An education within the camp
The following morning I set off through the camp with my guide for the day Hser Mu Paw to visit some of the schools spread throughout the Sections. This was my first chance to explore the camp by daylight and to take in what, on first impressions, seemed quite unlike what I’d expected. In addition to the naturally breathtaking scenery, with lush, verdant, forested hills to either side of the clear river, the properties were well made; permanent structures much like— and in many cases, superior to— those I had seen in rural villages within Myanmar’s Chin and Kayah states. Occasionally we’d come across a house with a motorbike outside, and around which dogs, ducks and roosters would roam around the torpid hogs, shackled in chains beneath the bamboo stilts. Posters of Premier League teams from years gone by adorn the outside walls alongside photos of a once-young Thai King and K-pop stars with their cutesy haircuts and studio white smiles. Small patches of arable land flanked the river: the crops of gourd, potatoes and cabbage a welcome break from the dusty, rock-strewn brown track that turns to thick mud in monsoon season, rendering travel between the sections significantly more difficult.
As we approached the first high school in Zone 5, established in 1996 shortly after the camp itself, the welcome sound of children excitedly reciting a teacher’s words filled our ears. There are very few more reassuring sounds, particularly in places where children could so easily be forgotten. Signs inform us that the Basic Education Project has been funded by various organisations such as the EU, Australian Aid, Save the Children and others, and the tangible result is around 10 adjacent classrooms under one large tin-roofed building, each with pew-like benches and blackboard to the fore. The walls are not ceiling height and so sound travels between classrooms, impacting the teacher’s ability to communicate, although all the students seemed eager to learn and well-behaved. A teacher told us that almost all children attend and are grouped by their ability rather than their age, which accommodates the varied antecedents of children freshly enrolled from diverse backgrounds and levels of education.
We continued on to the next establishment, the tritely named Primary School 5, sitting precariously atop a steep, graded hillside. In the absence of a handrail and finding it hard to ascend to the first classroom I found myself questioning the merits of placing a primary school in such a perilous location, although seeing children adeptly skip down the sheer, dusty path in flip-flops later on somewhat put my mind at ease, allowing me to forego my British inclinations towards Health and Safety.
We met with the school Principal and handed out the supplies of books, pencils and crayons that we had brought along to the well-behaved, inquisitive children. They would call out “Kolawa!”— white man— to me and my six foot tall, bearded appearance was quite the talking point. As we walked around the classrooms while counting handouts in English for their benefit, I seemingly had the power to draw mercurial bouts of both wide-eyed stares and absolute shyness with a simple wave and a smile. The principal informed us that the children wear a uniform three days a week, and traditional Karen garb on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It occurred to me that even here in a school for stateless children – most of whom have never visited their homeland – ethnic pride persists in maintaining the Karen traditions and culture.
Improvements come only with time
“The internet helps us stay connected with siblings and it allows us to follow the news from Burma and the rest of the world,” Hser Wah tells me. A Karen refugee like the others I have talked to, she is one of the minority of people who run a shop within the camp, selling drinks, snacks, clothes, and other accoutrements to the rest of population. “It costs 1500 Baht a month (£30) and only works in the evenings but it is worth it, we want to pay.” Actually, the connection seems stable and fairly fast – much better than the majority of those I found myself using in Myanmar. This is particularly impressive given the remote location of the camp within the mountains in the far West of Northern Thailand, several hours drive from the nearest town.
The arrival of internet access to a select few in the camp 18 months ago has provided a means of unrestricted, two-way communication that was hitherto unprecedented. I ask Hser Wah whether life is improving in the camp, compared to say, 10 years ago.
“There are some improvements, but they are little by little, inch by inch. If I look back ten years the differences are not so great.” As we talk more I feel that perhaps her aspirations and desires overshadow some of the positive changes that have occurred. For example, she tells me of the permit, issued at the Karen Refugee Committee gate, that allows her to travel freely outside of the camp for a given number of days at a time in order to purchase supplies for her store. I heard stories from others where the punishment for travelling outside of the camp prior to the introduction of the KRC permit had involved an untenable fine of 2,000 Baht (£40) or an alternative of ten days in a Thai cell.
The refugees now also operate a Neighbourhood Watch-like system for maintaining the peace and safety of the camp, after some unknown non-residents were spotted wandering the streets. It is only in the event of this organisation being unable to restore peace that the UN or Thai police step in, meaning a more socially responsible, accountable and autonomous system of living within Mae Ra Ma Luang.
Unfortunately, life in the camp still comes with a large degree of uncertainty. “I am glad you visited now,” Hser Wah states, “as in three years there’s a chance we won’t be here.” This echoes the sentiments I heard elsewhere in the camp: although there is an organisational hierarchy with a General Secretary, and heads of Education, Security and so on, many people feel a sense of disconnection and uncertainty about the future of the camp. Other camps have been closed and assimilated (indeed, this is how Mae Ra Ma Luang came to be the size it currently is), and the fear is that it could happen here despite the camp being well established for over twenty years now.
It’s hard to determine whether these fears are borne from any substance, or are simply a state of mind that inevitably arises when living permanently within a camp where upon the entrance gate the words “Temporary Shelter” are written. Twenty years is stretching that definition by anyone’s reasoning.
Many of the people living here endured terrible things before arriving in the camp; I heard first-hand accounts of military aircraft gunning down innocents and entire villages fleeing the thunder of artillery shells raining down nearby. Running multiple times a year, having long lost their land and property, thousands of exiled Karen people fled to the relative safety of neighbouring Thailand when the Karen resistance lost its headquarters to the Burmese at Manerplaw.
Unfortunately, this was not the safe haven that any refugee has a right to, and in 1995 soldiers stormed the camp, firing indiscriminately at the Karen people here. The soldiers were not Burmese, but of Karen ethnicity themselves. The radical Democratic Karen Buddhist Army were fighting General Bo Mya of the Karen National Union, who was a Seventh Day Adventist. This battle of religions took the DKBA forces into Section 1 of the camp, at which point they were successfully countered by armed KNU forces, but not before innocent refugees had been killed or forced to flee for their lives. If any story embodies the complex political, ethnic and religious situation amidst the atrocities of Burma it is this one.
These days, the safety of the refugees is thankfully not in question nor at risk in the way it was two decades ago. Now the capriciousness of violence has given way to a stagnation of sorts. The pressing issue for people such as Hser Wah is that of having a state, a place to call home. Having been raised in the borderlands between Burma and Thailand, she does not count Burma as home in the way that my host Yu Shu Nwe does. She raises the prospect of a coveted green card; emphasising that she does not simply seek documentation or relocation to Australia or the US— as other previous residents have been granted— but a sense of permanent belonging.
Hser Wah looks up to me from her bed on the floor at the rear of her shop, sorrow on her face, and asks whether I consider her to be a genuine refugee. This is a strange question that catches me unaware, unhinging me temporarily. I come to the conclusion that she asks because I don’t express my inner emotions well, and I am perhaps not outwardly demonstrating the empathy I feel. I do, in fact, feel very deeply for the people here, but to show too many signs of the trouble it brings me does not feel constructive and I find myself trying to manifest positivity and closeness as a means of solidarity instead. The pervasive sense of ill-fated inevitability seems to constrict my mind and darken my thoughts the longer I am here, but I resolve to not let my new friends see it.