Introduction

There are 7-9 refugee camps along the Thailand/Myanmar border which at times hold up to 500,000 people.  Mae La is the largest of these camps and can hold anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 individuals.  How many people are in these camps at any one time is very hard to ascertain because the numbers vary with the weather, military actions, and other factors.

 

The refugees live in homes made of locally grown trees and use leaves for roof shingles.  These are put on pilings in the mud and packed as close together as possible.

Typical huts in Mae La

 

The refugees live in homes made of locally grown trees and use leaves for roof shingles.  These are put on pilings in the mud and packed as close together as possible.  The size of the Mae La camp is startling.  As far as the eye can see these meager 'homes' are packed in side by side, front to back.

 

A closer look reveals the homes, often actually touching each other, are crammed in tightly.  There is no running water or sewage facilities in these homes and trash is often piled in large mounds awaiting disposal.

As far as the eye can see..

 

A closer look reveals the homes, often actually touching each other, are crammed in tightly.  There is no running water or sewage facilities in these homes and trash is often piled in large mounds awaiting disposal.

 

Most of the time they can't return to Burma (The Myanmar Junta prefers "Myanmar", the Burmese/Karen people prefer "Burma", and both are quite sensitive about which you use) because their homes and villages have been destroyed and nothing is waiting for them other than prosecution and probably death.

A peek between the homes

You'd think these conditions would be temporary, but they're not.  There is no where to go for these people.  Most of the time they can't return to Burma (The Myanmar Junta prefers "Myanmar", the Burmese/Karen people prefer "Burma", and both are quite sensitive about which you use) because their homes and villages have been destroyed and nothing is waiting for them other than prosecution and probably death.

 

It's not at all unusual to meet a refugee who came to these camps as a child, and 20-30 years later they've known no other home than the different refugee camps in which they've lived.  Entire families, broken families, orphans, all types are here.

A elderly Karen lady watches from her home

 

It's not at all unusual to meet a refugee who came to these camps as a child, and 20-30 years later they've known no other home than the different refugee camps in which they've lived.  Entire families, broken families, orphans, all types are here.

 

There are over 200 NGOs working non-stop in this area doing as much as their limited funding allows.  Mae Sot is home to these western workers when they're not living in the actual camps.

The Coerr Social Service Center, Mae La

 

There are over 200 NGOs working non-stop in this area doing as much as their limited funding allows.  Mae Sot is home to these western workers when they're not living in the actual camps.

 

Getting There

As you leave Mae Sot and head up Highway 105 which runs along the Thailand/Myanmar border, which follows the river, you'll first encounter cleared land and farms.  As the elevation climbs you'll gradually enter a thick forest of rare beauty.  Low clouds appear as a sort of fog among the tops of the trees and small mountains.  You'll notice the military checkpoints increase in frequency and fewer cars on the road.  50-60 kilometers from Mae Sot you'll see the camp on the left.  You can drive 80kph for 10 minutes and still not be through the entire camp.  It's that large.

 

What's it Like?

There must be 100s of ways to cover this subject and indeed there are thousands of articles, websites, and images that pop up with a quick Google search.  I encourage you to read as many of these as you have time.  This is a very sensitive subject for Thailand because they're often criticized for not doing enough.  I wanted to cover this camp from a direction you won't often see, from the perspective of the roadside and what I saw concerning the allegations against Thailand of neglect.  I've spent limited time there, a few weeks all told, so it's possible I've missed some areas of importance.  I've also talked to more than a few people who've spent years in this area and are very knowledgeable.

Almost all the residents of this camp are Karen's.  Most Karens are Christians.  Still, there are many Buddhist Burmese who live in these camps.  You'll see the normal spirit houses and shrines along the roadsides.

 

You'll also see small stores and trading centers organized and run by the local Thais in support of the camps.

A roadside Buddhist Shrine

 

You'll also see small stores and trading centers organized and run by the local Thais in support of the camps.

 

One thing you'll never forget are the distribution centers where food stuffs are passed out by the various NGOs.

One of the many stores/trading posts

 

One thing you'll never forget are the distribution centers where food stuffs are passed out by the various NGOs.  The exact amounts seem to vary, but the items distributed are mostly the same.  A small amount of rice, fish paste, and cooking oil.  These are the absolute minimum essentials to ward off starvation and the menu never changes.  Residents of the camp can show up on their day of the week to collect their food, and are always seen waiting in line hours before the distribution centers open.

 

Hungry Karen refugees line up for their daily rations of cooking oil, rice, and fish paste

A food distribution center ran by ECHO Humanitarian Aid Office

 

Mae La food distribution center

Notice their buckets to carry their rations?

 

There are numerous distribution centers serving the camps.  The problem with these portions is that only the camp residents who are registered are eligible.  Because the Thai government only signs up and registers new arrivals once per year, its often the case where tens of thousands of unregistered mouths need to be fed.  This means the small amounts designed to feed the basic bare minimum to whom they're distributed, must share.  Less food, less nourishment, more diseases and poorer health.

 

An unmarked distribution center

An unmarked distribution center

 

You're probably wondering how they survive?  These people are remarkably self-sufficient in many areas, from the clothes and appliances they fabricate from the local flora, to the food they grow and harvest inside the camps.  There isn't a lot of extra ground because the huts are crammed in so close together, but what areas there are, are used to grow small pockets of vegetables and crops.  It's common to raise pigs or goats in pens directly under their huts using the pilings as fence posts.

 

 Many of these Thais also used to be refugees and they've elected to stay in this area and become part of the larger community.

Goats are very popular for their milk and meat

 

There even appears to be some cooperatives with the local Thais so cows can  be raised.  All along the roadsides, outside of the wire of the camp, trading of all types take place between the camps residents and the local Thai people.  Many of these Thais also used to be refugees and they've elected to stay in this area and become part of the larger community.

 

 I've personally seen them using military vehicles to not only take the refugees to the health clinics and schools, but also to take groups of school children into town where they can set up roadside stands and the like to earn money

A Karen teenage boy and girl manage cattle

 

Yes, the "wire" is the marker they're supposed to stay inside, yet the Thai guards and officials stretch these boundaries as far as logistically possible.  The Thai people who work in this area, the guards, officials, they all see the many difficulties and hardships the refugees encounter.  No one wants to deny them food, or a chance to grow or trade for food, so the rules are stretched a bit and I'm sure this puts many a soldier at personal risk for discipline.

 

Overall, the Thais tasked with the administration and care of these camps appear to be very compassionate and sympathetic towards their unfortunate visitors.

A sight so common its sad.  Sanitary facilities are in very short supply

 

Overall, the Thais tasked with the administration and care of these camps appear to be very compassionate and sympathetic towards their unfortunate visitors.  I've personally seen them using military vehicles to not only take the refugees to the health clinics and schools, but also to take groups of school children into town where they can set up roadside stands and the like to earn money.

 

Locals from Mae Sot outside the Mae La camp

Locals from Mae Sot outside the Mae La camp

 

A Karen woman carries in the traditional way

A Karen woman carries in the traditional way

 

Mae La The refugees will also forage in the forest for all kinds of things.  Bamboo and material for weaving baskets and making clothes, insects to add to the menu, and if they're lucky small game

This grandmother with her grand daughter climb a steer hillside

 

The refugees will also forage in the forest for all kinds of things.  Bamboo and material for weaving baskets and making clothes, insects to add to the menu, and if they're lucky small game.  There is a great amount of trust between these people and their Thai guards.  I'd imagine both parties live and work next to one another as closely as any neighbors do, and they develop the normal relationships you'd expect.  It's not at all unusual to see off-duty Thai military men wheel their motorsai's into a camp gate to pick up their date for the evening.

 

The disabled make up a percentage of any population, Mae La is no different

The disabled make up a percentage of any population, Mae La is no different

 

There seems to be a fair number of mothers carrying babies going somewhere?  No one tells me anything..

There seems to be a fair number of mothers carrying babies going somewhere?  No one tells me anything..

 

This mother turned the tables on me and stopped to watch me, watch others!

This mother turned the tables on me and stopped to watch me, watch others!

 

There are many control points, some as far away from the camps as 80-100 km, but still this sort of freedom they're allowed takes an enormous amount of trust.  After spending time in this area and observing this trust and the resulting relationships I think it's very unfair to say the Thais treat these people any less in any way than they would their fellow Thais.  I'd guess that in some ways they treat them better because they understand their plight.

 

There are many control points, some as far away from the camps as 80-100 km, but still this sort of freedom they're allowed takes an enormous amount of trust.  After spending time in this area and observing this trust and the resulting relationships I think it's very unfair to say the Thais treat these people any less in any way than they would their fellow Thais.

Many young boys and girls

 

Everywhere you look you'll see babies and children.  New life is everywhere.  These people work hard and live on next to nothing, yet they appear to be happy and enjoy meaningful lives.

I've caught his attention

 

Everywhere you look you'll see babies and children.  New life is everywhere.  These people work hard and live on next to nothing, yet they appear to be happy and enjoy meaningful lives.

 

A grandmother and her grandson.  She wouldn't tell me where her daughter is.

A grandmother and her grandson.  She wouldn't tell me where her daughter is.

 

One of the many mothers carrying her baby in the traditional style

One of the many mothers carrying her baby in the traditional style

 

Traveling this roadside I witnessed some of the worst in humans, and some of the best.  The part of the experience which I enjoyed the most was watching the local Thais, and in "local" I include the military and other officials working in this area, give and do so much for the refugees.

 

Such inquisitive eyes!

Such inquisitive eyes!

 

The more Thais I talk to, the more I hear "my grandmother came from Laos"  "my father came from Cambodia"  "our family came from Malaysia"  "my parents are Chinese"  "I was an orphan from Burma..."

Piercing

 

One of the very few Karen couples I witnessed together

One of the very few Karen couples I witnessed together

 

It's said that America is a land of immigrants.  That our citizens are made up of many different nationalities and ethnic groups who came together out of need and together built a great country.  I've also heard it said that Thailand is the complete opposite.  I don't believe this.  The more Thais I talk to, the more I hear "my grandmother came from Laos"  "my father came from Cambodia"  "our family came from Malaysia"  "my parents are Chinese"  "I was an orphan from Burma..."

Perhaps America and Thailand have more in common than we first thought?  The more time I spend outside of Bangkok and the tourist areas, the more I know this is true...