Rethinking the ‘refugee warrior’: the Karen National Union and refugee protection on the Thai–Burma border
Well-founded fears that ‘refugee warriors’ will use refugee camps as a base for military operations, exploit a wider refugee population, or misuse international aid have led to the development of policies intended to ensure the separation of combatants and civilian refugee populations. However, a dogmatic approach to that policy goal may miss the true complexity of both refugee protection and the relationships between a refugee population and a military group. This article examines an alternative possibility, that a non-state armed group may be a potential partner in refugee protection and welfare promotion. It draws on the experiences of refugees from Burma living in camps in Thailand, where there has been a long-standing connection between camp governance structures and a political/military organization movement, the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army. While camp governance activities have been flawed, they have also displayed a high level of integrity. It is argued that in such a situation, where there is a proven record of working to improve civilian welfare, international organizations might usefully explore possibilities of engagement with non-state armed groups as partners in refugee protection, with the specific goal of encouraging a more representative, accountable, and democratic approach to governance.