where the writers are
Not just another forgotten war: Refugees for life

National Geographic recently described Thailand as a very nice country in a very bad neighborhood.  That's a pretty good summation of the situation.  One can tell a lot about a country by looking at who's trying to get INTO it.  Thailand has been a good friend of the United States for a long time, and like us, has accommodated refugess from all sides: Laos and Cambodia on the right and Burma on the left (geographically, not politically speaking).  Unlike the U.S., however, there are no oceans buffering the country from the surrounding nations.  On the West, Thailand shares a 1000 mile border with Burma, separated by a mere thread of a river.  On the East is Hmong country.  The Hmong have also been marginalized and persecuted by their host countries, though not to the extent of the Karen.

On the northwest border of Thailand, are several small minority states: Karen State, Karenni State, Shan State and a few others.  These are recognized by sovereign entities by every jurisdiction on the planet except the Burmese junta, which attempts to pass itself off as a legitimate government.  We'll return to the issues of these independent states later, in more detail.

Because of the huge numbers of refugees in Thailand from all sides, there is a growing sense that Thailand is losing a bit of patience, and is under increasing pressure from the United Nations and other entities to "repatriate" the refugees, which is a de-facto death sentence for those involved, at least, until the situation in Burma is resolved, which means returning it to the controll of the legitimate government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the duly elected prime minister of Burma.  But we still need to back up a little to get a better picture.

I made my first of six trips to the Thailand/Burma border in 2000, with two different organizations dedicated to helping both IDP's and refugees in Burma: Partners Ministries and the Free Burma Rangers.  Partners works mainly with refugees in Thailand, and the Free Burma Rangers works with IDP's inside Burma,  

Mae La refugee camp is the largest of the refugee camps on the Thailand side, with more than 40,000 refugees.  As one might imagine, thia was a bit of a culture shock for me, since the entire city limits of Fairbanks has only 35,000 people.  We visited a large orphanage inside Mae La, run by a remarkable woman by the name of Rose Mu, who had a horrendous story of her own to tell.  Rose Mu passed away about 6 years ago, which was heartbreaking for us as well as her 80 orphans.  Fortunately, she was able to pass the baton, as it were, befor her passing.

Buit what we learned in the orphanage was staggering.  Nearly every child there had seen his or her parents brutally murdered by the Burmese army.  We also learned that most of those kids would grow up, spend their lives, and die in the refugee camp.  We'd already met some families who had gone through an entire generation in one or more camps.  The people who manage to make it into the refugee camps are the lucky ones....they managed to cross the Moie river without getting shot, or enslaved.  

Refugees in Thailand live in limbo.  They are people without a country.  Most of them have no desire greater than to return to Burma, and a life of normalcy, but they also know it's not likely to happen, at least in their lifetime.  They cannot take employment in Thailand outside of the refugee camps, and are consigned to subsistence farming and some small manufacturing, such as textiles using handmade looms  However, they are prohibited from being too productive inside the camps, as well, though it is their nature to be extremely creative and diligent.  Despite their dire circumstances, the Karen people are extremely civilized and gracious.  There is no survivalist mentality inside the camps; they welcome us into their humble huts and offer us incredible hospitality at great personal cost,

 Although the refugees are relatively secure inside the camps, they are no more than 5 miles from the Burma border, and occasionally the Burmese army will make incursions into Thailand, to be repelled by the regular Thai army.  Although this would normally be considered and act of war, the border is a long way from most Thai's consciousness.  Thailand is reluctant to take much retaliatory action against the Burmese in such instances, since the refugees are not really Thai citizens.  The "official" view of the Thai government toward the refugees is one of benign neglect, although the daughter of the King is becoming more outspoken about the plight of the refugees.  The King of Thailand is a beloved and gracious leader, and has really brought the nation into its current progressive modern state, but he still has to walk a precarious line.  Unfortunately the King's son, heir apparent to the throne is a prodigal, and if he accedes to the throne he will quickly reverse 50 years of progress.  However, there is hope that the King's daughter will become the first quieen of Thailand ever, in which case the progress that the King has made will be continued, and perhaps expanded further.

However, even under the best of times, the refugee camps are a long ways from the royal palace.  


Next Up:  Mae Sot