Friday, July 17, 2009

Mae Sot and Route 105.

In the northwest of Thailand on the Moei River border with Burma lies the small town of Mae Sot, the westernmost town of Tak province. The town is not only interesting for being a trade post between Burma and Thailand, but also for its diverse ethnicity: Thai, Burmese, Karen, Rohingya, Karreni, Mon, Kachin, and many other minority groups from across the river. Take a stroll in the market and you will notice that Thai is not necessary the major language spoken here. Due to the ongoing conflict between the Burmese military junta and the many ethnic minorities that inhabit the land along the border with Thailand, thousands have crossed the river and settled in villages and refugee camps along the border near Mae Sot.

A Muslim community is also present in Mae Sot, together with a mosque. One of my good old Thai friends lives in Mae Sot and she and her husband took me to a small cafe on a corner near the mosque. They make rot-tii-oo and tea at this place which seems to have become a pleasant get-together place for the locals to chit-chat during the early hours. Rarely will people be able to find any rot-tii-oo left after 10AM.

As of 2006, Tak province is home to 480,000, of which 150,000 are originally from outside the nation. And of that, approximately 80,000 are refugees that have either been registered or in the process of being so. Those who have managed to cross the border, most of whom are undocumented, have found shelter in border villages and refugee camps set up by the UN or other NGOs. And many of those who are not registered as a refugee work in the many factories near Mae Sot on a very low pay scale, though much better than in the land they came from. Meanwhile, Burma's population stands at around 47 million, of which Karens account for 7 million, the largest 'minority' group. Well over 600,000 have been displaced in camps within their country.

Naturally, Mae Sot is also the 'hub' for the many NGOs that work along the border to assist the endless number of refugees. Among them is a health care post called Mae Tao Clinic (MTC). Set up in 1989 by Dr. Cynthia Maung, herself a Karen who fled from Burma after the crushing of the '8888 Uprising' by the military regime, the clinic caters for those who travel across the border in seek of medical assistance, since there is none, if any, accessible, affordable health care available in Karen state (around 0.5% of the GDP is spent on health care), and for those who have already settled on the Thai side, but could not access health care because they are undocumented immigrants or simply for the lack of money. I met a lady who had walked for over a month from near Yangon, where she lost all of her family members in the deadly cyclone Nargis. She was suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Staffed with 530, of which 260 are health care professionals, and many of whom themselves are originally from across the border, the clinic is visited by approximately 400 every day, totaling over 120,000 patients per year. Although now well-known and attracting donations from all over the globe, the budget still remains extremely tight with an ever-increasing number of patients and a lot of issues have yet to be solved. Its in-patient facilities are still infection-prone, especially to the likes of tuberculosis, and more and more refugees give birth here, meaning more and more stateless children.

About 90 kilometers north of Mae Sot on Route 105 lies the refugee camp of Mae La, the largest of them all, housing 37,000 registered refugees and no less than another 30,000 unregistered ones. Because Thailand is not a member of UN's Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a person who wishes to be registered needs to be approved by both the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) and the Thai Ministry of Interior. With temples, churches, mosques, graveyards, schools, libraries, markets, and even a university, Mae La is like a huge refugee 'city', and so surprisingly, life here is not the worst for those who are registered, since they are eligible to receive food aid as well as space for housing, at no cost. Bored with nothing to do but unable to leave the camp nor return to their mother land, many couples fill the time to make babies, and family planning has become a seriously important topic. Others apply to live in a third country, while a handful work for the NGOs within the camp.

I visited one of Shanti Volunteer Association's (SVA) libraries, where children were forgetting their darker days and enjoying the time for learning. However, a boy who seemed unable to join the flock caught my attention. According to the staff, he had only arrived a couple of weeks ago, but just received the news that his father, who was also on the way, was killed in a fighting between Burmese government troops, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the military arm of the Karen National Union (KNU), which has been fighting for independence of the Karen state (in their words Kawthoolei). Whether or not that news was true is unsure, however, the extensive 'underground' information network of the people cannot be underestimated. And, the Thai cellphone can be used near the border even if it's on the Burmese side, as well.

Those who have been caught by the Burmese military or the DKBA have reportedly been forced to hard labor or simply 'used' as human walls in the event of fighting. In June, DKBA troops raided a Karen school, forcing students to flee to the jungle. 89 of them managed to reach Thai soil, however, nine of them caught malaria on the way in this naturally high-risk area for this fatal mosquito-borne disease. In the same month, near the Thai village of Mae Salit Luang landed four mortar shells launched from the Burmese side, prompting the Thais to increase border security. On June 15, the KNLA headquarters in Manerplaw fell to the Burmese army, and in May-June alone, no less than another 4,000 crossed the border.

'Chronic emergency' is the term many use to describe this region's volatile situation, which has not improved, or only deteriorated, since the conflict broke out in 1949.

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