Myanmar dissidents face fear and uncertainty in Thailand

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When Myanmar’s navy staged a coup on February 1, Kaung Latt’s profession as an entertainer got here to an abrupt halt. A distinguished supporter of the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) authorities and a social media star with a whole lot of 1000’s of followers, Kaung Latt knew he was more likely to develop into a high-profile goal for arrest.

On the morning of the coup, as safety forces started rounding up NLD officers, activists and influential public figures, Kaung Latt went into hiding. His neighbours later informed him safety forces had been at his home twice that day searching for him.

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During the subsequent month, Kaung Latt sheltered with totally different buddies in Myanmar’s greatest metropolis, Yangon, however when the navy issued an arrest warrant accusing him of “using [his] popularity to incite the people” via social media “to destroy the state’s law and order,” he determined it was too dangerous for him to stick with his hosts.

Unable to fly in another country, he crossed secretly into neighbouring Thailand in early March, the place he has since remained in a state of limbo.

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“I don’t feel safe living here because of my undocumented status,” he mentioned. “This is my first time to come to another country without documentation, and I feel very small – like I lost my identity.”

Kaung Latt is amongst three individuals with whom Al Jazeera spoke who fled to Thailand due to private threat skilled for the reason that coup. The Thai authorities doesn’t distinguish refugees or asylum-seekers from financial migrants below its legislation, and considers undocumented or unauthorised entry or keep as “illegal immigration”. Fearful for his or her lives ought to they return to Myanmar however missing a path to asylum in Thailand, the dissidents try to realize entry into a 3rd nation on humanitarian grounds. They say they’re anxious about their future and struggling to deal with traumatic recollections amid the continued violence again home.

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In order to guard the safety of the individuals featured on this article and their households, Al Jazeera has used pseudonyms and anonymised some particulars from their accounts.

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The coup, Kaung Latt mentioned, turned his life the wrong way up, destroying his profession in addition to his sense of safety in Myanmar. “I felt anxious all the time about when [security forces] might come and arrest me,” he mentioned. Fearing he might be tortured or disappeared if caught by the navy, he started to really feel bodily unwell. “I don’t have heart disease but I felt pain in the left side of my chest, and when I told my friends, they said it was caused by the trauma I faced,” he mentioned.

Seven months after the coup, neither his sorrow for his nation nor his nervousness about his private security has gone away. “I still have the feelings from when the coup first happened in February of being upset, hurt and robbed of my vote,” he mentioned, including that he continues to have nightmares that the navy is trying to find him. “I feel a lot better here [in Thailand] but I still have trauma,” he informed Al Jazeera.

In August, he determined to start in search of humanitarian safety in a 3rd nation. A good friend related him with a international embassy, and he’s now awaiting their additional response concerning the standing of his case.

“Since I lost my identity, I am trying to resettle,” he mentioned over the cellphone from a city on the Thai border. “If I get my identity after I resettle, I will help my country any way I can.”

‘I was worried for my life’

During Myanmar’s former navy rule, which lasted from 1962 to 2011, Thailand’s border city of Mae Sot and the northern metropolis of Chiang Mai turned hubs for exiled dissidents. In the 1980s, armed battle in Myanmar’s southeast sparked the start of greater than 20 years of mass displacement, and 9 camps have been established in Thailand’s border provinces, supported by a consortium of worldwide nongovernmental organisations.

The variety of refugees in these camps peaked at 150,000 in 2005, following which tens of 1000’s have been resettled in third international locations. A couple of hundred refugees returned to Myanmar via a facilitated voluntary repatriation program launched by the Thai and Myanmar governments in 2016, however points together with an ongoing navy presence in refugees’ villages, fear of renewed battle and unexploded landmines, and weak schooling, healthcare and livelihood choices left many hesitant to return. Today, greater than 90,000 refugees stay within the camps.

Since the February coup, 1000’s of individuals from Myanmar have sought refuge in Thailand following air assaults and armed clashes alongside Myanmar’s southeastern border, however Thailand has not granted them any formal protections.

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In late March, when greater than 2,000 civilians tried to cross the border amid navy air assaults in Karen State, they have been compelled again, in line with human rights teams, though Thai authorities keep that the returns have been protected and voluntary.

Thousands extra crossed into Thailand fleeing navy assaults in Karen State in April, May and June; rights teams say that they have been additionally compelled again or pressured to return.

Dissidents and others who fled Thailand after being persecuted in Myanmar are additionally weak. In March, three journalists and two activists have been arrested in Chiang Mai and sentenced to seven months in jail for unlawful entry. Amid an outcry from rights teams, they have been granted asylum in an undisclosed third nation.

Meanwhile, Myanmar-based media outlet The Irrawaddy reported on September 7 that Thai police had been alerted to arrest anybody related with Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government (NUG) discovered to be staying in Thailand and to raid locations suspected of sheltering NUG members.

Among these wished by the Myanmar navy for taking part in anti-coup protests and talking out in opposition to the navy on social media is Ko Moe, a performing artist.

When he fled his home in Yangon in March, Ko Moe had no plans to cross into Thailand. “Even If I crossed the border, I didn’t know where to go or where to stay. Moreover, if the Thai police arrested me and sent me back to Myanmar, it would be very bad for me,” he mentioned.

He first hid with relations in Yangon, however when that turned too dangerous, he sought safety within the territory of an ethnic armed organisation alongside the Thailand border, arriving there in April simply earlier than the warrant for his arrest was issued.

Ethnic armed teams, a few of which have been preventing in opposition to the navy for many years, have sheltered 1000’s of activists and dissidents for the reason that coup, at the same time as preventing has escalated of their territories. Ko Moe mentioned troopers from a unit below the Myanmar navy have been stationed near the home the place he was staying, and he feared to even go exterior.

A good friend helped him provoke the method to use for humanitarian safety in a 3rd nation, however he wanted to be living exterior of Myanmar with a purpose to qualify in line with worldwide refugee legislation.

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After a lot deliberation, he determined to take his probabilities and cross into Thailand.

In his final act earlier than leaving Myanmar, he recorded a protest track calling for individuals to come back collectively and to have empathy for one another. “I wanted to give a message to the people of Myanmar that I am with them as an artist,” he informed Al Jazeera. The similar day, with the assistance of buddies, he clandestinely crossed the border.

“The main reason I came here is because I was worried for my life … that [security forces] could arrest me at night and call my family the next morning to pick up the body,” he mentioned.

While Ko Moe feels safer in Thailand, he has prevented going exterior as a consequence of his undocumented standing. He is now awaiting transit to a 3rd nation, having already accomplished the screening processes.

Living in hiding

The variety of individuals from Myanmar who escaped to Thailand as a result of threat of being personally singled out by the navy for the reason that coup is tough to depend, as lots of those that fled – like Ko Moe – are undocumented and living in hiding.

Thailand pledged in 2016 to develop a nationwide screening mechanism to determine these in want of humanitarian safety, and in December 2019, formally accepted the screening mechanism’s institution. It was set to come back into pressure in June 2020, however in line with Naiyana Thanawattho, the chief director of Asylum Access Thailand, particulars about how the legislation can be applied are nonetheless below dialogue, and it has not but been rolled out in follow.

Asylum Access Thailand is a part of a coalition of greater than 40 civil society teams which are calling on Thailand to hurry up the legislation’s implementation and be sure that NGOs selling the rights of refugees and stateless individuals are meaningfully represented in discussions about it.

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Coalition members hope that the screening mechanism will enable recognised asylum seekers and refugees to dwell and work in Thailand with out the danger of arrest or deportation. But amongst a number of issues are that these living in refugee camps, these from particular nationalities and newly arrived refugees could be excluded from the legislation. The committee established to evaluate asylum claims consists of many members from a nationwide safety background.

“We are afraid the purpose of the law will be to exclude people rather than to protect people,” mentioned Thanawattho. “[The government] should not exclude refugees from accessing protection.”

Options for accessing humanitarian safety in a 3rd nation are additionally exceedingly few. In 2020, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, recognized 20.7 million refugees of concern globally, of whom lower than 1 % have been resettled.

Al Jazeera contacted the governments of eight international locations with a historical past of providing humanitarian safety to individuals from Myanmar, in addition to the UN’s refugee company, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, however was unable to substantiate particular particulars about how many individuals persecuted by the Myanmar navy for the reason that coup have been provided humanitarian safety in a 3rd nation.

New Zealand mentioned that it had acquired 11 refugee and safety claims from Myanmar nationals contained in the nation, all of which have been being thought of, whereas Germany has accepted six asylum purposes from throughout the nation for the reason that energy seize. Australia mentioned it has acquired 2,097 purposes for humanitarian visas from Myanmar nationals exterior of the nation in that point interval, however didn’t point out the variety of individuals it granted safety.

The United Kingdom didn’t present particulars whereas the United States, Netherlands, Spain and Canada didn’t reply to requests for remark.

Citing causes of confidentiality and safety, UNHCR declined to touch upon what sort of momentary safety, if any, is obtainable throughout refugees’ transit interval in Thailand.

‘I want to live legally’

Kaung Htoo is amongst those that managed to make contact with a international embassy and apply for cover in a 3rd nation, however presently missing help from any organisation in Thailand and fearing arrest, he solely goes exterior when mandatory and his spouse and kids don’t exit in any respect.

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The college professor joined the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement and went on strike from his put up in central Myanmar weeks after the coup.  In May, shortly after the beginning of the college faculty 12 months, the military-run information channel broadcast his identify on the arrest warrant checklist, and warned that those that tried to cover schooling employees to stop their arrest would even be charged.

The subsequent day, Kaung Htoo started an arduous journey via the jungle together with his spouse and kids, crossing into Thailand days earlier than safety forces ransacked their home. “We had no idea what to do or [what organisations] to contact when we arrived in Thailand. Our friends told us not to go outside or we could be arrested,” he mentioned.

Some buddies from Myanmar helped the household discover lodging in a village on the outskirts of a border city, and in August, his mother and father joined them. “In Myanmar, I worked as a professor for 17 years. As a civil servant, I didn’t even drink or smoke,” he mentioned. “I want to live legally.”

With this in thoughts, in addition to a need for his kids to have the ability to proceed their schooling, he determined to discover third-country safety choices for himself and his household and has since related with a international embassy and begun the screening course of.

“[My wife and I] mainly focus on our children’s futures when we think about our plans,” he mentioned.

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