Thousands of Burmese at the Ei Htu Hta refugee camp in eastern Burma are struggling to feed themselves as monthly food supplies from non-governmental organizations have been interrupted by Thai authorities, according to an aid worker.
Ei Htu Hta, located on the western bank of the Salween River in Burma’s Karen State, across from Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province, houses about 4,000 Burmese refugees.
Saw Htoo Klei, the secretary of the Karen Office of Relief and Development (KORD), said refugees who live in the camp have seen food rations dwindle beginning late last month, as supply lines to the camp, which come from Thailand, have been monitored and sometimes interrupted by Thai authorities.
“Food for this month should have arrived by late last month, but we were not able to transport it in time as we faced some difficulties from Thai authorities,” said Saw Htoo Klei, whose organization provides assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Karen State and at the Ei Htu Hta camp.
Eh Doh, an Ei Htu Hta inhabitant, told The Irrawaddy that as a result, refugees were having to look elsewhere for food, and do more with less.
“Because we have had problems receiving rice on time, we have had to buy rice from local merchants,” he said. “Some people say they have been eating boiled rice soup since early this month as they don’t have enough rice.”
Food supplies for Ei Htu Hta are transported by boat through the nearby Thai village of Mae Sam Laep, upstream on the Salween. Thai military checkpoints are positioned along the river, which demarcates the Thai-Burma border.
There are nine refugee camps on the Thai side of the border, where some 130,000 refugees live.
A May 22 military coup brought the National Council for Peace and Order to power in Thailand, and with it have come changes that have restricted refugees’ movement and sent tens of thousands of migrant workers back to their home countries, fearing detention or worse.
At the same time, NGOs’ support to Burmese refugees in Thailand has declined since the beginning of 2012 as peace negotiations between Naypyidaw and ethnic armed rebel groups have ramped up. The prospect of an end to the decades-long armed conflict in Burma has spurred discussions between the Thai and Burmese governments about repatriating refugees.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy, Nyar Hter, chairman of Ei Htu Hta refugee camp, said food supplies have been declining annually.
“We only get rice and salt. We don’t get other additional foods such as yellow bean, cooking oil, canned fish and other nutritious foods like before,” Nyar Hter said.
According to a press release from Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a recent visit to Thailand by Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Burmese armed forces, included a meeting with Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the ruling Thai junta.
Both sides touched upon the repatriation issue, according to the press release, and the Burmese side reaffirmed its commitment to working closely with Thailand to prepare for a safe future return, in accordance with humanitarian and human rights principles. The discussion was in general terms with no specific timeframe under consideration, the release stated.
Even as NGO support has declined and talk has increasingly turned to repatriation plans, it is clear that many refugees are not ready to return home.
“There is no safety for us to return as government troops are still occupying our village,” Nyar Hter said.