Myanmar refugee crisis brewing as turmoil hits economy


BANGKOK — Aid workers and activists are warning Myanmar’s political upheavals risk causing a regional refugee crisis as the strife following a February coup displaces growing numbers of people who have lost their livelihoods.

Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur for Myanmar, said violence has left nearly 250,000 people displaced. As Myanmar’s neighbors prepare for a summit this week to discuss the coup, he and other rights advocates are warning that the situation could spiral out of control.

“The world must act immediately to address this humanitarian catastrophe,” Andrews said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.

A mass civil disobedience movement and efforts by security forces to crush it have left many out of work. Disruptions of internet service by authorities are also wrecking the means many in the impoverished country rely on to make a living.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, called a meeting Saturday on the crisis that has left more than 700 civilians dead, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which tracks the casualties since the military takeover.

ASEAN’s stance of non-interference in each others’ internal matters, and the relatively undemocratic nature of many of the members own governments, has left Myanmar’s neighbors wary of imposing any sanctions against the regime that seized power from the elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been imprisoned along with more than 3,000 others.

The growing number of people fleeing bombings and other violence by Myanmar forces “is something they (ASEAN) want to remain in control of. Refugees spilling over the borders are not internal, it becomes a regional issue,” said Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, the main provider of food, shelter and other support to refugees from Myanmar for more than three decades.

“It is the ASEAN countries that can put pressure on Myanmar because they are a trading bloc,” Thompson said in a briefing at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

She estimated that about 7,000 people were camped along the Salween River on the border with Thailand, with more than 1,000 hiding in Thai forests. That is only one area along borders that stretch from India to the west to China and Thailand to the north and east.

So far, most of those displaced are still within Myanmar, adding to those already having to flee due to long-running ethnic insurgencies. But fighting has disrupted their access to food and other necessities.

“People have been finding areas of solace inside Myanmar still, but if this conflict broadens into the ethnic states along the border areas, you will see refugee flows,” James Rodehaver, Bangkok-based chief of the Myanmar team of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at a recent seminar.

The mass civil disobedience movement has left many Myanmar businesses, from banks to hospitals to garment factories, shuttered. That has prompted people to flee from cities back to their home villages, burdening families that had relied on them for support.

The troubles are amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, which raises risks of spreading outbreaks and also forced some migrant workers back to Myanmar from Thailand and other countries.

“The economy in Myanmar is collapsing. Salaries are no longer being paid. People’s livelihoods are disappearing as they are in hiding for their own safety,” Thompson said. “The entire country is headed for a humanitarian crisis.”

So far, most of the sanctions taken to try to compel Myanmar’s military leaders to reverse the coup and restore the elected government have been adopted by Western governments.

That includes banning business with major military-affiliated companies that dominate many industries, including the lucrative gems and jade trade.

It’s unclear whether such moves have had much impact, just weeks after the coup. It takes time for flows of revenues to taper off, and so far companies paying revenues for oil and gas, the country’s biggest export, are mostly staying put saying they hold a responsibility to keep the energy-scarce country’s lights on and to protect their own employees. But it is clear that the economy is headed for worse trouble, economists say.

Fitch Solutions downgraded its estimate for 2% growth in the current fiscal year, which ends in September, to a contraction of minus 20%.

ASEAN accounts for about a third of all of Myanmar’s foreign trade, with China having a larger share. And much of the foreign investment in the country comes from within the region.

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