Sixty-six kilometers north of Mae Sot, set against picturesque hills, lies the encapsulated world of Mae La Refugee Camp; home to over 40,000 Burmese refugees. Some of its citizens have lived here since its conception, approximately twenty years ago. It is the largest of the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand.
It is best described as a ‘patrolled city’, as Thai Police surround its perimeters and control its gates. They are also there to guard against attacks from gunmen hiding in the surrounding border hills.
I had the opportunity to visit this camp on Saturday February 16, along with international photographer Christopher Briscoe and 2 other men. We left at 8am, and traveled in the back of a pick-up truck. Our transportation and access into the camp had been arranged prior to the trip, as unauthorized visits to the camp by foreigners are not usually permitted.
We easily passed through the police checkpoint, and drove right into the camp, where our driver waited for us. We encountered no other foreigners that day.
Our plan was to stay about four hours, because by mid-afternoon temperatures can soar to over 40 degrees Celsius. We arrived armed with our cameras and plenty of water.
Once inside, we were left to wander at will through the maze of bamboo huts along dirt paths. One can easily become lost here, as was our case on the way out.
I was astonished at how, in many ways, the camp resembled a very large rural village. There were little bamboo shops, schools, churches and homes. I even came across a ‘Workshop’ that was built by the Rotary Club of Canada! Most buildings were extremely small, and built side-by-side. There were some pump wells, but it was obvious that sanitation was a real problem here. Disease runs rampant in the camps.
Many of the Burmese in these refugee camps live their lives in limbo. They are people who cannot go back to Burma under present conditions, yet are unable to acquire citizenship elsewhere. Most of them cannot leave the camp for any reason whatsoever. The camp has a dusk curfew. I was told this was because men with guns are out on the streets.
I had opportunity to visit and interview two English speaking refugee families within the camp. Their stories are similar to hundreds of stories I have heard from other refugees.
One such family: ZM, his wife ML and their small three-year-old daughter have a little sugar cane drink stand within the camp.
In 2001, ZM was arrested at Rangoon airport for delivering letters for politicians. He spent 45 days in dark solitary confinement before being moved to a larger cell crammed with prisoners.
Upon his release he had to sign papers promising not to leave the country. His passport and Burmese identity card were taken from him. His family managed to escape Burma by risking their lives trekking through miles of mine-riddled jungles until they crossed the Burma-Thai border.
That was nine months ago. He has no idea when the UNHCR in Mae Sot will come, take his photo, and issue him a card that enables him to leave the camp confines. Apparently, at present, the UNHCR here has shut down operations for several months.
ZM was a highly educated business man in Burma. The present dictatorial military regime in Burma has taken all that way from him, and from thousands like him.
ZM lives his life day-to-day, while Burma’s 54 million inhabitants live a life of poverty, disease and fear, experiencing serious abuses of human rights. The SPDC army in Burma still practices ethnic cleansing by violently annihilating whole villages and their inhabitants. Many of these village massacres do not make it into the press. Life in many parts of Burma, are a daily struggle for survival.
Three weeks ago, KNU leader Mahn Sha was assassinated here in Mae Sot. There is fear that there will be more attacks here on Burmese who are working towards Burma’s democracy.
Thousands of families have been separated, and dare not contact their family back in Burma, as it might bring danger to their family. Burmese men and women here have openly wept in front of me, because they have not had contact with their loved ones for years.
I have two more weeks here in Mae Sot. I am kept busy teaching English 7 days a week. Everyday is an emotional challenge for me as learn more of the horrendous situations that these people have endured.