[Note: Yesterday I visited the Mae Surin Refugee Camp, and I thought it worthwhile to share my impressions of the place given my critical eye. I give fair warning that there are some pretty fierce thoughts in here.]
A little before 7:00AM on a Sabbath morning the Karenni National Committee (KNC) truck driver showed up to drive me and my two translators to the Mae Surin Refugee Camp. I took a notebook with me so I could gather my reflections very quickly and unsystematically, to gather as many pertinent details as possible to try to better understand the picture of the life of refugees my brethren in the camp have. Fortunately, my translators were better at taking pictures than I am, so I can take advantage of their visual images to supplement my textual ones .
On the way to the camp I noticed a few oddities. For one, the area of the camp is closed off with a gatepost guarded by Thai soldiers, even though there is a Thai village on the other side of the gates. On the way to the camp I saw a young boy engaging in unsanitary toilet behavior in his front yard near the road. Additionally, I have to comment that the road to Mae Surin (which takes between an hour and an hour and fifteen minutes of miserable driving), is the worst road I have ever been on in my life. Most of it is mud and rock, going up and down mountain valleys, over more than a dozen wet crossings of creeks and four or five major fords of the Mae Surin River. I have been told that the roads into the Mae Rama Luang refuge camp (near Mae Sariang) are even worse, though. So there’s that to look forward to.
On the other hand, the view is beautiful. Mae Surin refugee camp sits nestled in a beautiful mountain valley that looks like a tropical version of the Appalachians, with the same sort of rocky and winding rivers. As we were coming into the camp from 8 to 9AM the mist was still hanging in the tops of the hilltops all around. It was an amazingly beautiful setting for a refugee camp. Even some of the refugees took delight in pointing out the hillsides and the occasional house precariously balanced on the edge of the hills. I have to say that I found the site of the camp to be very reminiscent of my own early childhood.
As a result of their location, the people of the Mae Surin refugee camp are very cut off (intentionally, it would appear) from the larger Thai society of Mae Hong Son province. The UN office and Thai Language school are at the very outside of the camp. To get inside the camp you make many crossings over very rickety pedestrian “bridges” that cross the serpentine and mostly shallow (it reminded me of Western Pennsylvania mountain rivers) Mae Surin River. Everywhere the offices and warehouses and schools and churches of the refugee camp have English titles, and in Section Two there is a “women’s empowerment” office, with even more hollow rhetoric than usual for that sort of humanitarian leftist political agenda.
The material culture of the refugees is far better than I expected. They live in stilt houses that are small, but well-put together, with their own fences and garden plots and chickens and cats and dogs (as well as a few goats and pigs) that also make the camp their home. One thing about the camp that attracted my suspicion and concern was the large amount of unsupervised children, most of whom were playing games or swimming (it was a hot day, so there was a lot of swimming). The camp had a lot of visible children, and quite a few old people, as well as teenagers, but not a lot of adults, especially men, could be found.
The Church of God family I came to Mae Sun to see lives in Section Four, which is about half an hour’s walk through the “temporary shelter area” (which looks pretty permanent to me–at least as permanent as most rural Thai villages that I have seen. They are very short on furniture–they sleep on hard wood (no mattresses), have no chairs (only one sort of low stool per house for the head of household or honored guests) and a couple of low tables for eating. Nonetheless, their material live are not as deprived as one would presume, even if food is becoming increasingly scarce, something about which I will comment more later.
It seems as if the main shortages in the refugee camp are moral rather than material. There is a culture of dependency–refugees pick up their rations of rice, “AsiaREMIX,” beans, oil, salt, fishpaste (of which the Karenni are very fond), and charcoal from the Section warehouse every month (no EBT here). The refugees are cut off nearly completely from Thai society (I know more Thai than the vast majority of them, it seemed), though some speak pretty good English (including a nearly deaf but very friendly older pastor of a local Baptist congregation who had been a train engineer in Burma before an explosion took out his hearing). There are no jobs in or remotely near the refugee camp, though some illegal logging goes on along the miserable road to the camp and there are some forest rangers who live in very nice houses about halfway out of the camp (I’ve lived in worse houses myself). According to the refugees I spoke with, a lot of the young men go out daily from trucks at the entrance to the camp to work, probably as undocumented workers in the construction industry or related unskilled labor.
For those who are not so able-bodies or ambitious, there appears to be very little to do in the camps that is remotely productive. At least there seemed to be some electricity in the camp thanks to water wheels in the river, similar to those that the mountain village of one of my Legacy Students wants to put in . But aside from some schools that are not recognized outside of the camp, or conversation with other refugees (who seem to be a rather gossipy lot), or church (of which there are many, including a Seventh Day Baptist congregation that was starting services as I walked into Section One of the camp), there is not a lot to do that is wholesome in the camp. It seems that alcoholism runs rampant (part of the dependency culture) and parties and karaoke are common amusements for many of the refugees.
There also seems to be a lack of hope and ambition. To get anywhere in Thai society you have to get out of the camps, and that’s not easy to do unless you’re one of the KNC (Karenni National Committee) elites, the ones who drive the trucks and make small talk with the guards, and who live in nice houses outside of the camp and collect fees to drive people in and out of the camp. Aside from the alcoholism, which was very troubling to see and hear about, there were three other concerns that struck me as very serious. One was that all able-bodies adults are required to do community work on the Sabbath–this is a problem. I asked why they could not do it on Sunday instead–to which there was no reply. Additionally, rations have been cut by about 50% over the course of the year, and that struck me as very serious, being very sensitive to food supplies and logistical matters in general. Though it would be easy to suspect (reasonably) that someone is skimming off the “extra” rations and selling them on the black market (there appear to be lots of small markets within the camp, though how they get their supplies is not clear, since the only source I could see is the trucks that come infrequently in and out of the camp), the official story of why the rations have been cut is that the increase of refugees due to recent fighting in Burma has meant a lowering of per capita rations. Quite possibly there is a deliberate attempt to cut the food supply (already shaky enough in Thailand) to reduce the appeal for new people to cross the border into Thailand and enter the camps. Finally, there are apparently rumors (though no one could tell me where the rumors came from) that the “old” Karenni refugees are going to be sent to countries like Australia and the United States while the “new” refugees are going to be sent back into Burma.
I was left rather apoplectic at that. To be honest, I saw plenty of military culture around the refugee camp. In the house of my hosts, the young son (age seven) had drawn on the wall a mural that included the sun rising through the valley to soldiers shooting at helicopters, and the oldest daughter of the family and one of her neighbors and friends pretended to march about like girl soldiers. But this is mere playacting. The KNC is not equipped at the moment to fight against the Burmese Army in their homeland. Their men are alcoholics drinking rot-gut (the local moonshine). They have lots of children and old people in their midst who are not equipped to fend for themselves. Many of the KNC “soldiers” I saw are a bit overweight, getting fat off of bribes. They are an army in name only, nowhere near ready for war.
And the Burmese, whatever face of democracy they are feigning for Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, have a ruthless army. If these refugees are sent back (and I believe our present administration in the United States is cowardly and wicked enough to do it), the best that they can hope for is a lengthy and unpleasant prison sentence for being potential spies for Thailand. The more likely end is a bullet in the back of the head and burial in an unmarked mass grave (there are tens of thousands of Karen and Karenni refugees in Thailand). I would prepare to fight desperately in such a situation–they seem to be trying to drink their fear into oblivion. But in no way are the Karenni prepared to match up against the Burmese at this point, and Burma is no home for people looking to be free.
After church services and before my translators and I had to leave the camp (since foreigners are not allowed to stay overnight), the daughters of the family and their close friends (with a proliferation of Sun Nays, which I found out from my Karen translator meant “a wish for” or “desire for”) showed me the location of the cemetery for the refugee camp, which was across a river without a pedestrian bridge. I was unsure what they meant by taking me there, but I took their keen interest in death as ominous. Clearly there is much for them to reflect grimly about.