I met Thant Zin Maung at his modest home in Hlaing Township, a low-income district in Myanmar's old capital, Yangon. I was in Myanmar to figure out if the United Nations' claims that parts of the country were safe enough for the nearly 100,000 refugees currently living in camps in neighboring Thailand to return were true. Maung, 49, was one of the earliest returnees, choosing to move back to his native Myanmar after spending a decade in a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border.
He opened his front door, cinching his longyi—a traditional cloth—tight around his stomach before explaining how he ended up in a Thai refugee camp in the first place. For Maung, it all started back in August of 1988. On August 8, 1988—8/8/88—student-led protests seized Yangon, then the capital of Myanmar, that called for the end of military rule. The military responded with harsh crackdowns. An estimated 3,000 protestors were killed, and another 10,000 fled the country. Maung was one of them.
Watch: An Uncertain Future for Myanmar's Refugees
“I left Myanmar because I was involved in the 1988 democracy protests,” Maung said. “But I went to Thailand for work. Legally."
But he told me that was soon arrested in Thailand for providing aid to other, undocumented, migrants from Myanmar. After his arrest, the Thai authorities revoked his work permit. Without the right to legally work, and fearing repercussions from the military junta if he returned to Myanmar, Maung chose to register as a refugee instead.
Maung spent the next ten years living in Nupo refugee camp in Thailand’s Tak province, close to the Myanmar border. At Nupo, he met his wife and started a family.
His wife suffered from a debilitating stroke in the camp and needed care and he wanted his children to receive a formal education, so in October 2016 Maung and his family participated in the UN Refugee Agency’s pilot repatriation program. They were a part of the first batch of 71 refugees who made their way back to Myanmar with financial assistance from the UN and the Thai and Myanmar governments. Then, in May, UNHCR repatriated a second batch of refugees, 93 in total, to communities in Myanmar's Kayin and Kayah states.
Among this group were 20 ethnic Karenni refugees returning for the first time to Kayah, where a fragile ceasefire agreement holds between the Myanmar military—known as the Tatmadaw—and a local armed group called the Karenni Army. And in Kayin, where the majority of ethnic Karen refugees in Thailand originate, tension between the Tatmadaw and another local armed group called Karen National Liberation Army has caused many to opt out of the repatriation program.
The UN Refugee Agency expected thousands of refugees to participate in the repatriation program. But with the peace process in places like Kayah still ongoing, many are choosing to wait and see.
And with Tatmadaw military offensives taking place against armed groups in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan, many fear fighting could resume in Kayin and Kayah at any moment.
Thailand isn’t a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Officially, Myanmar nationals without valid work permits are only allowed to remain in Thailand if they are registered with UNHCR at one of the camps. But Myanmar migrant workers and refugees can find under-the-table work near the border. Some working illegally in Bangkok are at greater risk of arrest and deportation.
Refugees in Thailand are restricted from leaving the camps, and are not allowed to work. Humanitarian assistance, primarily food, is provided but many argue necessities have been reduced significantly in recent years because of continued budget cuts by aid agencies. It's these cuts that have left some human rights groups to question whether the repatriation program is even all that voluntary in the first place.
“I don’t know how UNHCR can say that it’s a voluntary return,” said Leena Zieger, the director of Burma Link, a human rights group based in Mae Sot, Thailand. “Refugee repatriation needs to be genuinely voluntary and it should not be reinforced by these outside factors like cutting rations and assistance in the camps.”
Since 2012, some 18,000 refugees have returned to Myanmar from camps in Thailand without any form of assistance, according to The Border Consortium, an aid group. It’s unknown whether those refugees gave up their UNHCR cards and returned permanently or were economic migrants living in the camps temporarily as they searched for work opportunities.
And for those who choose to comply with the UN program, the reality of their life back in Myanmar might not be exactly what they were promised. According to Karen Human Rights Group, 2,400 Karen villagers are still displaced from their homes because of conflict to date.
One aid worker I met—who asked their name not to be printed—in the Kayah capital of Loikaw told me that authorities were not doing enough to help these new arrivals reintegrate back into their communities in southeast Myanmar.
When Maung returned to Myanmar, the government provided temporary shelter to four families—including his—or 19 people in total. But almost immediately they were denied the assistance promised under the agreement, Maung said.
“I wasn’t getting any support in terms of finding a job, in terms of health care for my wife or education for my children, so I had to look for work right away,” Maung told me. “I was able to receive help from my sister.”
A Myanmar woman named Thae Thae lived with her family in one of the camps until 2013. She said that the election of Aung San Suu Kyi was the motivating factor for her family’s decision to return to Myanmar without the help of UNHCR. She said there was a lot of confusion at that time around the refugee repatriation program.
“At first it was very hostile,” she said. "Most refugees didn’t want to return to Myanmar. There was tension because they thought UNHCR was [forcibly] sending them back.”
Maung took a seat next to me and loosened the knot on his longyi. He said his children are now attending a school across the street from his new home, and his wife is receiving care from family while he’s out working every day. His life isn't perfect, but it's still a life.
“I sell groceries and lottery tickets now,” he said. “My sister rents me her car so I have a mobile shop. I’m struggling but we’re happy. Our lives have improved in Yangon. I want a better life for my kids. I have to work hard for that to happen.”