Burmese refugee cites negative effect of democratization

April 06, 2012

By HIROTO MOTOI/ Staff Writer

Kokolatt, a political refugee who lives in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture, visited a camp for Burmese refugees in Thailand in February and witnessed one negative effect of the democratic reforms taking place in his homeland.

The 41-year-old Burmese said overseas organizations were starting to direct more aid to Burma, leading to a decrease in nutritional assistance to the refugees. Kokolatt is appealing for help because he does not want the refugees to be "left behind."

His visit took him to the Merau refugee camp, where around 16,000 people live near the border with Burma.Kokolatt arrived on Feb. 9 and stayed for three days, accompanied by four Japanese aid workers. It was his fifth straight year to visit the camp.

Two years ago, he started filming a documentary about the living conditions there.

The media continues to discuss the turn toward democratization in Burma, covering stories such as the release of more than 600 political prisoners, and Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), standing as a candidate in by-elections scheduled for April 1.

However, most of the refugees he interviewed said although they know the situation is changing, they "don't want to go back until the democratic reforms are certain."

Kokolatt heard that NGOs and other groups from the European Union that have provided nutritional assistance to the refugees expect the West to lift economic sanctions against the country. These groups are now shifting the focus of their aid to inside Burma, halving the amount of rice distributed to the camp since the New Year’s Day.

"Some people are stealing rice in the camp. It's a serious situation," Kokolatt said.

Everyone was shocked when he showed them video of the devastation from the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima. But he also heard some say, "I want to help Japan, but then we'd starve."

About 150,000 Burmese refugees live in camps at nine locations in Thailand. "I don't want people to forget the refugees who suffered most under the military government through civil war and oppression," Kokolatt said.

Even though the NLD scored a major victory in the April by-elections in Burma, the party will hold no more than 10 percent of the seats in the national legislature. And the dominance of the leaders from the military government's days who have remained in the current administration since the transition to civilian rule will be unchanged.

The Constitution stipulates that 25 percent of the seats in the legislature must be appointed by the military, so its influence is still strong.

Japanese companies are starting to enter Burma in search of Asia's cheapest labor force, but Kokolatt said: "Real democracy won't come until after the 2015 general election. I want people to refrain from business activities that prop up the current regime and to make sure that these democratic reforms are authentic."

Kokolatt strongly believes the current government's democratization is merely a way to evade Western economic sanctions. He also views with suspicion the Japanese media, which has uniformly used the term "Myanmar," the military government's name for the country, instead of "Burma," the English name applied since the time of British colonial rule.

However, there is one thing that has made Kokolatt feel closer to his homeland.

Many fellow democracy activists from his high school days who were arrested as political prisoners are being released. One of them sent him a photo from when they were invited to Suu Kyi's house in 1989.

In January, Kokolatt spoke with his parents in Yangon (Rangoon) on the phone for the first time in 21 years. Until then, they were unable to contact each other out of fear their calls would be intercepted. His father, 71, is in poor physical health and his mother, 64, cried because she was worried about Kokolatt.

He said they look forward to the day when they can meet their 6-year-old grandson.

Kokolatt was born in Yangon and is a former secretary-general of the national Burma high school student federation.

In 1990, he was arrested for anti-government activities and was monitored after his release. He came to Japan via Thailand in 1991, making it impossible for him to return to Burma.

Japan recognized Kokolatt as a political refugee in 2001. He now heads the Support Campaign for Democracy in Burma (SCDB), works at a glass processing factory, and lives with his Japanese wife and son.

He can be contacted via email (info@scdb.org).

By HIROTO MOTOI/ Staff Writer
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Children in a refugee camp on the Thailand border, where the food situation is reportedly worsening (Provided by SCDB)

Children in a refugee camp on the Thailand border, where the food situation is reportedly worsening (Provided by SCDB)

  • Children in a refugee camp on the Thailand border, where the food situation is reportedly worsening (Provided by SCDB)
  • Kokolatt (Photo by Hiroto Motoi)

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