The Plight of Myanmar’s Forgotten Refugees (Part I)

Editor’s Note: What follows is the first of a series of posts written by Paul Eustice, reflecting on a visit to Mae Ra Ma Luang refugee camp in Northwest Thailand. Eustice is an avid world traveller who likes to get under the skin of the cultures he experiences on his journeys, connecting with people through music, conversation and photography.

 

“One day, I don’t know when, but one day”, Yu Shu Nwe told me over breakfast, “The Karen people will have fought the Burmese for decades, and the Burmese will have struggled against the Karen for decades. And both parties will finally come to realise that they will never conquer the other.”

These are words his father shared with him when he was a younger man, still living in Burma, pre-1995. These days he lives in Mae Ra Ma Luang refugee camp, 4 miles east of the Burmese border in North-Western Thailand, in a spacious, well-constructed house made from timber that he built by hand along with another Karen man. That was 20 years ago, shortly after the camp was first founded. The other man has since been relocated to Canada through the UNHCR, which helps with the relocation of refugees from camps such as Mae Ra Ma Luang.

There are seven such camps in Thailand for refugees who fled Burma, in those times under the control of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese dictatorship’s military arm. Despite being home to 13,136 people (as of April 2015) like Yu Shu Nwe, this is only the third largest camp in the country. Mae La, with a population of 43,121, dwarfs Mae Ra Ma Luang’s seven camp districts (each being their own distinct village, to all intents and purposes). The total number of refugees in the camps at the last count was 118,386 persons.

While there are figures for infants, children and teenagers, the statistics for ages 18+ are aggregated, so it’s not possible to know precisely how many men and women of Yu Shu Nwe’s generation there are here. I ask him his age when we acquaint ourselves upon my arrival; the octogenarian jokingly tells me he’s a sprightly 38 through Betel nut-reddened stubs of teeth.

He is a seemingly well educated man — an experienced church pastor and committee member — who speaks English clearly and to a moderate level. He protests when I point this out, showing a humble side to this gently spoken man who takes his time, not because he cannot find the right words, but because he chooses them carefully. Time, after all, is in abundance here. “I learnt English in Rangoon at the hands of a strict teacher,” he tells me, using the former colonial name of the country’s previous capital city, as many of his generation do.

The name used matters: the country’s military, the Tatmadaw, fought a long campaign of oppression aimed at further raising the status of the ethnic majority, the Bamar. This linguacidal strategy involved the interdiction of teaching minority languages and systematic destruction of ethnic minority cultures and traditions. The Burmanisation of the numerous ethnic groups also included the renaming of many sites throughout the country including Rangoon.

I’m staying in the camp for 5 nights and our first conversation together takes place as the flickering energy-saving lightbulbs perpetually strobe shadows over the lattice-work walls. Occasionally he rises to his feet, hands on knees, and walks slowly towards the lattice and looks contemplatively out into the jungle, before spitting his betel nut saliva to the earth below. The typical style of building raises the bamboo and timber house two metres off the ground, providing storage for firewood, animals and building supplies below. Access is by a staircase to the front of the house and shoes are removed before entry. The ceilings are high and afford a mild temperature which will cool further as the night runs on; here in the mountains the winter days are almost unbearably hot and the nights quite the opposite.

Power comes on in the early evening and is by means of a simple hydroelectric power farm just metres from where we sit, the gentle hum of the machines acting as a constant reminder of their presence. There are several along the length of the river which runs part way through the camp, from Section 1 all the way to Section 6 in the South. Most of the residents within the camp— however, not all— have access to electricity from these small dams and must pay a bi-annual fee to Thai villagers further down the river who claim that the small dams have negatively impacted the ecology, with dwindling fish numbers causing ramifications for their livelihoods.

As we talk he is refreshingly honest and open with me, and I can sense he likes to utilise his English. This isn’t the first time: in recent weeks he tells me there have been visitors from a Scandinavian seminary. While Yu Shu Nwe used to host many visitors from faith groups and NGOs, the camp now has a guesthouse for them. Today, the Western-style toilet in his tin outhouse isn’t as useful as it once was. Still, I’m grateful for its presence among the fishing nets and dusty old motorcycle helmet that hang from the walls.

We move onto more serious conversation, starting with Aung San Suu Kyi’s accession to power after such a long struggle for a democratic state. The troubled history of the country— now internationally recognised as Myanmar— is woven into the fabric of its people, as much a part of their identities as the ubiquitous longyi. I tentatively proffer the suggestion that perhaps, despite fighting a brutal regime for decades and being placed under house arrest for fifteen years, for the much-venerated Aung San Suu Kyi the hard work may have only just begun.

For, between the seven states of the country there are tens of ethnically diverse groups of people, with the official count of distinct ethnicities numbering 135. Many of these groups have their own militias, with entire villages of men on hand to switch from farmer to soldier at the call of their leaders, to defend their land, traditions and people from outsiders. Certainly, the prevailing feeling from my time in the country has been that of a local sense of community over a national sense of identity. Thankfully, the country is mostly at peace these days however certain regions, particularly in Northeastern Kachin State, still see regular violent skirmishes amidst conflict between the Tatmadaw and regional military groups.

While the Bamar (from whom the eponymous colonial ‘Burma’ was derived) are the nation’s majority ethnic group, there are many others who fled as their land was taken from them by force at the hands of the inexorable Tatmadaw’s violent, oppressive ways. The Karen people are one such group, and are those that had been at war with the Bamar the longest before a ceasefire in early 2012. They comprise almost entirely the population of Mae Ra Ma Luang. As Yu Shu Nwe and I talk into the evening, we discuss the impossibility of a return to Karen state; he is an old man with no land and no family to return to. The concept of ‘home’ to men like him is diluted after 20 years away.

“Even if I could afford to return, how would I make a living, and where would it be?” he asks. “I would end up on the side of the road with nothing.” It is getting late and his eyelids are flittering; as I peer into his eyes I can’t tell whether he is growing tired or emotional at the reflection of such an enduring state of permanent impermanence. What follows goes some way to answering my question. “There are some my age who have tried to return, but they have only one leg…” He trails off, and with that he rubs his eyes, gets to his feet and walks off towards his bedroom. Having seen Handicap International posters around the camp warning of mines and unexploded ordnance, I ask myself whether this was a mistaken phrase, a metaphor, or a reality.