x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Funding cuts for Myanmar refugees

With the rapid rise of reform in the country, foreign sponsors think the oppression is over, but Myanmar's refugees are hesitant to return home.

year the Mae Tao clinic, which treats nearly 400 refugess from Myanmar every day, has received funds to cover only half of its budget.
year the Mae Tao clinic, which treats nearly 400 refugess from Myanmar every day, has received funds to cover only half of its budget.

MAE SOT, THAILAND // For more than two decades, the Mae Tao clinic in the Thai border town of Mae Sot has provided essential medical services for the hundreds of thousands fleeing oppression by the Myanmar army.

In an average day, the clinic sees between 300 and 400 patients, delivers 15 babies and hands out 1,000 meals. It provides education and shelter to displaced children, and fits about 250 prosthetic limbs each year to victims of the thousands of landmines laid by the Myanmar military.

But this year the Mae Tao clinic has received funds for only half its budget, partly because of a spreading belief among international sponsors that the fighting in Myanmar is coming to an end and refugees will soon be able to return to their homes.

The past year has seen remarkable changes in Myanmar, where a once-tyrannical military regime has released hundreds of political prisoners, allowed free elections and reduced censorship.

But the oppression continues for ethnic minority groups in the country's outlying provinces, as the army tries to suppress their demands for self-governance and gain control of lucrative natural resources.

And for those jostling for a place in the registration queue at the Mae Tao clinic and for those struggling to serve them, the changes have not all been positive.

"We can't decide what to cut. Patient numbers have not gone down," said Eh Thwa, a co-ordinator at the clinic. "Eventually, we will have to reduce our activities here or maybe the number of staff."

Despite several ceasefires with the myriad rebel groups in these regions, there are still near-daily reports of killings, rapes, abductions and torture of civilians by the Myanmar army.

"I dream of one day being able to go home," said Thaw Thi Paw, who fled her village in Myanmar's Karen state in 1997 after soldiers moved into the area, burnt down houses, killed several of her neighbours and laid landmines around their fields.

"Things look like they are improving, but we are still not sure the government will keep its promises."

Thaw Thi Paw now works as a maternal health worker with a charity in Mae Sot called Backpack, renowned for its work in bringing emergency medical relief to families caught in conflict areas across the border.

It too is struggling to keep its donors interested. Recently, the Norwegian government announced it would no longer provide assistance to the programme.

Funding problems are also hitting the nine refugee camps dotted along the border, home to about 140,000 people.

Set among dramatic jungle hillsides, the clusters of bamboo huts look idyllic from the outside, but the stories inside are full of horror.

Pastor Simon Htoo, a Baptist minister and school principal in the largest camp of Mae La, points to large holes in the church pews.

"These are bullet holes," he said, and recounts the day in 1988 when the Myanmar army burst into the church and began shooting indiscriminately during a mass.

"People ran for their lives. Many were killed."

Those benches have since travelled across the border into Thailand to their new home in the ramshackle church at Mae La.

"There is much confusion at the moment," said Pastor Simon. "We have to acknowledge that changes are taking place, but it will take a long time for people to trust the government."

But the choice of when to return may not be in their hands.

The camps are dependent for food and shelter on foreign donors, many of whom are losing interest.

The EU, in particular, has slashed its funding for the camps in Thailand by almost half since 2008, preferring to shift its attention to civil-society groups inside Myanmar.

Although US donors have made up the shortfall, there has been 40 per cent rise in global food prices in that time and a worsening exchange rate.

"The crunch came last year when we had to cut rations to below the international standard of at least 2,100 calories per person per day," said Jack Dunford, head of the Thai-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which oversees aid to the camps.

The refugees receive only about 1,640 calories per day now. Many sneak out to work illegally on farms and construction sites, or become involved in the rampant networks of drugs and prostitution.

"Humanitarian needs are growing around the world and unfortunately our resources are not keeping pace with that growth," said David Shurrock, EU humanitarian commission spokesman.

Some activists privately argue the cuts are a political decision based on the belief that humanitarian aid is prolonging the conflict in Myanmar by allowing ethnic rebel groups to continue fighting without worrying about the survival of ordinary civilians.

Thaw Thi Paw scoffs at this suggestion, saying the only problem for communities is the inhuman brutality of the Myanmar army.

"In October, two of our health workers were arrested when they tried to reach a woman haemorrhaging during childbirth," she said.

"The mother died, and when the husband complained, he was arrested. Seven villagers tried to bury her body, and they were arrested too. Some of them tried to escape and one was shot and killed.

"This is what we're dealing with."