Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

Dr Kirsten McConnachie introduces a series of articles for openDemocracy which anticipate some of the key debates that will be under discussion at the Refugee Voices conference

This article was originally published at openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence. Read the original article.

The combination of political reforms since 2011 and pledged elections for 2015 raise hopes that Myanmar is in an irreversible process of democratic transition. As important as these changes are, focusing on the national political sphere risks obscuring the continuing displacement crisis inside and outside the country’s borders.

Myanmar has been one of the world’s largest refugee-generating countries for many years. The resulting displacement environment is complex, involving multiple different ethnic groups who fled under different circumstances, followed different migration routes, have endured different conditions and lengths of exile and now have different prospects for durable solutions.

Our series of posts this week investigate that diversity, discussing conditions for forced migrants in India, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar; identifying primary challenges in each context (including immigration detention, sexual violence and statelessness), and examining the impact of political change inside Myanmar on aid for refugee populations and possibilities for durable solutions.

As mentioned above, our series this week is linked to the Refugee Studies Centre annual conference, on the theme of ‘Refugee Voices’. What does ‘refugee voices’ mean? Most obviously, the phrase hints at a need to include displaced populations in analysis and decision-making; an imperative that has been widely recognised (if perhaps less widely actualised) in global refugee policy.

This objective is particularly resonant in relation to Myanmar’s displaced populations, where community-led organisations have taken leading roles in protection for decades. Ensuring that their voices are heard will be critically important to ensuring that ‘transition’ in Myanmar means something more than an elite political pact.

However, it would be naïve – and wrong – to suggest that including ‘refugee voices’ is a straightforward task. In Myanmar, the methodological difficulties of inclusion are dwarfed by the practical challenges of an intensely pluralistic society. ‘Refugee voices’ from Myanmar speak many different languages, actually and metaphorically. Among the Chin alone, there are more than forty languages in common use, many of which are mutually unintelligible. Axes of ethnic and linguistic diversity are further complicated by other differences and divergences, including (but certainly not limited to) gender, class and political affiliation. 

Our posts this week cannot resolve the fundamental conundrums of political pluralism.  Instead, we offer a series of reminders that Myanmar’s refugee crisis continues, and in some dimensions is even worsening as a result of political change inside the country. This is the case for long-term displaced populations, such as refugees on the Thailand border who find themselves existing under massively reduced funding and growing external pressure to return. It is also the case for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced in and from Rakhine and Kachin States since Myanmar’s ‘peace process’ began.

Of course, it is not just refugees’ voices that are pluralistic. Our authorial voices also represent a range of opinions on Myanmar’s political climate and on the most pressing issues to resolve – and on the long-standing question of whether to refer to the country as Burma or Myanmar. This diversity of perspectives reflects in some small measure the many challenges that must be addressed.

Despite our different approaches, I think we would all agree that while it is certainly possible that Myanmar is on a path to genuine democracy, political reform is much more than an electoral moment, and the true extent of change is not yet apparent.

Before the return of refugees can be a real consideration, there must be a deep transformation of Myanmar’s legal, political and military cultures. Those who are best positioned to judge that transformation are those most affected: refugees and IDPs themselves. In the meantime, they have a continuing need for assistance, and a continuing entitlement to international protection.

Kirsten McConnachie introduces this week’s contributors:

Refugees on the Thailand-Burma border: ready for return?

Refugees living in camps on the Thailand border have historically been the most prominent constituency of forced migrants from Myanmar – and for many years also the most generously funded and supported. This situation has radically changed recently, partly as a continuation of long-standing donor fatigue, partly due to competing pressures on international refugee assistance budgets, but also undoubtedly due to new projects and programming inside Myanmar.  The second noticeable effect of a new international engagement with Myanmar is that for the first time in three decades, repatriation of refugees in Thailand is being discussed as a real and imminent possibility. On Monday, Zoya Phan discusses the implications of this, and, in particular, refugees’ perspectives on the prospect of return.

“A constant state of fear”: Chin refugee women and children in New Delhi

Ethnic Chin refugee women and children from Burma are the hidden victims of pervasive sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in New Delhi, India. Lacking confidence in the current peace process in Burma and unwilling to return home, the prospect of staying in New Delhi is both bleak and terrifying for Chin refugee survivors of SGBV. On Tuesday, Rachel Fleming and Rosalinn Zahau of the Chin Human Rights Organization described barriers to effective forms of redress for Chin refugee survivors of SGBV in New Delhi, and refugees’ hopes for their future. 

Security and status determination in Malaysia 

More than 130,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar are currently living in Malaysia, with the majority of these based in Kuala Lumpur. Today, Kirsten McConnachie takes as her subject the intense insecurity that they face, and the central role of community-based organisations in providing protection. The refugee population in Malaysia continues to grow, serving as an important reminder that forced migration from Myanmar is not a past phenomenon. Particularly from Kachin State and Rakhine State, these are not small-scale movements but an exodus in the face of political, religious and ethnic persecution.

The Rohingya refugee making factory

Uniquely among Myanmar’s displaced populations, the Rohingya are entirely stateless. As such, they have no prospect of returning to Myanmar but they are equally unwanted by each country they have sought sanctuary in. The oppression that they endure makes the Rohingya among the world’s most vulnerable and mistreated refugee populations. Today, Amal de Chickera’s post cries out for the international community to recognise – and above all to respond to – the inhumane exploitation of Rohingya people.

The prospect of durable solutions

For all Myanmar’s forced migrants, a central concern of  ‘2015 and beyond’ is the possibility of durable solutions. On Friday, Ashley South examines this question in a post based on a forthcoming research paper in UNHCR's ‘New Issues in Refugee Research’ series.[1] He argues that durable solutions to forced migration in Myanmar depend on the broader political framework, and in particular resolution of decades-long armed ethnic conflicts. Assistance and protection to displaced people should be based in the first instance on an understanding of, and support to, IDPs and refugees' often brave and ingenious self-protection and coping strategies. South concludes that it is essential that discussion, planning and implementation of durable solutions in Myanmar elicit local participation from the outset – including on the part of government and ethnic armed groups.


[1]“Commentary: IDPs and refugees in the current Myanmar peace process” (in press), to be published in conjunction with a paper by Kim Jolliffe on "Ceasefires and durable solutions in Myanmar: a lessons learned review”. This blogpost represents South’s views, and not necessarily those of UNHCR.

Related content