Beyond the Refugee-Migrant Binary? Refugee Camp Residency Along the Myanmar-Thailand Border

Abstract

Processes of mixed migration beyond the reified “refugee-migrant binary” of migration studies are an empirical reality along the Myanmar-Thailand border. Utilizing a survey of 3,874 mobile individuals from Myanmar in Thailand as a case study, this paper examines the impact of past experiences of migrants on the likelihood that any one of them will reside inside a refugee camp instead of outside of one in Thailand. A dataset is constructed that specifically intersects “refugee” communities with “labor migrant” communities in order to measure the importance of factors of socioeconomic, self-identity, past persecution, and social network considerations. Though indicators like religion, ethnicity, and the fear to return are salient in the likelihood of living inside a camp, family location is the strongest single predictor variable for whether or not an individual from Myanmar will inhabit a refugee camp. Future research may benefit by researching across migrant communities normally considered disparate.

Introduction

Human mobility across the 2107-km border that separates the national states of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand is a complex affair. From a macro perspective, vast disparities in economic wealth, political governance, and social conditions be- tween the two countries for the last half-century have materialized in a movement that is primarily mono-directional—from Myanmar to Thailand. From a micro perspective, the mobile identity of individuals who move has conceptually fallen under categories as varied as refugee, labor migrant, émigré, student activist, family member, escapee, soldier, political prisoner, worker, ethnic fighter, and others. Furthermore, the social scientific argumentation as to the what, when, where, why, and how of this mobility from Myanmar to Thailand has encapsulated, at one time or another, all those traditional binaries of migration studies such as push-pull, forced-voluntary, structural-agential, political-economic, national-international, and so on. There are valid reasons to justify one identity, one concept, or one chain of events over another depending on the argument at hand. Yet, there should be one point upon which all can agree to begin this article in the realm of factuality. Regardless of what we call them or why they are there—today, more individuals from Myanmar can be found in Thailand than vice versa.

This article aims is to revisit one of those binaries of migration studies. Specifically, the refugee-migrant binary will be challenged by an exploration of factors that lead to an individual residing inside or outside a refugee camp. The dependent variable under study here is mobile location after crossing an international border.

This study is done in light of recent work that emphasizes the “mixed flows” or “mixed migration” nature of contemporary movements across borders. Utilizing the Myanmar-Thailand border as a case study, the main argument is that both the mobile self-identity and the mobile location of individuals who are normally called “refugees” and individuals who are normally called “labor migrants” intersect in complex ways beyond that normally argued by the refugee-migrant binary. What it means to be a refugee and to be a labor migrant are not mutually exclusive. These creatures of the lawyer’s, the humanitarian’s, and the social scientist’s—indeed, of the politician’s—imagination overlap in important ways. There are unquestionably good legal, humanitarian, policy, and ethical reasons to make a clear distinction between a “refugee” and a “labor migrant” at times. But in those cases where some overlap in identity and causal backdrop are observable, the researcher has an obligation to explore the empirical evidence as to just how they overlap in order to better theorize and, if possible, test claims about human mobility in a field of reality.

Rather than look at those cases where the refugee or the labor migrant fit some uncontested role, this article seeks to explore the exact opposite. More can be learnt by exploring a case where… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in the Journal of International Migration and Integration by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via the Faces of Hope Fund. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Party Preference in Myanmar’s Democratization Context

Abstract

Myanmar provides a unique opportunity to study a polity that only recently has begun the processes of political liberalization and democratization. A necessary, though not sufficient, element of this transition was the 2015 general elections, which resulted in a handover of governmental power from the military-turned-civilian-led United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to the main prodemocracy opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The factors that influenced the behavior of the Burmese voter have yet to be examined at the individual level. This study explores the relationship between various variables and political party choice by analyzing a newly created dataset of Burmese party preference in Thailand. Utilizing a multinomial logistic regression of survey data (n of 3,671), traditional variables of demographic differentials and value of democracy—as well as newly theorized factors of diaspora conditions and past persecution—are tested against party preference. Specifically, the indicators of ethnicity, democratic values, years spent abroad, and governmental threat of persecution prove to be salient in the likelihood that a Burmese voter would choose either the NLD or any “ethnic” party over the USDP. New avenues of research are recommended based on the findings for Burmese party preference, including important considerations for the study of newly democratizing regimes in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Introduction

This research is a first cut at understanding the political party preferences of the Burmese diaspora currently living in Thailand. Use of original data leading up to the 2015 national elections in Myanmar presents an opportunity to speculate about a counterfactual situation of Burmese voters abroad.

Southeast Asia is an empirically rich region of the world for creating theory and testing hypotheses for a variety political science subjects. The variance in political, economic, social, and cultural realities across this region allows the scholar to posit questions that may be difficult for researchers working in other areas of globe. Political science has come to value this wealth of political diversity as a tool for understanding not just Southeast Asia, but also for further developing theory relevant to the field more generally. Some examples include, first, the variance in regime type across Southeast Asia, which allows for new ideas and hypothesis testing regarding political modernization, liberalization, and democratization. Second, the largely free and fair elections and the “caretaking democratization” in Myanmar (Burma) recently have
challenged previous research on political transitions. Similarly, Thailand’s recent backslide into military authoritarianism, compared to Indonesia’s consolidation of democratic processes, continues to make world headlines. Third, some of the world’s longest-running violent political conflicts are in the southern Philippines, East Timor, southern Thailand, and many of the border areas of Myanmarall of which complicate any analysis of democratization where the power of the state still is challenged openly through coercive means.

This study explores one facet of the political variance across Southeast Asia by examining political party preference in recent national elections in the newest national state to make real gains in democratization. Myanmar is a special case of… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Taiwan Journal of Democracy by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via the talented Hein Htet at European Photo Press Agency. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Behind the Barbwire

Adventure in Thai-Burma Refugee Camp Inspire Book.

I heard the good news only days before our class graduation: There was an opportunity for me to return to Southeast Asia and work with refugee populations along the Thai-Burma border. This was in spring 2009; when the financial recession was at its nastiest and consequently not the best time to be a newly minted MBA looking for work.

I recall there being more than a few lackadaisical Thunderbirds at the graduation reception party that evening. That night I had felt myself lucky to have had found a gig that synced perfectly with my experiences before Thunderbird.

Living in a remote refugee camp does not normally register on an MBA’s list of optimal places to work after graduation. If not for a slightly bizarre desire on my own part to keep chasing one adventure after the next, I too might have found myself fi led away into a more traditional post-MBA existence.

Surprisingly, I found our MBA tool chest of skills to be extremely useful when I arrived in the refugee camp. After learning about the… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published on page 70 of Thunderbird Magazine by T. F. Rhoden (Spring 2011); photo credit for image in this re-post goes to Khin Maung Kyaw. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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