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On Edge in Thailand

To most tourists, Mae Sot is just another dusty town in the middle of nowhere. But to those that call it home, it is also the gateway to one of the most terrifying places on earth. Seven shots shatter the cold midnight silence about a kilometre from the Thai-Burmese border. A single candle is lit, the only light source in the hut. A family, four of about 8,000 refugees living in the Wang Ka camp near Mae Sot, already have three bags packed for the dash to safety in the corn field about a hundred metres away. It is a scene they repeat every three nights or so as raids on the camp become increasingly common.

But this was just a minor incursion, possibly testing for weaknesses. James sits quietly, waiting to see if there is more. Dogs begin barking far away, and then closer, and the flickering candle is extinguished. A patrol truck drives by. The candle is relit.

The guards have to be careful about how many shots they fire at intruders. “Five or six shots, we are to wait. If we hear ten shots we have fifteen minutes to get to the fields. Then they start shelling the camp,” says refugee camp elder Rosalynn James.

The Burmese army is trying to reach them to scare them back into Burma before they are moved to a new camp further from the border. The refugees believe the Burmese army is using these raids to persuade them that they will be safer in Burma than in Thailand. After decades of refuge on Thai soil – along with Cambodians and Vietnamese – these Karen have become a sore-spot in Thai-Burmese relations.

Thailand is one of few countries which still does business with Burma, and the Burmese are eager to remove this irritation. During a Burmese army raid last March, James’ camp was razed and looted, five people were killed, and about fifty more injured by gunfire. Now the floors are bare dirt and the roof leaks, but only over the cooking area for now. James looks forward to the new camp where she can build a larger, permanent home, and where she can keep her belongings, keepsakes, and remaining official papers. James is silent for a while, listening. Then she tells of her life as a young girl during WWII.

“We had a big house and a piano, so the British soldiers would come there in the evenings. We would sing around the piano, and sometimes they would drink beer or champagne.”

During the thirty years after that, the British left Burma, and James’ family’s land was nationalized and given to their workers. Then in 1974, James went to visit Karen State – insurgent territory. The government immediately blacklisted her, agents began to shadow her family, and her brother was almost jailed in place of her.

“That’s why I never write. One letter and they would arrest him,” says James.

She took over as headmistress of a Karen village school. A decade later, in 1984, the army was closing in on this village and she left for the safety of the refugee camps in Thailand. Since then she has had no contact with her family.

In the morning, her granddaughter Hosana, 8, dances to the beat of music coming from a church service in a nearby hut. Her grandson Truman, 7, sits drawing in a new colouring book donated by foreign relief workers. He finishes drawing a helicopter and stickman, connecting the two with short dashes. “Ba, ba, ba, bang,” he says, laughing. He draws an M16 in the bottom corner, adding details onto the gun I’d never known about. He tries to erase the trigger when he realizes it is in the wrong spot – in front of the handle, not behind – but the eraser does not work, so he just draws a new one.

The next day, there’s a festival. A boy runs by, grinning up at me. His feet are grimy with the slowly eroding red dirt which forms the banks of the Moie River. He shouts, “Halleau,”at me, lowering his head to giggle self-consciously as he disappears into the throng of people by the shore.

A report sounds loudly beside me. I flinch, unable to control the fleeting fear. Candles dot the river, illuminating the floating baskets of flowers and incense which smolder and perfume the damp evening air. It is the Loi Krathong festival, a Buddhist celebration of both water and the river where their lord Buddha was born. Young men and women go together to set more baskets into the muddy waters. The banks are so crowded the shores cannot be seen.

Crack! Another firecracker explodes beside me. I flinch again, while monks throw sparklers from the Thai-Burmese Peace Bridge which towers above the crowd. The sparklers hiss through the air, exploding just before they reach the water. Large bags are set adrift into the sky. Flour sacks? I’m not sure. They are tiny hot air balloons heated with penlight-sized fuel pellets. More children, and a few adults, eagerly prepare more balloons to join the hundreds already adrift in the air above. They cheer with each new success. I look at Tennyson, my Karen guide. His gaze is fixed straight at the other shore, into his former homeland, Burma.

Over there, the silhouette of another crowd can barely be made out. This one is quiet though, and dark, devoid of any motion. No children shriek with glee. A single light is thrown down the bank. Perhaps it is a candle, or maybe a sparkler, I’m not quite sure. In Burma, celebrating Loi Krathong is not allowed.

“Three years,” says Tennyson, holding his wrists together – meaning jail. His mouth shows a smile and a gentle laugh, but his eyes show something else. “Since the uprising, 1988, it is illegal.”

I travel north, 150 kilometres from Mae Sot to the village of Noh Bo. It’s quiet, but a stale aura of fear hangs over the area. I know the opposite shores are controlled by Karen rebels, and that Burmese government soldiers never stay too far away.

The villagers here have dug makeshift bomb shelters beside their huts. Their village is a known retreat for rebel soldiers hiding out between battles and is often targetted by soldiers.

The situation reminds me of my childhood, when I was a five-year-old staring over the Berlin Wall, over barbed wire, gun towers, and dogs. The symbols are different now – here, the border guards keep people out instead of in, and the outside world pays little attention.

But for the people who live here, the terror is the same.

“You have no idea how hard it is to run through deep sand with big guns dropping all around you,” Dauna tells me. He is an ethnic Karen tribesman who escaped Burma as a boy, and has spent his life as a refugee in Thailand. He is now in a school run by missionairies and volunteer travellers interested in providing some hope for these dispossessed people, or at least helping them pass the time.

The Burmese junta has been waging a war of terror on the Karen for the past decade. It is the most effective method they have to counteract the growing opposition to the regime. But this method has also suffocated the country’s economy and isolated its citizens from the world.

The terror is perpetrated by hundreds of thousands of Burmese soldiers in the Karen State who act more or less like vigilantes. When they’re not engaging the rebels, their job is to clear villages so roads can be built into the region to help the government maintain control of the area. They are paid little or nothing, but armed well enough to force the locals to provide their food and labour.

One student at Dauna’s school tells of two villagers, an old woman and a young mother, being placed in front of their neighbours and having grenades tossed at them by soldiers. The old woman died immediately while the younger one bled to death slowly throughout the day. These sorts of spectacles are designed to ensure the cooperation of the rest of the villagers.

But these stories rarely leave Burma. When they do, they are usually too old for newspapers and difficult to corroborate, leaving them destined for human rights reports and the occasional Amnesty International condemnation.

It’s the second time I’ve come to this area, travelling away from Thailand’s serene beaches across hundreds of miles of rice paddies to these remote mountain villages.

I’m still not sure why I return. I know it is partially to solidify those harsh, dreamlike memories of totalitarian control that drift through the earliest stages of my memory. But more importantly, I have been acquainted with a story that few people know, and rarely gets told. But it’s one that must be heard.

In a nutshell, the Karen are victims of the colonial mess left by the British when they pulled out of Burma after WWII. The Karen were the elite under British rule but little more than a minority once they left, a minority whose power the majority had grown to hate. Seven million Karen live in or near Rangoon. They are predominantly Christian, converted by the English, and highly educated. About two million are Buddhist or animist, having always lived virtually isolated from civilization in the Dauna Mountains near the Thai border. But all are subject to the racism heaped on them by the Burman ethnic majority whom the Rangoon-based Karen once helped rule.

Constitutional guarantees regarding their independence in post-British Burma meant little once the British left. (Legally, the government has changed the official name of Burma to Socialist Union of Myanmar, and the capital Rangoon to Yangon, although few organizations outside the government use these new titles.) The Karen declared war immediately, and managed to retain their homeland along the border with Thailand until about twelve years ago. Then a popular uprising occurred in the capital Rangoon and the government started to desire more complete control of the country.

To do this they needed money, and the Karen State was rich in timber, minerals, and gems. About three years ago the Karen stronghold Mannerplaw fell, and with it most of their remaining territory.

The 10,000-soldier-strong Karen National Union now operates throughout the area in small guerrilla units, disrupting the army’s efforts. Little information escapes the country because of the stranglehold the government keeps on its citizens, especially in the capital. Travellers are virtually forbidden in most of the rest of the country, and those that are allowed are monitored closely. This intelligence web has been likened to the former East Germany’s Stasi secret service. George Orwell himself could hardly have imagined a more Orwellian system.

But sitting in a cafe in the dusty border spy town of Mae Sot in Thailand, a former French commando explained that this is more than a simple case of tyrants run amok. I knew he was acquainted with the situation, but it took several visits with him before one day he finally exploded.

“Look, you have one billion people in India, and 1.2 billion in China. And they don’t like each other,” he blurted out. “In between you have the highground in Tibet, and Burma.”

The strategic importance of Burma, and Tibet, Vietnam, and Laos suddenly fell into place. Together, they cobble together a broad swath of buffer zone between these two ancient enemies, and with the West. Burma’s long coast on the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal also provides China access to the coasts of both India and Africa and beyond, allowing it to avoid sending ships through the capitalistic and turbulent political waters of Malaysia and Indonesia.

The fact that Burma is an international pariah, denied a seat at the United Nations means little compared to this strategic importance. It has become a vacuum. But in this vacuum live some of the most friendly, and remote peoples in Asia, now forced to struggle through life without a homeland or a future.

But it’s the refugee camp elder who remembers playing the piano for British soldiers during WWII, and the children painted red with mud living in poverty far from their homeland who are paying the price. Jack’s pic child + brolly

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