to the army, the entire family would face arrest. “I told them that my son is in Thailand, unable to return because he needs to work and support his family, including three children,” he explained. However, the soldiers responded with violence, as he described: “They beat me with their guns and kicked me, causing my face to bleed and leaving me severely injured.”

It is important to understand that in response to the intensified fighting of the past six months, the Burmese government has instituted draconian conscription laws, even barring military-age men from leaving the country. Ethnic minorities have been particularly targeted. Those residing in Burman-controlled areas or studying and working in large cities like Yangon have been apprehended right off the street and compelled to join the army. For ethnic people, serving in the Burmese army means they may be required to kill their own families and neighbors.

Parallel to this, the Shan State Army (SSA), a powerful ethnic armed group which is in a ceasefire with the government, has also instituted conscription. This is one of the factors driving the recent influx of refugees in Thailand. Families send their military-age children to Thailand to risk working and living as undocumented laborers, rather than having them fight in a war to support the junta. However, the SSA has made a rule that families who send their children to Thailand will have all of their property seized. And in the case of Lung Lao, they are also threatening families with arrest.

He went on to say, “The soldiers gave me one week. If my son doesn’t come back home, the soldiers would come to arrest the whole family and take everything from us.” Even if he gave in and convinced his son to enlist in the SSA, Lung Lao’s problems would not be over. He would be in violation of Burmese law. “If the Burmese army knows my son joined the ethnic armies, the SAC would arrest my family and kill all of us.”

Faced with a fatal alternative, it is no wonder that Lung Lao and his wife decided to collect their grandchildren, abandon their home, and everything they ever knew to come to Thailand and try to survive in an undocumented person’s camp. Although he and his family have survived so far, he described how hard life is for him and his family.

“I had heard that on the Thai-Burma border there are some refugee camps, but when we arrived, we were not accepted to live in them. The people in the camp explained to us that new arrivals are not permitted. We also found out that we are not allowed to rent a house. The landlord explained to us that accepting illegal aliens is against the law.” The only way he found to survive is for the family to become itinerant farm workers, sleeping in farm huts and “avoiding Thai soldiers and police.” The family is in contact with their son, who found work in Bangkok and sends some of his small wages to them each month so they can survive.

During the Thai New Year, Songkran festival, the happiest time of the year in Thailand, he said, “We saw local people were happy, enjoying the water splashing festival. We wanted to enjoy it too, playing like local people, but we did not dare to go out, or the Thai soldiers or police might see us, arrest us, and kick us back to Burma.”

Most of the Burmese ethnics, including Lung Lao and his family, do not want to be resettled in Thailand or the West. When asked about his dream for the future, his wife, Pa Nang, said, “We want to go back home. In Thailand, we are not allowed to work and have no right to access healthcare when we are sick.” The children cannot attend school, and there is no future for them in Thailand.

Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo, PhD. China-MBA, is a China economic-analyst who has spent over 20 years in Asia, including 7 in China, and 3 in Mongolia, where he teaches economics at the American university. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Additionally, he conducted three years of post-doctoral studies at School of Economics Shanghai University, focusing on U.S.-China trade, and currently studies national security at the American Military University. He is the author of 5 books about China, including Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion and The Wushu Doctor. His writing has appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Lowy Institute China Brief, Penthouse, and others. He is a frequent guest on various TV shows, providing China commentary on NTD network in the United States.