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Will Myanmar’s war refugees be forced home against their will?

Plans proceed to return refugees to their still-unruly homeland.

BANGKOK, Thailand — They can’t live like this forever.

Many of the 160,000 refugees evading conflict in eastern Myanmar inhabit a purgatory of thatch-roofed shanties across the river border in Thailand. Life in the United Nations-monitored camps is dreary and monotonous. There is just enough to eat and little to do but while away the years until their long-awaited homecoming.

But while they yearn to return, many in the camps now fear they will be forced back too soon. As Myanmar’s government attempts to remake its tarnished image anew, authorities are shaping plans to bring back the families that fled state-sanctioned abuses: the forced labor, land grabs and village raids that lent the nation formerly titled Burma its infamy.

Many refugee groups contend that their homeland in eastern Myanmar — namely a hilly expanse called Karen State — is little changed from before. Myanmar’s army still dominates the terrain. Land mines, planted by the army as well as ethnic guerrilla resistance forces, have yet to be cleared. And many returnees who fled in the 1990s could find that their villages have been transformed into plantations run by government allies.

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“There has been no discussion about land mines. There has been no agreement on the removal of military bases,” said Neddu, a refugee representing the Karenni National Women’s Organization. “This is still the situation on the ground. Before repatriation begins, the refugees want to see that the situation in Burma has improved.”

To some degree, along the Thai-Myanmar border at least, it has. All-out combat between the region’s varied guerrilla factions, of which the well-armed Karen National Liberation Army is the largest, is currently paused by ceasefires.

The cease-fires have prompted Myanmar’s government to start drawing up repatriation plans. A government map tentatively siting 13 camps for returnees has leaked through the United Nations and has been publicized by Burma Partnership, a Thailand-based network promoting human rights in Myanmar.

“The government explained that these townships are places that will be developed to assist communities of return,” said Iain Hall, a senior coordinator with the United Nations Refugee Agency. Whether the camps might serve as temporary shelters for returnees — or more permanent camps used to corral and monitor refugees — is unclear.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (also known as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees or UNHCR) has contested rumors that its officials are somehow colluding with Myanmar’s government to steer refugees towards these sites.

“It’s a hot burning question that we’ve faced a lot of flak about,” Hall said. “The UNHCR is not ready to promote return. The conditions are not yet ready for return.”

For Myanmar’s government, this is a high stakes game. Shuttling refugees into camps monitored by the same army that has long terrified eastern Myanmar’s inhabitants would only cement its reputation for abuse. But withdrawing troops would relinquish its grip on territory marked for state-backed factories and industrial farms.

“Many still hope to reclaim their confiscated lands,” said Aue Mon, a refugee with the Human Rights Foundation of Monland, which represents the Mon ethnic group. “Many of them were rubber plantation owners 20 years ago, 15 years ago, and they had to leave their homes. They have big hopes of reclaiming these lands.”

Myanmar’s government has posited repatriation as a chance for returnees to prosper. Aung Min, a Myanmar government minister overseeing these arrangements, recently told the Irrawaddy news outlet that returnees would be offered food, shelter and job opportunities at planned industrial zones. “For those who want to work as farmers,” he said, “we will provide equipment.”

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But any government misstep in this process is apt to receive heavy scrutiny. For ethnic minorities native to war-torn jungles, these groups are remarkably connected and media savvy.

The camps, supported by a range of international aid groups, have produced an educated, English-speaking class steeped in revolutionary theory, international law and international advocacy. Most take the position that repatriation must take place on their terms. Their set of demands typically includes returnees’ right to settle where they choose, land-mine clearance and total military withdrawal.

Many also want an apology from a government that is not accustomed to admitting wrongdoing. “Those who’ve seen abuses — forced, labor, sexual violence, killing and extortion — these people have big hopes of receiving acknowledgement from their perpetrators,” Aue Mon said.

For now, the cease-fire agreements are flailing over refugees’ and armed factions’ principal stipulation: a dismantling of Myanmar army bases overseeing the region and the removal of government battalions.

“Even after the ceasefire agreements, the soldiers go out everywhere, even after dark,” Neddu said. “This causes fear. They still force the villagers to cut woods, repair buildings and build facilities.”

Full military withdrawal is, for now, a long shot. For decades, Myanmar’s army has acted as security for government-blessed projects — ranging from plantations to dams to mines — that wish to set up shop in ethnic minority zones with or without local consent. These business interests are unlikely to carry on without government protection from local guerrilla factions, which either demand payoffs or threaten to block outsiders with force.

While refugees, armed factions and Myanmar’s government struggle to find compromise, the Thai government is eyeing the clock.

In September, Thailand’s National Security Council stated that the repatriation of refugees back into Myanmar will begin in 2013. As camps are shut down, construction is set to begin in state-sponsored industrial zones planned for still-unruly swaths of eastern Myanmar.

“They say, ‘Please come and invest. Our country is ready, our people are yearning for investments,’” said Soe Aung, a deputy secretary with the Forum for Democracy in Burma, an activist coalition skeptical of the government.

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“What we need to see in our country are reforms … which guarantee the rights and well being of people,” Soe Aung said. “Not the cronies.”