When a coup chases you into a corner: The lives of Burmese refugees in Thailand

The sign on the wall inside the safe house means ‘The Spring Revolution can continue forward because of the PDF (People’s Defence Force).’ Photo from Prachatai, used with permissiion.

This article by Wanna Taemthong was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand, and an edited version is republished by Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.

The Myanmar government's use of violence in suppressing its citizens after the 2021 coup has resulted in a great number of Burmese people running for their lives to Thailand. Some came in legally with valid visas, some are undocumented.

Information from The Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons indicates that there are around 5,155 urban refugees in Thailand in 2022. This includes refugees of other nationalities but the number of urban refugees from Myanmar may even be higher than the estimate.

One of the refugees is 64-year-old Ah Ko (a term in Burmese referring to an older man) who looks after a building which houses 27 other anti-coup refugees.  The Ah Ko told us that this safehouse has helped Burmese from many areas.

The ordinary people who no longer have anywhere to live, who can no longer live in Myanmar, and leaders who fought against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup. Some are [members of] People’s Defence Force (PDF), some are politicians. Most aren’t always here. People are always coming and going. All expenses are supported by a Burmese network in America. They raise money and send it to us.

In truth, the Ah Ko is someone who could easily move to a third country since his family moved from Myanmar and settled in the United States during the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007. In 2016, he chose to return to Myanmar after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won the election in 2015 and took more than half of the parliament and senate seats. He returned and opened a tourist business in Myanmar, while the rest of his family remained in the U.S. Then another coup occurred in 2021.

I’ve already been to a third country, why would I need to go again? When I lived there, I’ve already survived. I can eat, I can live, but our brothers and sisters, our people, are still living in difficulty like this. Will I close my eyes and leave? So I decided to not go to a third country. I will stay and help as much as one human can, so I decided to continue to stay here (Thailand) and help raise money to help our brothers and sisters.

He views the 2021 coup as different from the 1988 protest against General Ne Win (also known as the 8888 Uprising on 8/8/1988) when people still had no internet access and did not know of the protests. But in 2021, everyone could contact one another using the internet, and the Civil Disobedience Movement and the PDF were formed.

If in 1988 the military shot 10 people, another 100 people would go quiet. No one would’ve been brave enough to fight. But in 2021, the military shot down 100 people, and there would be 100 people, 1,000 people, 10,000 more. In 2021, all the kids have their eyes and ears open wide. They are able to find out everything that is happening and show it to the whole world.

He has an appeal to Thai authorities:

If I can, I would like to ask the Thai government to accept us and set up a centre for war refugees. The people who come here aren’t evil people. The coup soldiers abused their powers to shoot the people, kill the people, destroy the people’s things. People that have nowhere to live have to escape here. Coming here is a secret business. If we are caught, we have to pay. If sent back to Myanmar, the risk is the same as sending them to die. If possible, I would like the Thai government to solve this problem directly. Accept us openly. If the situation in their country improves, have them go back.

Safe house for Burmese refugees

Inside a safe house for Burmese refugees. Photo from Prachatai, used with permission.

From journalist to refugee

Thu (alias) is one of the people living in the Ah Ko’s safe house. In Myanmar, he worked as a journalist. Originally, he was a cameraman and video editor, but since he worked in a small news agency when there was a lack of resources, he moved in front of the camera and was part of a team of journalists who reported on the anti-coup protests.

The soldiers ordered us to stop, we were not allowed to shoot videos there. Some people didn’t listen and kept taking photos and videos, and they were arrested.

The reporting which caused Thu’s news agency to be shut down was during the COVID-19 situation. The hospitals did not have enough oxygen tanks, but the military had given oxygen tanks to people who supported the military first while those opposing the coup did not get any. After that news was published, he said, “The soldiers hunted us down; we couldn’t stay and had to escape here,” adding:

The risk for journalists in Myanmar right now is very high because most journalists are in prison. The military controls all the news.

Before entering Thailand, Thu had to stay with friends or acquaintances and change houses every three to four days. He then contacted the Ah Ko and sold his personal camera for money to cross the border with his girlfriend. After entering the safe house, Thu had to stay silent and live quietly so as to not get arrested, since he had entered the country without papers. He has already successfully submitted a request to go to a third country, which is currently the only hope for him and his girlfriend as they cannot return to Myanmar in the current situation.

While waiting to move to another country, living in Thailand requires money, but since he has no documents, it is difficult for him to move around there. When he leaves the safe house to buy groceries, for example, he is scared if he sees a policeman on a motorcycle passing by. Thu has been in Thailand for four months, and his appearance has clearly changed. He is a lot skinnier compared to the photos he took when he was in Myanmar.

When we asked him if he could make one wish what would it be, Thu answered, “If I can, I only wish for democracy to be returned to us.”

Burmese refugee in Thailand

Thu edited a video for a Burmese artist. Photo from Prachatai, used with permission.

How should the lives of urban refugees be managed?

Throughout the two years since the Myanmar coup, the Thai government, as a neighbouring nation, has not had any screening system in place for Burmese refugees. Sirada Khemanitthathai, of the Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration, Chiang Mai University, an expert on Myanmar, views the coup in terms of its relation to Thailand. Currently, the Burmese people living in Thailand are not only labourers. After the coup, people from a diverse range of groups, classes and skills entered the country. Sirada added that many middle-class Burmese migrated into Thailand, some of whom were able to buy condominiums and send their children to international schools.

Sirada suggested that a good approach to taking care of Burmese urban refugees is for the Thai state to issue a policy which supports the refugee status of Burmese people who fled because of the political situation (forced migration). For example, this group of people could be allowed to register legally and receive protection under Thai law, which would also prevent any corruption by state officials that these refugees may encounter.

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