Creating Non-State Spaces: Interfaces of Humanitarianism and Self-Government of Karen-Refugee Migrants in Thai Burmese Border Spaces

by Alexander Horstmann

Working Papers WP 12-17
October 2012
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

Full text: pdf

This paper examines the interfaces of local community based humanitarian organizations with displaced Karen people in Thai-Burmese border spaces and their claims for cultural rights. It argues that Karen people have to organize themselves in a context where they do not have access to social welfare of the state and in which the state is hostile and oppressive to them. Applying Merry’s thesis on the localization and vernacularization of international rights frameworks in the local context, the paper explores the context of power in which different humanitarian actors intervention in the local conflict zone.

The author finds that Karen displaced people have differentiated access to humanitarian assistance and that powerful organizations like the Karen National Union are able to benefit while essentializing Karen culture and suppressing internal difference among the Karen to position itself towards the international donor community, thereby becoming “liked” or “preferred” refugees. The paper then also looks at secular and faith-based local humanitarian groups and finds that these groups are deeply embedded in local society and thus able to help effectively. Karen displaced people thus create non-state spaces in border spaces by establishing partnerships with local humanitarian organizations that act as brokers and mediators of international organizations and donors.

Alexander Horstmann teaches at the Multicultural Studies PhD. programm at RILCA, Mahidol University. He teaches and supervises M.A. and PhD students from Thailand, Burma, China and Vietnam. He is also advisor at RILCA for the same graduate studies program.