Khin San Yee rummaged through the bags she had brought back to Myanmar from a refugee camp in Thailand. She smiled as she pulled out a photo of herself standing next to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is now de facto head of state after decades of leading a pro-democracy movement against military rule.
Khin San Yee was part of that struggle, and she paid dearly for it, becoming one of thousands of people the ruling generals imprisoned for political activities. When she was released in 1999 after spending a year in the notorious Insein prison, she fled Myanmar and ended up in Nu Po, one of nine refugee camps strung along the border inside Thailand.
Myanmar is a much different country today than the one she left, at least politically.
In 2011, the junta began implementing sweeping reforms, allowing freedom of media and political parties, and releasing political prisoners. Those freed included Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent most of the previous 20 years under house arrest. Her National League for Democracy party swept into power in last year’s election and then created the post of state counsellor for her, as the constitution bars her from becoming president.
“I decided to come back to Myanmar for her,” said Khin San Yee.
Khin San Yee is a member of one of the first 19 families to return from the camps since the reform period began, as part of a repatriation programme led by the Myanmar government. The approximately 120,000 refugees remaining in Thailand are watching what happens to them.
The experience of the first group of returnees raises questions about whether Myanmar’s government is prepared to support people who have been living in the camps, often for decades.
Khin San Yee’s family is among four who asked to be resettled in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital and biggest city. They were expecting that the government would provide them with housing, but instead they are living in a warehouse owned by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. The Yangon regional government is offering the returnees an option to buy low cost apartments at 9.8 million kyats (about $7,600), with 30 percent paid up front. But the returnees say they have neither jobs nor money.
“We cannot afford to pay the downpayment for the apartments, or the installments that come afterwards,” said Aye Aye San, who took cooking and English classes while living in the Nu Po refugee camp for 10 years, but has been unable to find work in Yangon since arriving on 27 October.
The returnees said the government gave each family a resettlement package of 300,000 kyats ($233), and was providing them 3,000 kyats ($2.33) a day for living expenses.
Ko Ko Naing, a director general at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, told IRIN that the ministry is in discussion with regional governments and other ministries to come up with a better plan for returnees.
"For the next time, i think we need more communications between different organisations on what is the need for the returnee and what is the expertise of each returnees," he said. "Because for this first pilot project, we do not have complete information about the families. If we do not know what they need, it is very difficult to prepare. Next time we need more discussion, case studies and information on the individuals."
Life is a bit easier for Tun Tun Aung and his family, who are staying with relatives in the town of Myitta, in Tanintharyi Region on the eastern frontier with Thailand.
“I was nervous before coming back, but as soon as I saw my family, I felt happy again. Yes, I will have to start from zero again, but we Myanmar people are used to it by now,” he said, while putting a coat of red paint on a cart that he built to sell ice cream.
Tun Tun Aung’s grandfather has also given the family a plot of land to build a house on.
Like most refugees in Thailand, Tun Tun Aung fled fighting between the military and an array of ethnic armed groups, many of which have been in conflict with the government since Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. Tun Tun Aung and his family decided to leave when Myitta became a battleground between the military and the Karen National Union in 2008.
In 2012, the military-backed reformist government signed a ceasefire agreement with the KNU. The group also signed on to a “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” last year, although the accord has been widely criticised as inneffective. Only eight of the 15 armed groups invited to sign did so, and the quasi-civilian government refused to allow three others to take part in negotations, as they were – and remain – in active combat with the military.
Out of options
There is deep scepticism among refugees in Thailand that Myanmar’s military – notorious for committing abuses agains civilians, and in control of the peace process – will actually end the civil wars. When the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, and a Thai NGO, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, surveyed refugees in Mae La camp in 2013, most respondents said they did not want to return to Myanmar and many cited poor security as a prime factor.
But the refugees are running out of options. With Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy under way, many countries are no longer accepting them. The United States, which had taken more than 73,000 refugees since 2005, officially ended its resettlement programme in 2014.
The Border Consortium, one of the largest NGOs working in the camps, told IRIN in June that international donations fell by 26 percent, from 820 million Thai baht (about $23 million) over 2015 to an estimated 605 million Thai baht for 2016.
With aid and overseas resettlement options dwindling, more refugees may soon decide to return to Myanmar. But there is a risk that – like those sheltering in a warehouse in Yangon right now – they may be disappointed at how hard it is to reintegrate back into their home country.
“That’s why it's so important that both government and UNHCR have to explain what support [will be given] to the returnees – what is available – in order to manage expectations,” said Cecile Fradot, a senior protection officer with the refugee agency.
(TOP PHOTO: Former refugees have returned to Myanmar and are living temporarily in a government-owned warehouse in Yangon. CREDIT: Ann Wang)