Sixteen year old Naw S has lived in the Nupo Refugee Camp, along the Thai-Burma border, with her family for the past six years. They fled their native home in Karen State, Burma, following the region’s conflict between the Burmese Army and Karen forces, a war lasting more than six decades. Their dream was to find peace and stability. As part of this transition, Naw S attended primary school in a small town near Chiang Mai. But settling into her new environment alienated Naw S from other students because she had to carry her birth certificate at all times. Convinced that the only opportunity to fit in with a community and receive more support would be through residing in a temporary refugee camp, Naw S’s parents made the long trek to Nupo. It has since become a permanent home.
The Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) estimates that Nupo is home to more than 16,000 people, of which nearly 9,000 individuals are documented as refugees with the UNHCR. Thanks to such assistance, Naw S is a senior student at PAB School. She has excelled in her final years of school, earning top marks in English, Mathematics, Social Studies, Burmese, Physics, and Chemistry. But as a stateless individual, not a citizen of Thailand and not in possession of a Burmese ID card, it is uncertain whether her educational opportunities will be permanently interrupted or whether she may continue her studies abroad, should she be fortunate enough to progress further. But this has not stopped Naw S from mapping out a career path. “I want to become an educated person. My dream is to study international law at a famous university abroad. Not because I want to be rich, but because I want to serve my community, including refugees,” she says modestly.
With reports in the media referring to a possible change in Burma’s political landscape under President Thein Sein, the future for Burmese refugees in camps like Nupo remains unclear. Thailand is not currently a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugees Convention or the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Statelessness Persons, but the UNHCR has noted that amendments to the Civil Registration Act 2008 will help prevent statelessness in granting universal birth registration, allowing for the issuance of birth certificates to all children born in the country, regardless of the status of their parents. Most of the refugees are from Karen State, who, like, Naw S and her parents, are lured by the prospect of not waking up to the sounds of mortar shells and landmine explosions. Refugees who have survived similar encounters in the camp vouch for the difficulties faced by Naw S. Zoya Phan, the Burma Campaign UK Campaign Manager, has first-hand experience of living in the camp. In her bid to escape, she spent countless occasions moving between makeshift refugee camps, making the most of limited schooling before studying in Bangkok as an illegal entrant before seeking asylum in the United Kingdom and attending university. “I know exactly how refugees in Nupo camps feel, as I have lived there for a year after my village in Karen State was under attack by the Burmese Army,” Ms. Phan says.
In 2011, the TBBC identified 49 villages across four townships had been burned, destroyed or abandoned by residents following Burmese Army attacks between August 2010 and July 2011 in a report entitled Displacement and Poverty in South East Burma. Schools are often a target in the Burmese Army’s drive to prevent young people learning, so donations from volunteers in setting up a school in Nupo are critical. The 360 students attending PAB School, predominately from Karen State, are a mixture of Burma’s multi-ethnic and multi-faith backgrounds. They make the most of the limited materials available. The school is staffed by 18 volunteer teachers. One teacher, 25 year old Ko, is one of eight teachers aged 31 years or under. Before instructing students on methods of probing the laws of science, he tested the boundaries of political dissent. As a student leader in 2006, he was accused of spreading anti-government messages across his university campus in the southern Burmese city of Myeiko. Twelve months later, he joined monks marching through Rangoon in the Saffron Revolution and was detained and beaten by police. Although he is now in relative safety, registered with the United Nations as a refugee, this has not quelled his fears about being sent back over the border.
“Every day we wonder if the Burmese Army is going to attack the camp or that the Thai government will send us all back over the border,” Ko claims, a situation he identifies as being exasperated by what he calls an anti-Burma policy within Thailand. “It is time for refugees to stop being used as political ping pong balls” by (officials in) Bangkok.” In 2011, Tak Province Governor Samart Loifah was quoted in The Irrawaddy as saying that Burmese refugees in the town of Mae Sot should leave Thailand voluntarily, and indicated his willingness to work with the European Union (EU) and UNHCR to achieve this outcome by a reduction in international funding for refugee camps. Since the agreement by delegations representing Burmese government officials and Karen National Union (KNU) in January 2012 to cease hostilities, Ko commented that President Thein Sein’s early reforms were “good news” for the next Karen generation. However, he remains skeptical as to whether the peace will last. He feels that it will take more written promises and photo opportunities to convince displaced populations that Burma is on the edge of a new political era. His comments are echoed by Zoya Phan, who believes that despite the initial talks, the military-backed government in Burma is unwilling to enter into serious dialogue to solve problems and end conflicts. “People want to go home, but without political solutions and proper arrangements, it will be too premature to force refugees to cross back to Burma,” Ms. Phan adds.
Once again, there is no clear answer with regards to what may happen next. For the refugees in temporary camps hoping to stay in Thailand, life goes on as normal, even though the past has taught them that sincere words of peace and reconciliation mean little without immediate action. Individuals like Ko, whose father and brother died in Burma in the struggle to gain more civil and political freedom, face uncertainty, as do the population of Nupo. But this attitude is in stark contrast to Naw S’s belief in the power of positive thinking. She is unfazed by any potential stumbling blocks.
“A crisis is a challenge and I will overcome any crisis,” Naw S says. “I have to go about my life humbly and not worry too much about mysteries I cannot explain. I have to improve myself in order to improve my world.”
Author’s note – the names of the two individuals in the camp have been changed to protect their respective identities.
 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Figures for August 2011, Thai Burma Border Consortium, http://www.tbbc.org/camps/2011-08-aug-map-tbbc-unhcr.pdf
 Naing, S.Y., 2011, “Time For Refugees To Go Home?”, The Irrawaddy, April 7, http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=21094 Accessed 31 January 2012)