| Through | the | Wire |
Just 8 kilometres from Burma, Mae La represents an opportunity to escape from an oppressive regime in the hope to find a better life, yet this is seldom the reality.
Mae La (Beh Klaw in Karen) is the largest refugee camp along the Burma-Thai border; it’s home to over fifty thousand Burmese refugees, 90 percent of which are Karen – one of the hardest hit ethnicities in South East Asia through ethnic cleansing and a decades old civil war in Burma. It is one of seven temporary camps run by Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) and although it has been operational for over 25 years, it and the other six camps’ futures are unknown as the Thai government wants them closed, especially as there is now a “democratic” government in Burma.
Driving from Chang Mai we are unsure of the journey ahead, filled with apprehension and questions, the hunger to understand where we are heading quells these feelings. Through the chaotic traffic of Chang Mai – where seemingly cars are flying by in all directions – we hit the road south. Within minutes of leaving the cramped city we find ourselves on open tree-lined roads, surrounded by fields of agriculture and grazing livestock. The people in the country are so much more relaxed in their interactions with tourists, gone is the master-slave relationship so prevalent in South-East Asia, we are on equal terms, and there is a genuine curiosity to understand who we are, and how we came to be here.
The journey is around 200km, it takes over a day of driving, passing through small mountainous ranges, tropical forests, farmlands, villages large and small. Arriving in Mae Sot we find a dusty frontier town situated on the Moei River. The guidebooks tell you it has numerous facilities for volunteers wanting to work with Burmese refugees, however the reality is far from it. This is not a town to visit without a reason.
When we arrive at the camp we are immediately approached by a surly soldier, he does not speak English, the intonation in his voice and his various hand gestures are enough for us to understand we are not welcome.
This is a difficult moment as we now have another obstacle to get past, and this obstacle has a machine gun.
After backing out of the entrance we take in our surroundings, it’s hard to imagine that in front of us is one of the largest refugee camps in South-East Asia, surrounded by sheer cliffs of rock coming out of nowhere, the camp has an oppressive feeling. There is a shonky barbed wire fence with sporadic military outposts and with lackadaisical soldiers manning these ramshackle watch-huts, we decide to make our move after finding a section of fence unseen by the guards.
We walk along a length of the fence for a few minutes and find a few children playing out in front of their crudely constructed home, made from bamboo it looks as though a strong breeze could blow it down. Upon seeing us they cautiously come to meet us, the only barrier is the fence. While not filthy, the kids and their clothes are quite grimy, without life in their eyes that you usually would expect in a child, they have melancholy expressions with a listless posture. Neither they nor we speak the others language, but they have a basic understanding of a handful of English words. Shortly their mother comes out of their home/shack to meet us, she is a stoic looking woman appearing to be 10 years older than she really is, with a large cheroot (Burmese cigar) in her hand ready to fire up. It is hard for us to understand what they have been through; making a home in a refugee camp is unfathomable, this family has done exactly that, never really knowing how long they will be there or where they will be moved to next.
We have come this far, so we move to a broken part of the fence and venture inside. As we start walking in it becomes obvious that it’s really a poor town rather than a short term camp, with a paved main road, shops, and schools; infrastructure of a small town. Some houses have TVs, computers with internet, and many locals have mobiles. Once we hit onto what appears to be a main shopping district, we decide to walk through. At no time does anyone seem surprised to see us in their town. The residents go through their daily motions as if we were invisible.
We come across a few locals who explain their situations to us. For many in Mae La, this is the only home they have. One Muslim woman speaks to us about her life in Burma; the hardship, being a minority Muslim, having two small children and a severely disabled husband and the difficult choice to leave her home to come for a chance of liberty in Thailand.
Before we came, I wondered what it would be like here, I thought it would just be a bunch of tents with aid workers rushing about. Yet there are neither tents nor aid workers in sight. What we do see is a fully functioning community, a community stuck at a crossroads, in either direction hardship awaits. In Burma they face enslavement, torture, murder, in a broken country blinded by the fog of a civil war, here they live in a permanent state of limbo. Thailand has over two million Burmese refugees – mostly illegal, of which the majority is underpaid, enslaved, and considered second class citizens. If you ever find yourself on a Thai island enjoying the postcard beaches, cheap food and booze, check out who is working in the kitchen, serving and cleaning up after you. In all likelihood you will find a Burmese slave. The reality is sobering.