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

Editor’s Note: The following is the third and final installment in a series of three posts written by Paul Eustice as a reflection on time spent at Mae Ra Ma Luang refugee camp. Previous parts of this series can be found here.

Isolation breeds distrust

On my fourth day I explored the camp further, spotting some familiar faces on my daily walk around the Sections. A pickup rolls by with deliveries of roofing materials – thick, browned, sun-dried leaves layered and bound to thin strips of bamboo, distributed according to need, physical ability and number of dependents. I help unload a few segments before the truck trundles on down the track, disappointed to not be able to help more. I am desperate to help within the camp, in part to keep my mind and body active in a place where there is often very little to occupy oneself.

By now many people have grown used to the sight of my somewhat unkempt appearance wandering the streets and I’m slightly less of a novelty. Each morning I wash from a concrete trough at Yu Shu Nwe’s house, but the dust is hard to remove and my hair is greasy. I haven’t shaved in over a week. The situation has become such that the pet monkeys behind Hser Wah’s house search for lice amongst my arm hair as if I were one of their own. Still, despite my appearance, the children are markedly keen to engage. Between impromptu street swordfights where I was significantly outnumbered by some tiny brave Karen warriors, and a visit to the local church, I pay a visit to the camp’s Pious Buddhism monastery atop a hill in Section 5A.

Talking with some men there I hear stories of how the political situation in Myanmar is not improving, and that any improvements to infrastructure are a facade put in place by the Burmese government. “Look to the hills”, one man said, “and you will see that the situation is deteriorating.” Having only just visited these kinds of regions in Myanmar, I don’t find his account stands up to what I’d seen in the country. Certainly corruption runs rife and, without doubt, government money could be better spent, but I had seen schools being built in rural villages and improved roads linking areas where tourists just don’t visit. If this were a facade it would be a terribly fruitless one.

I asked how long he’d been in the camp; surely he must have returned recently to know these things? He answered that he’d been here for ten years. It would seem that a distrust of the Burmese still runs strong amongst the Karen and it must be said that given their history, they have reason.

Survival in the short term

And still, despite a general improvement within Burma, what now for the refugees here, just four kilometres away and yet so forgotten? Reparations, recognition and citizenship for those displaced by decades of war seem a long way off. Even with Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD taking the ascendency, it must be remembered that she is of Bamar ethnicity and she may not be the saviour that everyone hopes; it is a complex situation and likely to take a long time. She has yet to visit the camp, although she did visit the larger Mae La camp to a popular reception in 2012, her first trip outside of Burma for twenty-four years.

For now, the citizens here can look for distraction and self-improvement within some of the vocational training centres dotted around the central sections of the camp. For those so inclined there are classes in hairdressing, baking, sewing and restaurateurship. These are the fortunate benefits of a well-established camp such as Mae Ra Ma Luang.

In fact, the camp is rather well equipped: there are religious establishments for the followers of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam as well as schools, a clinic and a couple of small restaurants. By no means are the facilities top-class or anywhere near what would be considered acceptable in Western society, but nor would you expect that here. Expectations and standards are lower while resilience, sense of community and individual strength are in greater supply.

The facilities initially confounded me as I found safety, relative cleanliness and organisation in a refugee camp, where one might perhaps expect to see absolute poverty, squalor and dire hopelessness. However, it is through consideration that you come to realise that it is only after decades that this kind of scenario comes to pass. It is a reflection of the fact that people have been confined here for a very long time indeed.

People here are incredibly strong though, and make do with what is available to them. Indeed, enduring twenty years in limbo necessitates it. For example, bakery classes do not have access to self-raising flour or milk, strawberry jam and other basics. Coffeemate, a powdered creamer, is used as a dairy substitute and experience means the cakes turn out moist and tasty.

What strikes me though, is how the raison d’etre for these vocational centres differs drastically from those back home. This form of education is usually transferable to industry, a springboard to a future career, but here in the absence of that it is simply to sustain a basic level of education within the camp. With acceptance quotas filled in many countries, the number of refugees being relocated is decreasing. This line of thinking further reinforces the sense of the people here being stuck on an endless hamster wheel of isolation.

To leave a free man

My penultimate evening is spent sitting with Yu Shu Nwe on the varnished teak floorboards of his home. It’s Saturday and he is hosting the church choir who rehearse for their performance at tomorrow’s service, singing Christian hymns in the Karen language. There is a palpable sense of unity amongst the group and the joy that song brings in these circumstances is a pleasure to behold.

When his flock has left and it is just us, alone in his house once more, a feeling of sombreness and guilt comes over me. Tomorrow I will be leaving as a free man, heading for my next stop into Thailand proper. He will continue, as he has every day for twenty long years, in Mae Ra Ma Luang.

He will preach to his masses, children will laugh and learn and play, and people will dream of a day when they will be granted the freedom and reparations they desire and deserve. How such vast numbers of people deal with the emotional impact of such a thing is a chapter yet to be told.