Yet it might never have happened had UNHCR been invited to lead the relief response at the outset, since its mandate is “entirely non-political” and its primary orientation is towards state governments.The Thai-Burmese border experience therefore merits careful study for relevance elsewhere.
Even as awareness grew in the 1990s (as demonstrated by Annual UN Security Council Resolutions calling for tripartite negotiations between the junta, the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ethnic nationalities), the reality was that there was still little empathy for the non-state actors involved in the struggle for self-determination, and in whose areas of control most of the displaced people lived.
Mc Connachie explains that “ensuring ‘the civilian character of refugee camps’ is a global policy concern of UNHCR and these allegations of militarization in Thailand prompted donors to demand more transparency and oversight of camp management.” It was more serious than that.
In 2007, some donors (fortunately not all) began to question the credibility of the self-governing model, contesting the idea that any refugee-support program could be based on trust.
All aspects of the program were aggressively challenged and serious doubts were expressed about its accountability.
Ironically, it has been the willingness of the Burmese government’s Minister Aung Min to negotiate ceasefires and open the way for political dialogue with the non-state armed groups that has at last confirmed their legitimacy as important parties in determining Burma’s political future—something the international community has been reluctant to recognize.
Mc Connachie suggests that “Rather than rejecting the simple possibility that ‘non-state actors’ can also be legitimate governance actors, a more productive approach would be to openly acknowledge their role and use this as a baseline to negotiate terms and techniques of governance.” “Governing Refugees” shows that the refugee self-governance model on the Thai-Burmese border was successful.A key concern was the perceived level of involvement of the Karen National Union (KNU)—the principal Karen non-state armed group resisting Burmese military assimilation of their homelands—in camp affairs.Some portrayed this as “naïve, even negligent, for enabling refugee militarization,” helping to “consolidate the power of a KNU elite,” and contributing “to prolonging the conflict.” When the refugee story began 30 years ago, there was little international understanding of or sympathy for the ethnic struggle in Burma.This was a joint exercise with the refugee and camp committees and, from TBC’s perspective, their understanding and industrious response once again vindicated the model and confirmed that trust had always been well placed.“Governing Refugees” includes insightful information about the KNU and their relationship with the refugees and a fascinating and sensitive study of Karen moral standards and their traditional justice system.She realized she was witnessing something very special that challenged the common perception of refugees as powerless victims and of refugee camps as dangerous places lacking normal social structures.