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MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand – Since the day she was born, 20-year-old Naw Lawnadoo has known almost nothing of the world beyond the fence and guard posts that hem her in with 45,000 others — ethnic minorities from Myanmar and those like her who were born and raised in the Mae La refugee camp in neighboring Thailand.
School, family, friends, shopping and churchgoing — many of the refugees are Christian — have all been confined to a valley of densely packed bamboo-and-thatch huts huddled under soaring limestone cliffs.
Now, she and other camp residents face a future that will dramatically change their constricted but secure, sometimes happy lives. With the end of 50 years of military rule in Myanmar, aid groups are beginning to prepare for the eventual return of one of the world's largest refugee populations — some 1 million people in camps and hideouts spread across five countries.
For thousands like Naw Lawnadoo, it is "repatriation" to a country they have never known, where their parents suffered under a military regime that suppressed ethnic insurgencies with brutal tactics, and where ethnic tensions continue to erupt in bloodshed despite some democratic reforms. More than half the population of the camps in Thailand is under 19.
"We are prepared to go back, but we don't know what the real situation there is like," says Naw Lawnadoo of the country previously known as Burma. "We can't speak Burmese. We have no identification cards. And I don't know what kind of a job I could get."
Just when they will have to leave remains uncertain, but Thailand, which hosts many of the camps, is eager to close them.
"We're coming to the endgame," says Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, the main agency providing aid to a string of Thailand camps, where you can find four generations living under one roof.
Some may melt into Thailand, joining the 2.5 million migrant workers from Myanmar. A few may be resettled in third countries, though the United States is ending a program under which it has taken 80 percent of the 105,000 settled so far. With shrinking options, most will likely have no choice but to return.
While camp life is hardly cosmopolitan, some of the young can meet foreigners, have access to the Internet and occasionally slip out to a nearby town, or even the shopping malls and bright lights of Bangkok, Thailand's capital. For them, the prospect of planting rice in isolated villages to which they would probably go holds little attraction.
Naw Lawnadoo for one is seemingly confused. The young woman, dressed in neat slacks and a blouse embossed with a teddy bear, has heard the stories of how her parents fled Pea Ta Ka village in Karen state as Myanmar soldiers moved in to pillage, burn houses and kill.
At one moment she says she would like to go to Australia, where her father's three sisters and mother are settled, after finishing her studies at a Baptist college in the camp.
Later, she talks about returning to her mother's village in Myanmar as a medic or Christian missionary, thinking that perhaps she could adjust to life there. "If our neighbors could live like that, we could too," she says.
She and her parents had an opportunity to go to Australia earlier, but decided against it because her maternal grandmother still lives in Myanmar. "My mother didn't want to go. She said we would be even farther from her mother than we are now, and my father gave in to her," Naw Lawnadoo says with a distinct note of regret.
"I've never ridden a train or an airplane," she says. Her longest trip and only one to a city was to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
The majority of the refugees, including Naw Lawnadoo, belong to the Karen ethnic group. Others include the Karenni and Pa-o. Many of the older ones, who fled fighting in their homelands, hope to return one day but say the time is not yet right.
Myanmar remains a nightmare for Mu Pro, a 42-year-old woman. She still dreams about running, running, trying to flee the grasp of her pursuers who finally catch and torture her.
"No more Burma army. No more torture. No more killing. No more suffering," she says. "I don't want to go home. Since I was young, I have always been running away from Burmese soldiers."
Her aging father, like many in the war-torn regions, was forced to be a porter for the army and shot when he could not carry his load. When her husband, also shanghaied, never returned she fled her mountain village. She sent two of her sons to Thailand, while she and three younger children became internal refugees — like some half a million others in eastern Myanmar — for 11 years. Always on the move, they hired themselves out to feed pigs and plant rice.
When they finally arrived in Mae La, the deadline set by Thailand for refugees to register for possible resettlement to third countries had passed, though her two sons left for Australia with a friend a year ago.
"I don't trust the SPDC and I fear armed conflict will erupt again," she says, still using the acronym for the now defunct military junta, some of whose former leaders continue to wield influence. The government has signed a series of fragile cease-fires with many of the insurgent groups, but some have already frayed, with clashes having recently erupted in Shan state and the Kachin still fighting the government. Soldiers are likely to remain in Karen state for the foreseeable future.
The Karen Refugees Committee, a leading refugee organization, recently said the reforms in Myanmar "signal a ray of hope for many refugees to be able to return to their homeland," but laid down 10 conditions for repatriation ranging from a solid nationwide cease-fire to clearing the vast mine fields along the border.
Thompson cites a host of problems in Karen state and other ethnic regions, ranging from rehabilitating communities shattered by conflict to mounting land grabs that have turned the homes and fields of farmers into plantations, factories and dam sites. Some refugees who go back to check their old properties say they no longer exist, and they have no documents to reclaim them.
But she also says that "suddenly something will be triggered and they're off so we have to be prepared for that moment."
Thompson, who has worked with border refugees for more than two decades, says forced displacement of villagers has dropped dramatically and there are fewer military checkpoints, allowing people to move around more freely. Refugees crossing into Thailand have slowed to a trickle.
To prepare for an eventual return, aid groups are boosting refugee skills, from building sturdy houses to creating business plans for small enterprises to monitoring cease-fire and human rights violations. This, along with the uncertain timetable for repatriation, has also stoked unease.
"We have shifted our thinking from taking care of refugees to their return," she says. "There is hope now for the first time in decades."