The Karen Story - Mae Sot, Thailand
Few people might realise that the world's longest running civil war is taking place on the edges of Myanmar and Thailand. This 70 year conflict between the Myanmar military and the countries' ethnic minorities has left hundreds of thousands displaced, an entire generation growing up in Thai refugee camps.
Mae Sot is one of three official land border crossing points between Thailand and Myanmar and has economically been dependent on a thriving community of NGOs and aid workers. Their mandates are directed at the largely ethnic Karen Burmese refugees living in the camps dotted along the Myanmar border.
Between 1962 and 2011 Myanmar (formerly Burma), had been one of the world’s longest running military dictatorships. In 2012, democratic elections were held, bringing longtime democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi to power. Western countries began lifting economic sanctions, increasing development aid and writing off billions of dollars of Burma’s foreign debt. The Karen National Union (KNU) signed a tentative ceasefire and the Panglong 21 Peace Process sought to end 70 years of insurgency in the country’s borderlands.
This then starts the conversation, “Is it safe to go home?”
The consensus from both the refugee communities and UNHCR, for the time being, is “not yet” or more accurately “it depends who you are and where you’re going.”
The more people we spoke with the more we realized how this ties into a bigger issue: nobody knows what’s going on, and it’s stressing everyone out.
With diminishing food rations and many aid organizations relocating from the Thai camps into Myanmar, some feel that the Thai government, which does not allow naturalization or any pathways to assimilation, wishes to nudge them out by making conditions unlivable.
Over in Myanmar, investment can and likely will make positive changes over time, and while those who are ethnically Burmese might be benefiting from the new government and economic stimulus, the situation is much more complicated for ethnic minorities.
Myanmar has a history of government (and thus military) involvement in development projects, many of which are focused on the resource-rich, semi-autonomous states that many refugees have fled from.
Physicians for Human Rights found that human rights violations in Karen areas were up to ten times more prevalent in areas with development projects as compared to other areas (Davis et al., 2012). Karen Human Rights Group’s (KHRG) recent report also indicates that natural resource extraction and business projects fuel human rights violations in the Karen State (KHRG, 2013a). Similar findings around development projects have been found in other parts of the country (see e.g. Human Rights Watch, 2012c).
— via Burma Link
Access to the refugee camps in Thailand has been restricted purely to aid organisations, most of which also are not allowed to stay overnight. Somewhere Films spent three weeks in Mae Sot, doing research, conducting interviews and making connections.
Mae Sot has the air of a dying town as NGOs are shuttering their doors and moving house to Myanmar. But though NGOs might be leaving, more Burmese seem to be arriving. Due to the relaxing border policies and the newly available day passes that we had also utilized, they come into Thailand to buy local goods which they then take back and sell in Myanmar. We also got to know the local migrant art community, with whom we spent much of our time behind the camera.
For better or worse, Mae Sot reflects the seismic shifts taking place in the countries that surround it, and the uncertain future that looms ahead.
To Get More Information
This online resource has been invaluable to our research on this issue, and if this topic interests you there is no better place to do a proper deep dive. We had the chance to meet with and do some work for Burma Link's enigmatic and low profile founder, who coordinates most of the website's content on her own.
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Local news on all things Karen related, reported from the ground.
Local Organizations that Need Support
The Australian government announced that it will cut all of the AUSD 450,000 funding it gives to the clinic due to shifting their priority to prepare for refugee repatriation
— Karen News, 2013 via Burma Link
(You can donate to the clinic here)
The TBC has also been severely affected by funding cuts, which have forced the consortium to cut food rations and cease the provision of all non-food items, with the exception of cooking stoves and donated items, even to new arrivals
— TBC, 2013 via Burma Link
In addition to being a gallery space and retail outlet for goods made by the Karen Women Organization, Borderline also has an excellent cafe. Many of our days were spent eating the amazing and sustainably made Burmese food here while working on our laptops.
Bordering Repatriation: A psychosocial perspective on the experience and preparation of return
A combined dissertation of Social Psychology and Cultural Encounter by Christa Kløve Kranich submitted January, 2017.
Voice of Refugees
Invisible Lives: The Untold Story of Displacement Cycle in Burma
Written and published by Human Rights Foundation of Monland, Burma Link and Burma Partnership August 2016
Freedom from Fear by Aung San Suu Kyi
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U
Burmese Days by George Orwell