Report from Thai-Burma border

 Gap year student Stacy John Weld-Blundell, recently returned from working as a volunteer at a school sponsored by Jubilee Action, in northwest Thailand, wrote this report. Although I had absorbed as much background reading as possible on the history, culture and politics of modern Burma, I still found myself little prepared for the in-your-face reality of the situation along the border. St Joseph's school, in the small village of Mae Ramat, is a poor but relatively well-established enterprise of around 800 students aged three to 16. Many are orphans. It caters for the local Thai community, for the Karen, Mon and other hill tribes of the surrounding area, and for some of the many children in the nearby Mae La refugee camp. The students are poor. Their English, and that of their few English teachers, could be described, at best, inadequate. So I was thrown in at the deep end. I had no experience teaching English, and the school's resources were minimal. But what impressed me from the outset was the determination of these children not to be passed over. Their thirst for knowledge was unstoppable, especially given the huge disadvantages many of them had faced. A pair of twins, four years old, were rescued by the sister superior of the school when they were being sold by their mother. Now the boys were lucky enough to live in the care of the school, with many other children whose stories are, in many cases, even worse. The youngest of the orphans was a small girl, not yet three. The passion with which these kids undertook everything they attempted was quite astounding, always to the very best of their ability. I was, despite my initial apprehensions, left with very little time in which was I not tied up with working or playing with the children. At the weekends, I visited the Mae La refugee camp and taught the children there. The refugee camps that line up along that area of the border are hateful places, where hope is the only possession people have. Mae La has a population of 45,000 and is one of the largest camps. The number of Karen who have fled Burma now is around 130,000. They are tribal peoples who have escaped the oppression and human rights abuses of the Burmese military regime, and they all have their story to tell. Old men have been used as human land mine sweepers while forced to work as porters carrying ammunition - then left to fend for themselves when a mine has rendered them 'obsolete'. Divided families have been forced to work for starvation pay, and young Karen girls are systematically raped by Burmese soldiers. All these people want is to be allowed to go home to their villages in Burma, without fear of such atrocities. As one young man in Bae Klaw put it: "to go home free". But instead, thousands remain nameless, without identification papers or possessions, struggling to survive as best they can in crowded and basic camps. An elderly Karenni woman from the Kayah state of Burma, called Sein Min, told me she had made her way across the border eight months earlier after being brutalised by Tatmadaw soldiers. She was the only survivor of an attack on her family in which her husband, children and grandchildren were all beaten to death. Similar stories are all too common, while the Karen and other minorities who remain in Burma, stripped of their human rights, have to face the daily threat of violence, rape, forced labour and torture at the hands of the military junta. I spent several days travelling illegally inside Burma and along the border with the 'Asian Tribal Ministries,' an NGO set up to bring help to the thousands of internally displaced people inside the country who continue to live in fear of the SPDC regime. The ATM have been working along the border and inside Burma with huge success. Recently, Jubilee Action helped fund them in setting up a goat farm project to feed the internally displaced people just inside Burma. The breeding centre for the goats is located one and a half kilometres from the border, just out of Mae Sot. From there the goats are cleared through quarantine procedures and vaccinated before being transported out of Thailand. Pastor Philip and his team have taken a few of the goats to Karen villages inside Burma, where it is hoped they can provide some kind of sustainable source of food. The majority, however, have been relocated to a more secure farm project. This innovative project is located less than a kilometre from the Burma border, marked only by a line of bamboo, in the Umpiang District of Thailand. Thanks to the generous help of Jubilee's supporters, Pastor Philip's team have now been able to provide a realistic and enduring way to support the displaced minorities along large stretches of the border. One such IDP village with a population of around 600 lies directly next to the goat farm. The village has a basic school that helps serve many of the children from the surrounding jungle villages. Though the farm is not yet 100 percent self-sustaining, the benefits are already visible. Last year, our partners were able to harvest large crops of potatoes, pumpkins, beans and chilli, and the aim is to maintain arable farming on the site in addition to the goats. When I was there, preparations were in place for fencing the land to divide off separate areas for more vegetables. Pastor Philip and his team hope the farm will soon be able to operate with as many as two hundred or more goats, The sense of community in the village is, despite everything, quite overwhelming and I was immediately struck by the determination there, by the resolve of its people to persist and endure regardless of the suffering they have all had to bear. The goat farm project, with seed planting by now underway, should soon be able to sustain at least six surrounding villages, but there remains much work to be done to improve the situation of many more. Such practical developments at a local level are crucial to aiding the quality of life of the indigenous peoples of Burma, and are often underestimated. This project is a highly significant step in providing vital, effective aid to the oppressed minorities of Burma, and fundamental to bringing about a successful and meaningful difference to Karen population. While with the ATM, I met the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at their field office in Mae Sot. I found it astounding how impotent they seem to be when dealing with applications for asylum from those in danger. I went with one of Pastor Philip's team and Col Nu Dah (son of General Bo Myr, leader of the KNU) to try and make arrangements for a Burmese deserter who, having been forcibly conscripted into the military at the age of 18, escaped his front line position and surrendered to the KNU 202 sniper Battalion. The KNU handed him over to their human rights division and we took him the following day across the Moei River to the Mae Sot Office. The UNHCR could offer no financial support, no accommodation, and no effective papers granting even temporary security while his application was processed. This may take years. We were simply told to "take him away and hide him". He remains in hiding, an enemy in the hands and eyes of his carers. The Thai government have a policy of immediately returning Burmese deserters to Burma, where they are shot. The most I could do was to fill out the forms, write a statement on his behalf, and hand over my own interview notes, hoping for the best. We were successful in having his application stamped 'urgent', but it is debatable how much effect this might have. Such examples as this begin to illustrate the ineffective nature of the top level aid organisations, and the many restrictions they have to face because of political interest and bureaucratic necessity. Soe Htway was a bus conductor in Mandalay before he 'volunteered' for the military - forced conscription by any other name! While with the Tatmadaw fighting on the front line, Soe Htway witnessed atrocities that have become standard practice. He told me of three men from his platoon he had seen each take turns raping a Karen girl no older than sixteen. Critically, he explained that the SPDC propaganda program is so effective that many soldiers and even officers are utterly ignorant of the situation, or indeed why they are fighting. He says that there are also others that want to defect. Currently in ceasefire with the KNU, the Burmese Army are using the opportunity to focus all their military attention on crushing Karenni resistance. This highlights the insincerity of any peace negotiations on the part of the Military Junta, and their determination not to compromise their own supremacy. The forgotten campaign in Burma will remain forgotten and the atrocities persist unless international pressure is mounted and free and open talks take place. In the meantime, every endeavour must be made to offer assistance to those who are being persecuted. Pastor Philip and the Asian Tribal Ministries team are committed to their wor. The Sisters of St Joseph Mae Ramat also struggle devotedly to equip the next generation with the tools they need to help build a better home for the future. There are many, many others who support the cause in so many ways, but the campaign is far from over. Seeing what I saw and doing what little I was able to do on the Thai-Burma border did not simply open my eyes to the desperation of a suffering people. It allowed me to witness the fortitude of the human spirit, the capacity to endure and find both strength and happiness in the tragedy of a dire situation. That was what I found so moving. In the school, the camps, the villages, the shelters and the jungle, the warmth and love of everyone was so apparent; the warmth of a people who have suffered torture, oppression and brutality all their lives; a warmth and love that surely deserves something better? For more information see:

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