Over the past three years I have visited the Thai border town of Mae Sot regularly, as Thai Children’s Trust has turned its attention to helping the many thousands of Burmese refugee children living in slums and shanties Thailand’s Tak province. The awful condition of the refugees - as an indicator, more than 25% of the children are seriously malnourished - frequently prompts me to wonder what conditions must be like in Burma, if living in Thailand is better.
A couple of weeks ago, during a visit to schools for refugee children on the Thai-Burma border, I had the opportunity to find out. With a small group, I crossed the Moei River, which marks the border, and visited the small part of Karen state which is administered by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. Possibly the world’s most complex oxymoron, the DKBA is neither Democratic nor noticeably Buddhist. Arguably it is not even an army.
The contrast between Thailand and Burma is stark. Thailand is a well-serviced, modern country with good, paved roads and bustling traffic. On the Burmese side, the few vehicles visible were 4x4s, the only vehicles capable of passing the rutted, unmade and monsoon-wet roads. We were welcomed by an armed escort of DKBA personnel, who treated us with the greatest kindness and courtesy. They drove us into the main town of Koko, where their commanding general has a very grand residence, outside which runs Koko’s only half mile of paved road.
We visited a village school, and a clinic. The school had wooden benches, a blackboard, and a teacher. That was it. No books, pencils, pens, crayons, or paints. Certainly no TV, no computers. Incredibly, it really was worse equipped than the hopelessly poor migrant schools in Thailand. Outside stood a boy soldier. He claimed to be 17, but looked no more than 14, and carried a machine pistol with casual familiarity. It is claimed that Burma boasts more child soldiers than any other country in the world.
Next stop was the clinic in Koko. A tiny but devoted team of medically unqualified people try to offer some solace to the sick. The operating theatre has black mould growing from the ceiling. There are no drugs, no anaesthetics, no disinfectant, no sterilisers, no mosquito nets. There were hard Burmese beds, a single microscope and an air of quiet desperation. In the malaria season, the place is full, but there is no treatment.
It is said that Burma spends less than 1% of GDP on education and health combined, but in Koko there is no evidence even of that small amount. The ruling SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) has been in power since a military coup in 1962. It is involved in armed conflict with the Karen (although not the DKBA, who have joined the government side), and with others of the many ethnicities which form Burma, notably the Shan, the Wa and the Kareni peoples, all of whom live along Burma’s eastern border with Thailand, Laos and China. The people are driven from their land. Burma’s natural wealth – gas, oil, gems, timber – is ruthlessly exploited, but for the benefit of the rulers, not of the people.
In migrant schools in Thailand, I have met children who have been conscripted into the different armies as soldiers or porters, children whose parents have been shot or killed by mines. I have seen a daily work schedule at the Mae Tao Clinic – a wonderful institution which offers help to Burmese on both sides of the Moei River – including eight landmine injuries out of a caseload of twelve prosthetics users. I should have known the truth. But nothing compares with the personal experience of visiting this school and clinic. Both have been rendered impotent not just by a lack of funding, but by a government which holds the people of Burma in contempt.
Over the next few months we expect a massive influx of children into Thailand from Burma, as parents try to get their children to safety. They anticipate that increasing violence will accompany the promised elections, due before the end of this year, but whose outcome can already be safely guessed. The exodus from Burma has already started.
One school that we help support, Hsa Thoo Lei, has already seen its numbers rise from 650 to 780. At the same time funding is falling because of the economic crisis in the west. ‘But if we don’t take them, where will they go?’ asks the schools director, Paw Ray. The result is that while the children are safe, they have little to eat. Their teachers have not been paid since March, so they, too, go hungry.
We know of at least 3,000 unparented children living in boarding houses in schools around Mae Sot. A year ago, that figure was nearer 2,000. They are the minority. Most refugee children – probably at least another 10,000 - live with their parents in the shanties and slums. They are very often in a worse condition than those in the boarding houses. Thai Children’s Trust is committed to helping them. We have a plan to deliver school lunches which will reach and help all the children. Over the next twelve months we will trial and compare different ways of delivering proper school dinners – giving schools money, giving them uncooked food rations, even delivering a full cooked meal. Where possible we will supplement with self-help schemes like mushroom sheds and catfish rearing, which can deliver much-needed protein very efficiently. When we know what works best, we will do more of it.
Hungry children do not thrive, hungry children cannot concentrate in school. A good school dinner can make a huge difference. We have the building blocks in place, we just lack the funds. Can you help? One school lunch costs 30p. A single cash donation is always welcome, but children need to eat every day for years to come. If you can find it in your heart to make a regular payment, we can give the schools a dependable housekeeping budget, and these children will begin to have the future they deserve. If you can, please help us – you can make your gift here: www.thaichildrenstrust.org.uk/getinvolved/kids-need-food-appeal