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Fear Behind the Smiles of Burma’s Refugees

Chiang Mai (Thailand), December 16 (ICC) – At the first glance, Burma’s refugees in Thailand appear to be happy. But their cheerfulness endures only until they recall their past or think of their future.

The children chuckled and laughed as they participated in a play competition in a hall made of bamboo sticks and roofed with leaves from trees in the tropical mountain forest along the Burma border. With over 800 refugees in attendance, all Christians, there was no sense of solace – in spite of it being a cold December night at the Mae La refugee camp, situated in Tha Song Yang District of Tak Province, roughly 350 miles from Chiang Mai.

The plays depicted the concerns of the Karen Christian community in exile and were part of celebration of the Christmas season by the Htee Ger Nee Church (Still Waters Church).

Looking at their colourful clothes, it was difficult to tell that these children are among the Karen people who are caught between horrific memories of attacks by the military junta in their own country, and a bleak uncertain future.

Dressed in a pink skirt and red-and-white pullover, a 20-year-old girl was all smiles as she enjoyed the event. She looked like an ordinary girl until she told of how when she was 14 she walked through the jungles for two days and two nights to reach the Thai side of the border. Her only companion was another Karen Christian girl, also of her tender age.

Asked if she was not scared of the jungles, she replied there was no other option. “Forced by poverty and military attacks by the militia in Karen State (Burma), my parents asked me to cross the border. That was less dangerous. Besides, I had nothing in my village.”

Ea Doh, a Bible teacher at the Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School and College (KKBBSC) at the Mae La camp, is 32 years old. Wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt, he was sitting at the table facing the stage, often chuckling as he spoke with his colleagues.

Doh came to the refugee camp in Thagu, also along the Burma border in Thailand, around 11 years ago. Later he moved to the Mae La camp, where his father also joined him eight years later.

A graduate from the KKBBSC, Doh has not seen any of the cities in Thailand despite living there for over a decade, as the over 160,000 residents of the nine camps along the border are forbidden by the Thai government to leave their camp areas.

“How long can I languish in the camp?” he asked as his face suddenly turned serious. “I too can work hard and am capable of earning my own bread. I want to buy things for myself and my friends and family. But I cannot.”

The Mae La camp, the biggest among the nine, houses 5,846 families or 27,378 registered people. It has also accommodated around 23,000 unregistered refugees who had nowhere to go. Around 60 percent of the people at the camp are Christian.

The military junta regime in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, often attacks villages in Karen State, which borders Thailand. The Karen people, many of who are Christians, have been resisting the military dictatorship and demanding a separate state or autonomy within Burma for over six decades.

In June, a Buddhist militia known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) attacked a newly built thatched orphanage, Shekinah (Glory to God), in Karen State in the middle of the night. Though unprepared, the over 70 children, mostly Christian, had to flee the mortar attack promptly, walk through the forest and swim through the Moei river to cross over to the Thai side of the border, where they took temporary shelter.

Now in their new location in the jungles, around 70 miles from the Mae La camp, the children, many of them orphans and others from poor families, feel secure when in company of their caretakers. But once left alone, they look lost in thought. Apparently, they can’t help recalling that fateful night in June even six months later.

“It was a miracle that all the children could reach the Thai side of the border. Even the fact that Thai authorities did not force them to go back is not less of a miracle,” said a caretaker, who looked exhausted, both physically and emotionally.

When the DKBA mortared the Karen village in June, the father of two of the children who were at the orphanage (due to his poverty) came looking for them. But the children had been moved. “This poor father came to Thailand despite the fact that landmines had been laid by the DKBA around the village. He went around the border area searching for his children and finally found them at the Shekinah orphanage It was a deeply emotional moment as they met each other,” added the caretaker.

“Those living in the camps along the Thai-Burma border struggle to maintain hope in a bleak situation,” said a spokesperson of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a humanitarian service movement.

“They are not allowed to make a life for themselves outside the camp. There are few opportunities for education beyond the secondary level and few employment opportunities. So for many, the only hope is to get the documentation to get to a Third Country such as America or Australia,” added the spokesperson.

“Especially the camp at Mae La is extremely crowded. Many arrive at the camp traumatized while others are now reaching adulthood having been born in the camp. The Karen community in Mae La does its best to support its people while outside organizations do what they can, but really this situation is a desperate one for those living there.”

Most refugees, the FBR spokesperson went on to say, have a sense of hopelessness which is why they resort to alcoholism. Even HIV/AIDS is spreading. The health situation in the border area where a majority of refugees live is grim.

In 2008 alone, 140,937 displaced people visited the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot with cases like acute respiratory infection, gastritis, anaemia, malaria and HIV/AIDS. Mae Tao is a health service provider for displaced Burmese and ethnic people along the Thai-Burmese border.

Both Burma, whose ruling army is among the world’s worst human rights violators, and Thailand, which does not welcome the refugees, are signatory to international human rights treaties which proclaim that all human beings deserve civil, political and economic rights.