Thai Refugee Camps

Beyond The Beaten Path

The Thai-Burma border, from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sot, is mountainous jungle, barely passable for most of the year. Travel is limited to mudslide-prone dirt roads carved into the mountainsides. The region is so remote that it's a breeding ground for new strains of drug-resistant malaria and dengue fever. Unsurprisingly, it is the only part of Thailand where tourists don't go.

That's the geography. Politically, the border is temporary home to over 115,000 Burmese refugees from indigenous Karen, Shan, Mon and Karenni tribes. It is also the staging area for prolific opium trade, rapid deforestation, extensive oil exploration and the kidnapping of young Burmese women for the Thai skin trade. Everything is legal here because nothing is illegal.

If you talk to people in the refugee camps, you will hear stories of their escape from Burma. They criticize the abuses of the despotic military regime they fled: forced labor, conscription at gunpoint, burning of villages, systematic beatings and even rape as a common means of supression. Burma is hell, and Thailand a sanctuary— though we would discover it's more a cage than a refuge.

Getting near the camps is a logistical feat, even for travelers seasoned in out-of-the-way excursions. Few people are willing to risk the dangerous journey, the numerous military checkpoints, or the high cost of procuring a vehicle. It's a brutal journey, particularly when actually getting inside the camps comes down to a roll of the dice. The Thai government guards the refugees assiduously (keeping them contained, while keeping foreigners away) and seldom grants access.

Jill and I want to get in, though, and in the small town of Mae Sariang we are lucky to meet members of the All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF)—a clandestine militia of ex-students resisting their country's military leadership. They agree to take us to Mae Yatah refugee camp.

At six a.m., in the thick mist of the mountains, I hand $40 to our contact for a truck and driver. The three of us jump into a lorry, and soon we are rumbling through the Tanen mountain range. Lush forests blanket the foothills, and ridges drop into ravines hundreds of feet below.

It's the dry season, and the truck kicks up dust, powdering the trees on either side of the road with an earthen-red clay. We drive up and down mountain passes and around hairpin turns. We are tossed in the back of the truck like stones in a cement mixer. Sometimes the road ends at a river, and the driver will turn and follow the riverbed until the road appeared again. The forest is thick, the trees old and thirsty for rain. At one point, when we reach a ridge, our contact points to the distant hills of Burma.

Eventually, we encounter our first checkpoint. The driver, a Thai, gets out and approaches the soldiers. They speak as friends, and something is exchanged discretely. Then the gate is raised, and we continued through the mountains. We drive again for some time, seeing no sign of habitation. Finally, five hours after departing, our driver leaves us at a bamboo footbridge beside a stream.

In the quiet of the jungle afternoon, we climb the hill to a clearing. Gradually he hear children's voices and roosters crowing. As we move into the clearing, other sounds filter past: the squawking of a short wave radio and the rapid clicking of a manual typewriter. Young soldiers come and go. They seemed busy, determined.

General Secretary Saimyinte Thu greets us with a smile."Welcome," he says, seating us in his "office," a thatch covered table, where we drink tea and he briefs us on ABSDF activities.

Then Saimyinte introduces us to Robert, our interpreter and liaison. Robert, 29, left Burma in 1988, after the military killed thousands of students and protesters who had taken to the streets demanding democracy. Since then, he's lived in the jungle— surviving firefights, teaching guerrilla warfare, and re-entering Burma for resistence intelligence. His parents haven't heard from him in eight years; and don't know if he's dead or alive.

Robert wears a traditional longi and a constant smile. His longish black hair falls across his face and he ties the skirt-like cloth into a knot above his waist. We waste no time setting off for Mae Yatah camp.

It is a tiny village lost in the jungle. Underfed people in dirty third-hand clothing mill about aimlessly. Women carry babies, sometimes two at a time. Inside the bamboo huts that crowd the valley, men lay in groups, talking, smoking cherub roots. The camp has a lethargic feel— there is little to look forward to.

We visit the makeshift health clinic. The building is bamboo, like the rest of the camp, and inside, the dirt floor is cool. HIV/AIDS posters in Burmese and Karen line the walls. There are only a few patients today; and the two medics have some time to chat.

At the end of the building is a farmer and his eight year-old daughter. Outside their village, on their way to fetch water from a nearby stream, he stepped on a land mine. His left leg was blown off below the knee, and she caught shrapnel in the ribs. It took them twelve hours to cross the border, frightened of being shot on site. He almost died from loss of blood, and even now, three days afterwards, both their eyes show a fear that we saw in so many people.

We wander through the squalor, speaking to people, taking photographs, tape-recording their stories. It is surreal, in a way, hearing about living under a real-life Big Brother.

Robert points to a group of men. "There's someone you should meet," he says. "The camp head-man."

Saw Nay Moo, a tall, lean elder with broken glasses, welcomes us with a handshake. He tells us that the Thai authorities paid him a visit two days ago.

"They gave us a choice," he says. "We can leave, to go to Mae Lama Luang camp or they will burn us to the ground."

This is a tactic, I later learn, that is used inside Burma as well. The Thais will later be able to say to anyone who asks, that it was the refugees' own decision to move.

"Will you go?" I ask Saw Nay Moo.

"We will not."

"But they'll burn you down . . ."

"We've lived here for eight years," he says. "And unless we can go home to Karen state in Burma, we do not want to leave." At the time, it seemed like a crisis, but having since learned about the politics of the Thai-Burma border, I realize it was business as usual.

There have been reports of illegal teak logging inside the national park that surrounds the camps in this area. Underhanded businessmen supposedly employ the refugees at half the rate they pay local workers to cut down off-limits teak trees and secretly float them across the Salween River to Burma. Then they're stamped with Burmese insignias and sold back to the Thai businesses.

But there is more to the conspiracy. Thailand has not granted the refugees along this border "Refugee Status," even though the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has requested permission to provide assistance. The official reasons are vague and elusive, but many privately-funded humanitarian workers along the border suggest it's because of economics.

Thailand granting refugee status would be an admission of human rights abuses in Burma, the country with which they share their largest border and a historical fear of confrontation. Thailand benefits from Burmese natural resources and cheap labor. The big business ties go all the way to the top generals of both militaries, and the refugees have become a sensitive issue.

Rumors circulating among Non Government Organizations (NGOs) suggest that Thailand is using the teak logging issue as an excuse to move the refugees into large camps where they are easier to control. Some have even gone so far as to say the Burmese military has pressured the Thai government into this move so the refugees and underground insurgent groups, like the ABSDF, will have to move— making them easier to identify and annihilate.

Saw Nay Moo changes the subject before I can ask him more. He tells us that a library dedication is about to begin and invites Jill and myself to join the ceremony. Seven of us sit in a circle on the floor of the small hut, surrounded by rows of empty shelves. There are two dozen dog-eared books slanting sadly against one another. The elders wear red-white-and-blue traditional shirts, hand-woven with colorful patterns.

The ceremony is led by a minister, since many Karen are Christians and the library is a church project. He bows his head and thanks God for their new library. I sit in a moment of silence, thinking that within a month these humble people will be routed from their homes and moved far away. They know this, yet they thank God for the chance to build shelter for a few books so their children can read.

Until the next time, safe travels.

If readers want to send books to the refugees, send them to :

Karen National Unity Library
Pastor Saya Yu Gay
Mae Yatah Camp
c/o Niyint Naing
PO Box 31
Mae Sariang, 58110
Mae Hong Son District

All Original Material Copyright © Dan Kaplan. All Rights Reserved

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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