Dreams and despair of Burmese refugees forced to live behind fences in Thai camps

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Umpiem Mai camp.
Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Umpiem Mai camp.
0
Have your say

The lush mountainous region on the border of Thailand and Burma seems at first sight like a traveller's dream.

Ferns and palm trees cover the undulating landscape as far as the eye can see, broken up only occasionally by a small town or village.

It seems a peaceful, untroubled region, surrounded by national parks and nature reserves. But the grass roofs of the bamboo huts in one sprawling settlement, about an hour's drive north from the border town of Mae Sot, hide more than 40,000 displaced people fleeing persecution in their homeland.

They come from Burma - now known as Myanmar - and now live behind fences in Mae La, the biggest of nine refugee camps along Thailand's western border, set up 30 years ago.

Over 80 per cent are members of the Karen community, with others identifying as Burman, Mon and other ethnicities.

What they all have in common is the fear for their lives that forced them to flee their homes.

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Paralysed Eh Htoo, 59, uses hoops hanging from the ceiling of his home in Umpiem Mai camp to exercise his legs.

Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Noda

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Paralysed Eh Htoo, 59, uses hoops hanging from the ceiling of his home in Umpiem Mai camp to exercise his legs. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Noda

Read more:

Burmese refugees flee oppression and violence for a life of hope in Sheffield

Football and family help Burmese young people cope with hardships of refugee life

Sheffield thanked for welcoming 70 Syrian refugees

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Shew Hlaing, 55, a zone leader in Mae La camp.

Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Noda

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Shew Hlaing, 55, a zone leader in Mae La camp. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Noda

Shew Hlaing, 55. arrived with his wife and two children, aged three and one, in 1990. He was a student when soldiers forced him from his home. They would raid villages and arrest the men, forcing them to work as porters.

"If we heard they were coming, we had to move", he said. "Especially at night, we could not sleep."

Raids would happen most weeks. Shew Hlaing managed to evade the soldiers, but his brother was arrested and put to work. After weeks without contact, Shew Hlaing found out his brother had died in the forest.

"Even now I’m scared," he said. "I don’t want to look at the Burmese faces."

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Koh Lohwah, 49, chairman of the Karen Women's Organisation, or KWO, based at Mae La

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Koh Lohwah, 49, chairman of the Karen Women's Organisation, or KWO, based at Mae La

Further south is a smaller camp, Umpiem Mai. Basic food rations, water, sanitation and support are provided by a range of charities including Christian Aid, under an umbrella organisation called The Border Consortium, or TBC.

But for many of the 11,500 people who live there, life is far from easy.

Eh Htoo, 59, lives with his 62-year-old sister, Muk Way. He was a talented musician and worked as a labourer in the camp before an accident changed his life. While carrying logs he slipped and broke his back.

Now paralysed and reliant on a wheelchair to even attempt to tackle the hilly, uneven ground, Eh Htoo has not given up hope that he will walk again. But in the five years since his accident, he has not even had an X-ray.

"I can’t travel, or work," he said. "I can’t help myself when I use the toilet and I can’t cook.

"I have to rely on others, especially my sister. And my sister is getting older, and maybe she won’t be able to help for much longer. There will be more difficulties."

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Mu Thout, 69, in Umpiem Mai camp.

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Mu Thout, 69, in Umpiem Mai camp.

Tai Kyaw, 67, arrived at Umpiem Mai 10 years ago from another camp, Huay Ka Loke, where he had been for 20 years. He and hundreds of others had to flee the first camp when the Burmese army crossed the border and set fire to it.

Sitting on a ragged mat on the dirty concrete floor of his one-room hut, he said he had joined the rebel Karen National Union army aged 15.

"I served for 20 years, until I was 35," he said. "I stepped on a landmine and was forced to leave the army. When I stood on the landmine, it broke my leg."

Despite his wounds Tai Kyaw fought for another three years, but was forced to retreat into Thailand.

His time as a soldier is evident, from the fearsome skull tattoo on his right hand to the problems caused by his injury. He had a stroke and can no longer walk, relying on a hoop hanging from the roof of his hut to lift himself to the toilet or tap. He does not leave his hut, getting food rations from TBC.

Tai Kyaw hopes one day to be resettled in a Western country, as a small number from the camps have been. But his hatred of the Burmese army is still strong.

"If I could walk again, I’d like to go back to Burma and continue fighting," he said.

Resettlement is a dream for some, and a possibility for others. Several thousand Burmese refugees have started new lives in Europe, North America and Australia through a United Nations programme. Between 2005 and 2008, 216 Burmese refugees were resettled in Sheffield.

But with resettlement only an option for a small number of refugees at a time, those living in the Thai camps have had to get on with their lives.

Some have set up small shops in front of their huts, selling groceries provided by Thai business people. There are camp committees, schools, sports pitches and churches.

Koh Lohwah, 49, is chairman of the Karen Women's Organisation, or KWO, based at Mae La. The group works on education, health, and support for women experiencing problems such as domestic abuse.

One of the key tasks for the KWO is fighting inequality within their own community.

"In the past, it was worse, but even now there’s not the same level between men and women," said Koh Lohwah. "It’s more equal now, but there’s still not equality.

"There are issues of positions - some women don’t get to do the same things as men still. Every time we do training, we train women to become leaders.

"For example, women can also be teachers and medics. We try to educate and encourage the women to do these things too."

And even in the most basic conditions, people begin relationships and start families. A concern for the KWO is the age at which some Karen girls get married - often 14 or 15, and to a man twice their age.

"The woman may not be ready yet, because she’s so young," said Koh Lohwah. "It’s not normal that people are so young but every time we have training in the community, we’ll inform them that people should be over 18 years old when they get married."

Families are common in the camps, and the makeshift streets and alleyways are packed with young children playing or helping their parents. There is hope in their future, but for others the reality their lives will end in the camps has become clear.

Mu Thout, 69, lives in a two-room hut on a hillside in Umpiem Mai, with two of her granddaughters, aged 23 and 24. Their parents - Mu Thout's daughter and son-in-law - died over a decade ago.

A great grandmother to 10, she has now lived in Thailand for 40 years. Her age means she is now unlikely to leave the camp, even in a resettlement programme. So she is now concentrating on looking after her family, with the hope that one day they will build new lives in a new country.

"I feel pity for my great grandchildren because they’ve been born here, and have less opportunities, and the parents leave them with me, so I have to look after them," she said.

Christian Aid's Light The Way Christmas appeal will support some of the 65 million people fleeing from conflict and crises across the world, including those living in refugee camps in Thailand, including the Karen people. Visit www.christianaid.org.uk/christmas-appeal and tweet using the hashtag #Lighttheway.

Check back this week for part three of our look at the lives of Burmese refugees.

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Tai Kyaw, 67, at Umpiem Mai.

Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Noda

Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Tai Kyaw, 67, at Umpiem Mai. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Noda