Visit Report – Thai-Burma Border 2009

The armed conflict in Burma has been ongoing for over half a century, resulting in protracted displacement. RIJ provides funding support to community organisations which offer hope and practical assistance to Burmese refugees residing in the Thai-Burma border. In November/December 2009, Jane Best (CEO of RIJ) visited a number of camps on the Thai-Burma border to assess the present needs of refugees and review the progress of RIJ -funded projects.  The following is an account of her experiences.

Saturday, 28 November 2009 (Chiang Mai)

I started my visit with Steve, my husband, in Chiang Mai. We met with Chana Maung and Sandra Visbal from Earthrights International (ERI) in Chiang Mai. Like many people we will meet this week, Chana is an old friend of RIJ as RIJ has been funding the ERI Alumni programme for some years. It was good to meet Sandra who is managing the alumni programme. This time we were unable to meet students because the next education cycle has not begun. We discussed the next round of alumni proposals to help decide which projects will be funded. This programme is a good use of small grants. It gives alumni the opportunity to put their studies into practice and learn how to build stronger communities. Looking at the reports from the last round of funding, there may be a possibility of meeting the alumni in Mae Hong Son and Mae Sot – this will be very valuable.

This programme can be viewed on the RIJ website (www.refugeesinternationaljapan.org) under ‘project reports’ – ‘Support to Earthrights International Alumni Projects’

Monday 30 November 2009 (Karenni Camp 1)

With Mitos and her colleague, Dina, we set off for Karenni camp 1, just under an hour from Mae Hong Son. We had to stop by the city administration office first to collect our camp passes. The camp is under the control of Mae Hong Son provincial administration.

As we neared the camp, the tarred road ran out and the car bounced over the deeply rutted road. The authorities do not want to spend money on road upkeep for what is still termed a temporary settlement even after 20 years.

Once we entered the camp, the roads were even worse and very narrow. There are few vehicles in the camp, but trucks do have to bring in supplies. The houses are all made by the residents. There are bamboo fences and the buildings are all constructed out of local building materials. They told us that no concrete is allowed so all the floors are packed earth. The houses have a very temporary feel to them and we learnt that they all have to be redone every year.

At the camp, we went straight to the Karenni Women’s Organisation study centre where they run the Women’s Study Programme – see Women’s Capacity Development Programme under Projects in 2008 under ‘Projects’ on the RIJ website. We met with the teachers and the students. The students all introduced themselves in English which they were very shy about. We met twelve students who range in age from 14 to 22 years old. We were surprised to learn that the majority of them are married. The centre has to provide a nursery for those who have young children. This can create problems with concentration when the mothers hear their children crying!

I noted that the students are younger than previous years and learnt that this is due to the resettlement programme whereby refugees are given the opportunity to resettle to countries like Norway, the US and Australia. The WSP students have completed their classroom work (covering subjects relating to community studies, peace and human rights) and will now work in the community encouraging unemployed women to consider how to improve their situation and know their rights. They told us (through an interpreter) how difficult it is to work in the community because many people do not want to open their doors to visitors. We discussed the reasons for this and how they think they can handle it. It is impressive that the Women’s group has built up a strong network of people that can help each other. The meeting closed with the students making speeches on how much they gained from the course in terms of confidence and learning how they can help each other. Most of them spoke in Kayan but one tried to do some of her speech in English.

We then moved on to visit Aung San Myint at the Social Development Centre (SDC) – see ‘Social Development Centre Training Support in 2008 under ‘Projects’ on the website. I was impressed in my previous visit at the work of SDC in terms of human rights and promoting a peaceful approach to conflict resolution. Since SDC first began over 7 years ago, 100 people have graduated and gone to work in a variety of organisations. The students live at the centre so that they are not distracted from their studies by family issues. The Centre has a nice setting on a hill with the dormitories above the teaching centre and a cane-ball court. Aung San Myint told us how the centre now has two sites – one being outside the camp where they can work on computers better. The students alternate sites. They told us one of the students had burnt the roof of one dormitory the previous week through lack of attention to a candle. Fortunately no-one was hurt.

One of the students told me that the library at SDC is not well stocked with books and thus reading for research and study is limited. Aung San Myint showed me the library which has some older copies of periodicals and books. We will certainly look for some newer publications to send to the centre.

Aung San Myint and his team are all alumni from Earthrights International School. So we are meeting a lot of alumni throughout this visit! It shows the ripple effect of good funding. Both the programmes we visited today are excellent examples of this and show how small funding from groups like RIJ can go on to benefit many people in communities both inside Burma and in refugee communities.

Steve felt that two words summed up what he has seen in the last three days: ‘dignity’ and ‘normalcy’. Everyone is working hard to build self-respect and reproduce a society based on their culture. They face big challenges but they continue to do their best and work together.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009 (Mae Hong Son)

Steve and I arrived in Mae Hong Son after a seven-hour drive over beautiful mountain roads, with little traffic and great views.

In the evening we met Mitos Urgel from WEAVE and Mitos introduced us to Maysie Win, who works with the Karenni Further Studies Programme. Maysie is working mostly in Karenni camp 2 which is about 3 hours’ drive from Mae Hong Son. Maysie is an alumni of the Earthrights International school who went on to do a degree in India before returning to work with the Karenni in camp 2. The Further Studies programme is a community led project for post-high school students, allowing them to further their education as well as prepare to become community workers and leaders in their communities. He showed us a well-prepared presentation on his work and discussed the problems of working in the camp where movement outside the camp is severely restricted.

It is nearly three years since I last saw Mitos so it was great to catch up on the news from WEAVE, a partner of RIJ since the late 1990s.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009 (Mae Sariang)

Sophia Stone from the RIJ Funding committee joined me in Mae Hong Son on 1 December (Steve returned to Japan the same day).

In the morning of 2 December Sophia and I drove to Mae Sariang over the beautiful mountain roads. Mae Sariang is a lovely town on the banks of the river with views across to the mountains in the distance.

In Mae Sariang we met up with Pam Rogers from DARE at the DARE office. It is great to see Pam and the manager, Lo Lo Say, again and to meet other staff at DARE. We were shown around the office and heard the stories behind the amazing visuals that DARE prepare to illustrate their work and give out the message of the dangers of drugs and alcohol. The visuals are very imaginative and provide a clear message even for those who cannot read.

We then went to the Karen Women’s Organisation office to meet Lu Lu Maung who manages the Baby Kits programme. We discussed the advantages of the Baby kit project and how it benefits mothers and reduces the chances of infant mortality. We asked Lu Lu about the vocational training centre inside Burma that RIJ funded a couple of years ago. We were delighted to learn the weaving and handicrafts in the centre are now self-sufficient and the women are training more people. They had some bolts of fabric that were produced in the centre and they are an excellent quality.

The Karen Women’s Organisation runs a lot of programmes in the camps as well as inside Burma – covering education, capacity building, health, care for the elderly and provision of safe houses. There are some 40,000 members. They often bridge the gap between the NGOs and the community to improve communication and understanding. 

Thursday, 3 December 2009 (DARE in Mae Ra Mo camp)

We left early with Pam, Lo Lo Say and Kha Nay Htoo from DARE to visit Mae Ra Mo camp. It took about 2 hours to drive there – a very bumpy ride as the road was so bad. This journey would take more than twice as long in the rainy season, that is if you make it at all! However, the views were stunning in the mountains looking down into valleys and across to Burma. Mae Ra Mo camp is in a beautiful setting beside a river – though it does not make up for the restrictions of camp life. As in Karenni camp, the houses are well constructed out of local materials and quite attractive in a basic kind of way. The main disadvantage is that they have to be repaired so often. No permanent structures are allowed by the Thai authorities in the camps but a few NGOs manage to construct stronger buildings for their work – and usually the clinics are built to last well.

The camp that has built up since 1997 is home to over 18,000 refugees and is divided into ten sections. First we met with the Camp leaders to pay our respects and they welcomed us to the camp. The camp leaders are from the Karen Refugee Committee and oversee all activities.

Nearby is the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO) office so we dropped in to say hello and hear about the KWO programmes in the camp. The three members we met were not confident of their English ability but we were able to learn something of their work in the camp. There are 11 nursery schools that are managed by KWO and the special education programme works with 95 children with various disabilities. One member we talked to manages the dormitory that shelters IDPs from 5 to 20 years old allowing them to access education or assistance before returning to Karen state. KWO works with the Thai-Burma Border Consortium on a weaving project – one year producing a longhi for every man in the camp and the next year a wrap for every woman. A great initiative.

We then bumped on over the narrow road to the DARE office and treatment centre, situated on a hill overlooking the river. The Centre includes an office, a kitchen, treatment room, meeting room and some space for accommodation. We met with DARE case workers, trainers, community workers, teenagers and clients currently undergoing treatment. For more details of this project, see “Prevention and Treatment of Addiction for Youth, Thai-Burma border” in 2008 under ‘Projects’ on the RIJ website.

In this camp there are 30 teenagers in school working with DARE. About 15 gathered to meet us. One of their activities is composing music using modern and traditional instruments. They played two songs for us – the first based on Karen stories handed down by their parents, saying that they still share the same history even though they may be living in different places now. The instruments included the Karen harp and a bamboo ‘percussion’ as well as guitar and mandolin. The teen who had composed the songs was playing the harp. We heard how they play for the clients in the nearby Mae La Oon camp, as well as entertaining their peers. The teenagers distribute information on the danger of drink and drugs at school and at events and special days in the camp.

Their other social activity is Frisbee. The Frisbee games are proving to be a huge success with the camp sections competing against each other. The teenagers spoke openly about their peers having problems with addiction and their success in providing diversions and encouraging them to give up. The teenagers find that working as a group helps build confidence as they learn from each other and then share with their peers and family.

They are bright lively people who want to help their community. Their second song said that even though they are poor, they can work together – the sun has not yet set, so they have time to stand together and get their land back. This recurring theme of maintaining their own culture and a degree of normalcy is so important.

The clients and case workers talked about their involvement in the DARE programme. Many of them are recovered addicts themselves – one prevention worker underwent treatment three years ago and since then has worked to help others. Everyone at the meeting believed that their work can help develop the community and provide a future for themselves.

Many of the DARE workers are recovered addicts. I was told the story of one prevention worker. His home in Karen state, Burma, was attacked by soldiers who raped and killed his sister. In his anger he joined the Karen army but he stepped on a landmine and lost his leg. When people were forced over the border in 1996 he was alone and lost and ended up living under a tree for several months. Then he began drinking. DARE case workers encouraged him to attend the Treatment Centre and he has been working with DARE since then.

Another trainer told us his story – how he escalated from alcohol, smoking and betel nut to abuse opium and amphetamines too. If he could not get a cigarette his anger turned to abuse. In 2000 he attended a workshop run by Pam of DARE, but he was not convinced and would go outside for a drink during breaks. He was finally persuaded to go through treatment and the pain turned to relief and gave him freedom.

I am always impressed by the openness and honesty of everyone involved in DARE. This isclearly encouraged and the reason for their success with 60% going on to full recovery. They are role models, providing the people in their community with hope – creating activities for now and building for the future.

They gave their thanks to everyone who supports RIJ but I think the thanks should go to them for giving us such inspiration.

Friday, 4 December 2009 (Mae Sot)

Sophia and I left Mae Sariang with Htoo Paw from KWO after breakfast. Htoo Paw had been conducting leadership training in Mae Ra Mo camp and was returning home to Mae Sot. Htoo Paw told us how her mother is very sick now and she would like to go and visit her in Karen state but it is too dangerous to make the journey to her village through the jungle. It was really interesting to talk to her and learn about her work and the problems inside Burma. Her family do not want to leave their village despite the dangers and the deprivations because it is their home and what they have always known. It seems that Htoo Paw is doing valuable work and she has great ambitions.

There is a camp called Mae La on the main road near Mae Sot so we stopped at the DARE centre in the camp to meet the trainers and staff there. They are conducting a six-month training for prevention and treatment of addiction. Trainees came from various camps for the training. One trainee is from the migrant community in Mae Sot. He talked about the different problems working with this community – his work will be more involved with prevention and counselling as there is no Centre for treatment or communal activities. Again several were recovered addicts and everyone was open and happy to share with us. This programme clearly not only helps people recover from and avoid addiction but is empowering the community as a whole to build for a better future.

Our visit was brief but valuable. Then we proceeded on to Mae Sot.

We had arranged to meet with two Earthrights School alumni. Pakaw Mu who works with Mon Overseas Women Organisation (OMWO) was a graduate from 2004 and has done several small projects since then. She was a primary school teacher in Mon state and came to work with OMWO because there are more opportunities in Mae Sot. She has recently been working with the migrant community in Mae Sot teaching them their rights and encouraging them to find employment and protect themselves against unscrupulous employers. The majority of the migrant community are refugees who cannot get registered as the Thai authorities will only allow certain ethnic groups to register as refugees.

We also met Noe Noe Tasan from Burma Women’s Union (BWU). Noe Noe graduated from the Earthrights School in 2002 and continued her work with BWU – she did not apply for an alumni grant. BWU runs a library, a drop-in centre, day care centre for children and runs training courses for high school graduates. The Drop-in Centre provides a space for factory workers to rest, cook and wash. They also run sewing classes there for those looking to improve their skills in order to search for other work. On average people are allowed to stay for one week. BWU runs three Drop-in Centres – the other two are on the Burma-China border and the India-Burma border. Their library and office provides a space for people to meet and discuss. They organise monthly discussions for women from Burma.

We enjoyed our own discussion with Noe Noe about the problems of bringing together the various ethnic groups within Burma. She explained the ethnic areas and the administrative regions and we discussed the complexities of the situation within the country.

Sunday, 6 December 2009 (Mae Sot)

We had arranged to meet Saw Flow from WISE Foundation and the Karen Youth Organisation (KYO)co-ordinator from Nuh Poe camp – Kaw Doh. KYO run a boarding house for IDP children in Nuh Poe camp and we recently featured this project in the RIJ auction. Saw Flow is another alumni from Earthrights International school and he was representing KYO regarding this project. The centre provides a secure environment for children from within Karen state, Burma, to live while they attend the camp school. There are various boarding houses like this in most camps and they are invaluable in ensuring that IDP children have the opportunity to learn. WISE Foundation is registered in Thailand and can ensure that the funds are distributed to KYO. They will provide a follow-up check on accounting within KYO.

The Centre provides extra-curricular activities for the children, such as farming, weaving and sports. We asked how they select the children for the Boarding house as there must be so many children in Karen State who would like a secure place to live while studying but the Centre only has space for 100 children. In fact, there are five dormitories in Nuh Poe camp run by different organisations providing a safe environment for IDP children. The children are selected according to poverty level and the desire to learn, the poorer families being given priority. Sophia and I wondered how children can travel to the border, but it seems that workers inside Karen state will undertake to escort the children to the border to ensure their safety. Once again we were impressed at the risks that people will take to protect their rights and make the most of opportunity.

In the afternoon we met with Anna Malindog from People’s Partner for Democracy and Development (PPDD). I knew Anna from the time she was working with Earthrights International and she had recently met with RIJ donor, El Branden Brazil who supports a lot of activities relating to Burma and has a particular interest in a school that PPDD works with. Anna and her co-worker, Miriam, took us to visit the Light School which is a school in one of the migrant communities of Mae Sot. The Light School has 100 children, most of whom are boarders. It is a lovely school situated in fields on the edge of Mae Sot. The buildings were designed and erected by German supporters of the school and it is a lovely environment for learning. 80%of the children are from the nearby community and 20% from inside Burma or from families living on the rubbish dump outside Mae Sot. Apart from classrooms and play areas, the school has two dormitories, a library and a clinic. A medic from the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot visits the school twice a month to treat problems and vaccinate children.

We later learnt that there are several schools providing for migrant children in Mae Sot and these are mostly approved by the Thai authorities.

The migrant community are mostly refugees who cannot get registration and have to fend for themselves as the Thai authorities will only register some displaced people officially. They generally work in low-paid and tough jobs that other people do not want to do and, consequently, are often exploited. Mae Sot is a border post and thus has a lot of Burmese influence.

Anna then took us to the dump where the city’s waste is disposed. Strangely the dump is in a lovely setting beside a lake but we were concerned about the contamination of the water from toxins leaking into the ground from the dump. Migrant families live on the dump in tents and makeshift shelters. They make money out of selling on waste products that can be re-used. PPDD are finding ways of assisting those who would like to relocate from the dump to other areas where they can make create a cleaner, healthier life and earn money through farming or whatever. PPDD will arrange for those who will not leave the dump to be vaccinated and assisted in some way. We wondered how anyone can prefer to stay on the dump, rather than be relocated. It seems that in most cases, this is due to abuse and pressure from violent husbands.

We then visited a relocation area where families are making a life for themselves in vastly superior surroundings in terms of santitation and opportunities for income.

What struck us is the kindness of many Thai landlords in allowing migrant families to rent their property and the importance of understanding one’s rights when it comes to health and employment.

Our final visit of the afternoon was to meet two of the monks involved in the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma. Ashin Sopaka and King Zero live in exile in Mae Sot now but are actively promoting a peaceful campaign to change things in Burma. At first our conversation with Ashin Sopaka was conducted in Japanese because he is a great linguist and speaks excellent Japanese! Once we had got him back on track to discuss Burma we were able to learn about their work to encourage a return to peace in Burma and the world. Ashin spoke of the need for Hope and solidarity. He is articulate, engaging and has a positive approach to life. Our audience with him was enlightening and entertaining. His friend and fellow monk is King Zero, a brilliant writer, but reluctant to express his feelings in words. They make an excellent team.

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