MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand — The children who live in this camp for Burmese refugees have known no other life. Neither have many of their parents — or their grandparents.
Yet now, surprisingly rapid reforms and cease-fires under way in Myanmar are opening the prospects for the return of one of the world's largest refugee populations — some 1 million Burmese huddled in frontier camps and hideouts across five countries.
"There's a time for war, and a time for peace. Sixty-three years is long enough for killing," Pastor Simon Htoo told more than 300 young Burmese refugees gathered for morning prayers in a weathered, jungle church in Mae La, a camp near the Myanmar-Thai border. "Hope to see you all soon in our beautiful land."
The looming task for the international community will be massive. One of the least known diaspora of recent times includes an array of ethnic groups and religions — Buddhist, Christian and Muslim — driven from their homeland by oppression of political dissidents and brutal military campaigns against Myanmar's minorities.
The fighting and human rights abuses still persist in some areas, and even if stopped, many refugees say the hatreds, suspicions and double-crosses of past decades must be overcome before they feel safe enough to return.
One of the ethnic groups, the Karen, has been waging a guerrilla war for greater autonomy for 63 years from iron-fisted military regimes. The Kachin took up arms again last year.
"Signing a cease-fire is very easy — you can do it in a few minutes — but implementation is a different matter. That depends not on the smiles on their faces, but their sincerity, what is really in their hearts. Maybe it's another trick," Htoo, a Karen Baptist pastor, said after his sermon in this camp sheltering more than 50,000 refugees.
When they do return, the refugees will emerge from Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia and China, a refugee mass that with the Iraqis and Afghans ranks among the largest in the world.
Their living conditions vary vastly. In the fetid settlements of Bangladesh, as many as 400,000 illegal Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, hover on the edge of existence. Others live in a well-established string of U.N.-recognized camps along the Thai border, home to three generations who have spent their entire lives there.
Most would be returning to border regions of razed villages, minefields, traumatized people and almost nonexistent support systems in a country that is already among the world's poorest. Many fear that with the world quick to applaud Myanmar's reforms, pressure will mount to force them back before conditions are right.
"People in the refugee camps must be given a choice: to go home, stay in Thailand or be resettled abroad. We don't trust Burmese politics because things are still very unclear," says Dr. Cynthia Maung, a refugee doctor they call "Mother Teresa of Burma" whose Thai border clinic has treated thousands. "Nobody is going back now."
Although preliminary plans for repatriation are being discussed among aid organizations and refugee leaders, roughly 1,000 are still fleeing into Thailand every month, says Jack Dunford, veteran head of the Thai Burma Border Consortium, which provides basic food and supplies to the Thai camps.
Thailand insists that there will be no forceful repatriation "until the situation is safe," Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi told The Associated Press. "No time frame has been set for their return."
But in Bangladesh, more than 10,000 are set for repatriation, and negotiations are under way with Myanmar for the rest to follow.
"Right now we are motivating the refugees to return home since we believe the human rights situation has improved," said Firoz Salahuddin, the Bangladesh government official in charge of the repatriation. "But it's a difficult task. Refugees are still fearful and need a lot of persuasion."
Those who qualify can seek resettlement in third countries, which have taken 114,000 from the Asian region since 2005, according to the International Organization for Migration. Of these, 90,000 have gone to the United States, with the others spread among 12 other nations, including Australia, Canada, Sweden and Japan. Up to 18,000 will be resettled this year.
The U.S. government intends to continue supporting both the refugees and increased aid to Myanmar if reforms continue. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who visited Myanmar in December, said Washington was committed to "helping the refugees for the future in their homeland, so they can become self-reliant after two decades of just being dependent on aid in the camps."
But other donors enthusiastic about the recent changes, notably the European Union, are shifting their focus and funds to Myanmar's heartland, dominated by the Burman majority, and the refugees are feeling the crunch.
Dunford says food distributions will have to be slashed further this year to a "breakpoint" 1,650 calories — well below the World Health Organization minimum daily adult requirement of 2,100. Items for shelter like bamboo and salaries of camp teachers also will be reduced.
In camps like Mae La, a warren of thatch and bamboo huts sprawled below limestone cliffs, everyone closely follows developments in Myanmar with a mix of hope, anxiety, suspicion and indecision.
"I want to go back to my country, but not now. There may be changes in the big cities, but not in the countryside," said May Soe, who fled to Thailand after Burmese soldiers killed her father and raped women in her village.
Torn between following her brother to the United States or staying, the 41-year-old medic remained behind to serve in the children's ward of Dr. Cynthia's Mae Tao clinic.
Others, like 36-year-old teacher Saw Wado, are ready to return and help rebuild the country. "We have lived at such a low level for so long that we are not afraid to go home," he said.Comment on this story
The Karen and other ethnic minority Christians have also retained an unwavering faith, more akin to that of the 19th century when they were converted by American missionaries.
At the camp's Care Villa, a shelter for the most severely handicapped, a group of young men — all blinded by land mines, missing arms and legs — joyously belted out a hymn.
"We don't know what the next day will bring, what the future holds for us, but God will lead the way," they sang in flawless part-harmony.
Associated Press writers Farid Hossain in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok and Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi contributed to this report.