The national director of Amnesty International Australia, Claire Mallinson, has just returned from a ten-day visit to Burma and Thailand.
Ms Mallinson, who spent much of her time with refugees in Thailand's Mae Sot area, found governments were withdrawing funding from these border camps, even before it was safe for the displaced Burmese to return home.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Claire Mallinson, national director, Amnesty International Australia
MALLINSON: There is a real opportunity here, to support the progress that has been made. But that means that checks and balances need to be in place and it means that there needs to be careful monitoring of the funding and the relief programs that the Australian tax-payer is providing for the people of Burma. And it also means that there needs to be a clear transition plan, so we need to continue funding the programs, the refugee camps, the clinics in Thailand, as well as supporting the new initiatives in Burma. And that will be the challenge to the big funders, particularly the funders from Europe, who're very worried about their economies because to make the transition successful, they will need to support both the Burmese people in Thailand as well as the Burmese people actually in Burma.
What I found when I met the Burmese people in Thailand and in Burma, is a real nervousness that actually they're going to be forced to return, before Burma is actually ready, before the things that need to be in place and the changes that need to happen in Burma have actually happened. I met some land mine survivors, I don't think most people realise how many land mines are still in Burma - there needs to be a clearance programme. Many people who fled Burma into Thailand have been in refugee camps for a long time, and the land they used to live on and work, is now being taken over - frequently by families of the military junta. So it's not safe to go back at the moment, and there isn't actually anywhere for them to go back to.
LAM: Are you saying that the slow pace of reform and the gradual opening up of Burmese politics, that instead of it being a source of optimism is creating feelings of uncertainty and doubt for these displaced people?
MALLINSON: Well, they're kind of torn in many respects. They do want to go back but some people I met in the refugee camps of the Karen population, they're very nervous that it's not safe yet. And there isn't really a transition plan in place, and one of the concerning issues - there are now funding cuts happening to the refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. And certainly the camp that I visited, the food rations have been cut by twenty per cent, so they're below the minimum nutritional values and I've visited also the Mae Taw clinic, which is doing some astonishing work, some incredible people there - and they're dealing with 75-thousand people every year, half of whom travel from Burma to that clinic, half of whom live in Thailand but are Burmese. And they're getting free medical care, ranging from dealing with malaria, to having new prosthetics, because they survived a land mine, to also it being a maternity clinic. And they've had their funding cut as well. So I think the great excitement that the big funder countries in Europe and America - they're putting a lot of resources into Burma, but actually, they're shifting those resources from existing services for the Burmese people living in Thailand.
LAM: So there is actual evidence that foreign governments are withdrawing funding from these border camps?
MALLINSON: Absolutely, and also in the clinics and in the schools and their services. I met some incredible people from an organisation, who go into rural communities - a backpack health worker team - they've lost ten staff in the last nine years to land mines. They had two last year arrested and jailed for three months, because they were carrying medical drugs. And very sadly, the woman they were treating, because they were stopped from treat her, she died. As well as the baby that was being delivered. So they've experienced funding cuts - the clinic and the refugee camp.
Everybody wants to see a new Burma. Everybody wants to see the rest of the prisoners-of-conscience being released. Obviously Amnesty INternational's been campaigning on these issues for a number of years. But what we do need to see is checks and balances in the system - so the significant funding that governments are pumping into Burma, needs to be really carefully monitored, there needs to be .. the rest of the prisoners of conscience released, we need to see an independent judiciary established - freedom of the press and there needs to be justice and accountability, that those who've carried out human rights violations for a number of years, need to be brought to account.