FEATURE: Epiphanies on the road to ‘Someplace Else’: Journeys into the Thailand-Burma border

There, before me, were verdant mountains rising up to the sky filled with ferns and pine trees, and here and there were bamboo groves lying hidden on patches of shadows swathed across the valley.  As we moved deeper into the mountains, there would be more, other shadows I would see and, too, I would learn that amidst this tender beauty, the forest has held secrets and borne witness to deep and abiding sorrows.

Moments before, we rode past villagers on single file hunched on the ground, their bodies in synchronized motion toiling the rice paddies, and every so often we saw gaudily-painted Buddhist shrines on the roadside where smoke from burning incense sticks would waft through the air. We have set out from the town at eight in the morning, while it was still draped in slumber and fog, and as whiffs of mist drifted over on to the nearby lake and up across Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang, the twin temples of the Buddhist monks in saffron robes, some of whom as young as six or seven, their heads shaven, and who at nighttime would fly lanterns with lit candles shooting up into the sky in blazing flares to the cheers of the crowd.  

Today is our fifth day on the road, not yet halfway through our journey, but now momentarily away from the dust and grime and the smell of roadside grease.  From buses to motorbikes, tuk-tuks and minivans, we were riding all sorts of transport across Thailand, and just yesterday we flew in from Bangkok to Chang Mai then finally here to Mae Hong Son. The rush of time and tempo had caught me unprepared as with the swirl of images, words, scents, tastes, the hot chilies and green lime, all leaving my senses dazed in a state of stupor.
 
Hidden in a long and narrow valley, Mae Hong Son has been described in travel brochures as "the land of the three mists" and historically known as the most distant and until recently the most inaccessible province of the kingdom of Siam. From the plane, I looked down to see mountain tops in clouds of haze and I thought of Robert Conway's "Lost Horizon" where lies the mythical paradise of "Shangri-la."  

I closed my eyes as I also knew, from the stories told me, that tucked somewhere in this mountain resort town are the villages of Karen and Karenni ethnic refugees who escaped military offensives of the Myanmar* government.  We had been told stories of border-crossings, a forest filled with landmines and malaria mosquitoes, and as I gazed at the misty peaks below, I could not help wondering whether at that moment there were people making their way across the border, hiding in terror. There are 21,000 Karenni refugees in Mae Hong Son and we are now heading towards one of their villages called Bam Nai Soi, just two kilometers away from the border of Burma.

Half an hour to the ride, and as we bounced through winding dirt roads, I leaned on my back and took a moment's rest, my heart in grateful praise for this travel that had come unbidden and unexpectedly.

How I came to be here and why is a gift of serendipity that came at a time when the "urge to be someplace else" burned most strongly. I got a call from a colleague in late November if I would want to join a team to document the struggles of ethnic refugees from Burma – and would I want to write a story about it?  I mumbled yes, of course, how would I not want to go, see for myself, write once again, a familiar yearning I know of so much rising in me. It's been a while and I do get wistful at times, and the romance of reporting from the field is just so enchanting still.  So off  I go, hastily wiggling my way out of tight schedules to slip just in time away from the whirl of Christmas merriment, heading towards Bangkok on a midnight flight.

I woke up in the morning to find myself in another world, unaware of the magnitude of human suffering and wasted lives that I was to encounter in the coming days. Where long after listening to the stories, and after hearing tragedy spoken of so lightly, I am often left wondering how so the human heart can hold so much pain and not be broken.(*Myanmar has been adopted by the military junta as the country's official name replacing Burma.)

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"My life had always been one of fear and running."  Plar Wah speaks with a soft, gentle voice that bears no trace to the tragedies that he had faced.  Even as we were passing through the lush fields of Mae Hong Son, my thoughts were constantly drawn towards Plar and the stories of the young Karen women whom I met just a few days before. Plar is the school headmaster at the Than Min Refugee Camp in Suan Phung district, Ratchaburi province where we first came soon after we arrived.  

Here, inside the school's main office at the camp, Plar searches his memory and remembers that day when he was three and there was fighting, burning and killing in his village. "We were running and my mother took hold of my hand. She was carrying my little brother on her back."  For a moment, he fell into silence and only the voices of schoolchildren reciting Karen words could be heard outside. "Then I stumbled and I could not run anymore," he says, almost in a whisper. "There were only three of us left that day because the soldiers all killed my father, uncle and two brothers."  He heaved a deep sigh at this and I could sense him grappling still with the memory of this loss more than fifty years later.

"But I don't hate them anymore, they who have killed my family," he says breaking into a smile when I asked him how he seemed to be so at peace now. There is kindness in his angular face that he tilts to one side whenever he smiles, and which he does every so often even at the recollection of tragedy.  "I am now safe here in the camp. I have found peace here and the emotional pains could no longer disturb me."  It is his faith and his love for his wife and children, he says, that are his constant sources of strength.

Soon, Plar will be leaving and is now merely counting the days when he will finally bade the camp goodbye as with many others who had lost all hope of ever going back home to Burma or that things would one day change. Inside the camp's headquarters, I remembered seeing a news article tacked on the wall about Daniel Zu, a respected camp leader, who is now successfully resettled in Australia. He serves as an inspiration to others, I was told, a reminder that one day, they, too, would be living their dream in another country. About four thousand refugees from the camp had already been resettled mostly to the US, Canada and Australia.

"What is there to go back home to? " Plar says, as he breathed deeply. "They will only put me back to jail." Then he told us in snapshot details how he served once as a Karen revolutionary soldier, then fleeing Burma in 1997, adjusting to life in the camp, and of that day he was summoned by a camp official so he could be trained as a teacher, then teaching Karen history to refugee students all these years until last year when he was made in charge as the camp school headmaster, and finally, how the day came when he learned that he was accepted in a resettlement program to Australia.  

We stepped outside to the heat of the noonday sun. Plar led us through a walk around the school area. Inside makeshift classrooms, children recited words and numbers aloud. Young teenage teachers, also refugees hurriedly trained to replace those who have left, point at words on the board using wooden sticks or scribble big, bold letters for the children to read. Turnovers are fast, Plar says, and soon, they, too, will leave like others before them and they will have to train new teachers again.  

"My desire now is for my children to go to school, with food and medicine," he says. "Here it is not enough because we could not go outside the camp and we do not have equal rights like the Thai people. They call us the wild people." He laughs at this but his face turned somber.  "I just want to start a new life away from here," he says.

Like Plar, most of the refugees simply wanted to find work and move on with their lives. They have been living in the camp for ten years now but Thai authorities still restrict their movements in going in and out of the camp. At most, they are allowed a temporary pass from one week to not more than a month. They are also banned from seeking employment. There are the daring ones though who would try their luck in finding work outside as illegal migrant workers. But many, mostly young women, return to the camps "broken in body and spirit," says an official of the Karen Refugee Committee. If ever, there may be only about four percent who may make it successfully. "It is often heartbreaking to see these young girls being brought home from the cities either raped or beaten." The camp has organized care groups of women, he says, who tend to the pains and wounds of the young.

And then just recently, the camp had suffered cutbacks on food supplies – soybean cakes, prawn paste and chili – due to budgetary constraints of a private aid agency. Notices about this announcement were posted on walls around the camp that were met, we were told, with anxiety from among the refugees.  Being resettled then has remained the only option but that would also mean the spiriting away of the best Karen minds and skills. "How would then that bode on to the future of the Karen nation? Many of our teachers, doctors, professionals are all gone," a senior Karen leader says.  

Over at an open court, a little girl came about walking with a tiny pink parasol over her head, a ribbon on her hair, her cheeks painted with thanaka powder.  "You are very pretty. What's your name?" I asked Aung Than, our guide and a camp board member, to translate for me. "I'm Lha Min Cho and I am six years old." "So what do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked. "A teacher," she curtly replied.  

We continued our way this time towards the camp's interior that is actually a shanty tenement of rows upon rows of bamboo huts. "What about you, Aung Than?"" I turned to him as we were walking.  "Tell me about your dreams." Aung, who was wearing a longyi, a traditional sarong, grew pensive. "I want to settle down with a beautiful family and children. And I also want to help my people."  It is the same dream shared by Eh Na, a Karen peace advocate of the Burma Issues, telling me how he wants to "build a big house for his family in my place in Karen state."  Aung and Eh Na are both in their mid-twenties and had fled their villages while as children and who were later on reared inside refugee camps.  Many of those in their generation have only vague memories of their villages.

Eh Na though has written a poignant poem about returning one day to Kowthoolei which means "land without evil," the Karen's homeland. "In the river of Tenasserim," he writes, "there are deep forests and mountains, with little streams flowing. . .I sit down and weep in a strange land, I miss my little bamboo house and my father's paddy field…Now I am away from it, I never dream and wish, I do not know the reason why, but the smell of gunpowder and bloodshed and tears of the people. . .Oh God! All I want is to return to Tenasserim where there is no sound of guns and no nightmare."

We soon passed through an alley of thatched huts, some of which look decrepit. There was filth in a few places and cobwebs hung from walls of wooden slats. Some of the houses though were festooned with shiny glittering "Merry Christmas" buntings as most of the Karen refugees in the camp are Christians although Burma is majority Buddhist. The Karens are the second largest ethnic minority group in Burma out of about a hundred or so.

Suddenly, as we were walking, I heard a choir of voices singing. I strained my ears to hear where the music was coming from and followed them to a hut. From the doorway, I peered inside to see what looked like a gloomy shack. In one corner was a raised dais where a scrawny child was seated, her blank eyes staring at me, as she scooped a handful of rice from a tin plate.

And there not far from her was a quintet of elderly women and men seated in a huddle on the floor, their heads bent over a tattered lyric sheet of chorale music. But then there was a stream of light filtering from a hole that gaped through a thatched roof overhead, illuminating them.  They were singing a church hymn called "You are Welcome," their voices melodic in varying tones of soprano, alto and bass. How in the midst of squalor, one stumbles upon this radiance, this beauty. We listened once again, captivated by the music that seemed like prayer floating through the camp on the wings of a gentle wind.

Hope is kept alive in many ways, in the music and poems and art, and the faith that keeps springing forth from the rubble. I left with the plaintive strains of the music echoing in my heart. It lingered with me even as I finally went home.  

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 "Shoot on Sight" is a video documentary produced by the human rights advocacy group, the Burma Issues. The opening scene shows actual video clips of terrified villagers running through the forest seeking cover behind trees as bursts of gunfire could be heard from a distance. The camera then zooms in onto a mother cradling a baby in her arms. Suddenly, in the midst of running, she stops to breastfeed her baby while squatting on the ground, her eyes gripped in fear.

The documentary was filmed by Saw Htoo Tawny of the Burma Issues whose earliest memories, he said, are very much like the one shown on film. He remembered being carried by his father on his shoulders as they moved about in the jungle for two years. Like everybody else, they escaped fighting that broke out in their village.  

The film also captured in many ways the hauntingly common images shared by almost all Karen refugees we met, running in fear, burning of villages, and relatives being killed, scenes embedded in a collective memory of terror and violence. So is it with Tawny who dreamed of becoming a film maker one day and making a hit Hollywood movie like "Blood Diamonds," that would tackle the plight of ethnic peoples in Burma, "so the world would know about our feelings, our struggles, our sufferings."

"The real tragedy in Burma," says one Karen activist, "is actually found in the heartlands of the ethnic villages which suffer the most from the brutality of the military junta."

Ethnic activists feel that the world's attention is only focused on the struggles of the democratic rights opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi as could be gleaned in last September's monk-led protests. The "ethnic cleansing" that happens in the country sides, they say, do not even merit reportage from the international press despite the scale, magnitude and duration of nearly two decades of military atrocities.

For more than half a century now, the Karens have been waging a guerilla resistance led by the Karen National Union and its armed wing – the Karen National Liberation Army – against the Burman-led government. They are pushing for recognition of a 1947 agreement signed by the government that was supposed to grant them full autonomy at the end of a two-year transition period. In a complex chain of historical events, the successive military rule led by the Burmans, the dominant ethnic group, had justified the quelling of the rebellion as basis for the military offensives and abusive control tactics that are aimed to terrorize and cow the people into submission. The Karen Human Rights Group reported the following range of tactics: "forced relocation, the destruction of villages, burning of crops, the rape of women and girls, planting of landmines and implementation of shoot on sight policies."  But then they also claim that the motive could be far more rapacious than counter-insurgency and that is control over resource-rich ethnic lands.

The military campaign which began sixty years ago has already forced hundreds and thousands of people to flee their villages into seeking refuge in the border areas. Some of the refugees have been living in the camps since the 1980s; many of the young Karen activists we met have in fact been either born outside Burma or had grown up in the camps. There are about a hundred and fifty thousand refugees housed in ten camps near the border inside Thailand, mostly coming from the Karen, Karenni and Shan states.  Those who fled their villages but have chosen to brave it out in the jungles instead of crossing the border are called the "internally displaced peoples, " numbering about more than half a million people. "We hope the world would also be concerned that we the ethnic peoples are being driven away from our lands, our villages burned, our men killed, our women raped," says one refugee leader.

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The mists have started to clear when we finally arrived at Bam Nai Soi. The village is a cluster of thatched huts nestled on the hills about twenty-six kilometers away from Mae Hong Son. Burma is just two kilometers away and the nearby camps have suffered several attacks from Burmese soldiers in the past. Because it is so close to the border, spies are known to be lurking everywhere in this mountain resort town.  The moment we arrived at the airport, I could right away sense the fear and trepidation among those working with the refugees. "Be careful," warned one development worker I met as we were pushing our baggage trolleys out towards the airport gate, "don't go around talking to just anybody."  

But now, here inside a large hut where we were led soon after we alighted from the truck, we feel safe at the moment and far from the prying eyes of spies. When we arrived, we were met by young Karenni leaders of community-based organizations who shared to us their work, from community organizing to human rights advocacy, documentation and networking with other ethnic groups. (The Karenni is another ethnic group in Burma distinct from the Karens.)

"The best way towards change is to change the mindset of the new generation," says K.R, a twenty-five year old teacher who runs a leadership and management course in the camp. Most of them believe that education is a crucial tool in changing the system. "I also teach my students to find the courage to speak out," he adds. "We Karennis are meek and gentle people and I hope that whatever I teach them would one day make a difference in the community."

He confidently explained how their course prepares young refugee students for employment or to take leadership roles in the future Burma.  "We expect them to lead organizations, to take some roles in the community, and to work in the administration of a new government in Burma in the future."  K.R. had said these things with such conviction that left no doubt to the listener that one day Burma shall be free and the ethnic peoples can make their exodus back home.  

The leadership course, he said, was set up to provide further education for high school students. It is non-academic but geared towards skills development. Subjects taught are conversational English; correspondence writing; human rights and democracy; organizational and financial management; social studies and computer skills. Under human rights and democracy, students learn basic concepts on law, constitution and democracy.  "We need lots of human resource for education and health. We have a human resource problem brought in part by the resettlement of skilled individuals to other countries," he says.

K.T.L who heads an environmental advocacy group is one of the graduates of the leadership course. He told us that he was once a student leader in high school but was forced to flee Burma when soldiers started looking for him. He later joined the armed guerilla movement as a combatant. 'But I had to leave because jungle life is not meant for me. I was stricken with malaria."

Discussions later drifted towards the struggles of the Karenni people in preserving their identity and culture while living as refugees inside Thailand. "In our state, we have our traditional knowledge, our traditional ways of maintaining the forest, but when we stay in refugees camps, that knowledge is gone, " says K.T.L. "We do not have land for farming; no forest to hunt for food; we are not allowed to take food outside the camp when we become hungry. Our people have now become beggars."

There is dignified grace and passion in the way these young people spoke about their struggles for autonomous self-rule and democracy in Burma. Most of them were educated inside makeshift classrooms, and I could picture them in my mind reciting words and numbers just as the students in Than Min were. K.R., who is very articulate, is himself a refugee who was only five when he first came to the camp and like many others still remembers living in the jungle, hiding in the border, when the whole village was burned down.

"Culture has its ways of evolving, it never dies," K.R. says emphatically, a point that his colleague T.R. has elaborated further. "Yes, but our culture had been destroyed," T.R. says, "and there was disruption that was not of our own choosing."  Later on, the exchanges became more passionate but after a while K.R. had to excuse himself as he had to attend a school sports event inside the camp. When asked if he also considers resettlement," he replied, "for as long as refugees are still here, I will still be engaged in social work. If everybody goes, then I, too, will have to go." Finally, he got up to leave, saying, "Hope comes from what you do."

The day after, we learned that tragedy had befallen the sports event. Whispers ran through the village about a teenage boy having been killed. From a news article, we learned that he was apparently shot dead by Thai security officials who had fired upon a crowd of young students on a peaceful protest against abuses of their rights. "This is the first time it happened although there had been riots in the past," my development worker friend said. "But these things are bound to happen," she says, where a sense of despair hovers in circumstances that restrict movement and speech.

It was late afternoon when we headed back to town. Hitching a ride with us were Ana who works in the camp and her friend, a lawyer from Mexico. I learned that Ana is a veteran doctor of an international aid agency and has been sent on assignment to many conflict areas since 1988 – from Africa to Kosovo to Congo.  "So how is it working here?" I asked, raising my voice a bit louder to make myself  heard above the din of the motor engine.  "It is different here," she replied in her lilting Spanish accent, "maybe even worse."

Burma may have no massive killings, she said, statistically, on a scale like Rwanda or Kosovo. "But there is deeper trauma on people when they have been away for too long, far from their homes, without any hope of ever going back. And it has been fifteen or twenty years that they have been here."  She rested her back on a railing of the truck and folded her arms.  Then she went on to say in hushed tones, "And there is little change over the years.  In other places, the war stops, people go home, they move on with their lives. But not here where there seems to be no movement at all."

We all became silent and for sometime only the humdrum of the engine could be heard as we descended the slopes. In the distance was a silhouette of yet another misty mountain. In my mind, I could almost see K.T.L., still barely sixteen, staggering in the forest, delirious with malaria fever, and fearfully guarding himself against stepping on a landmine. How he must have wailed to the mountains that, by now at the mere passage of time, must have kept a cavern of tears from refuge seekers who passed the same way, and how it must have been for him when he finally made it to the border camp.

I gazed down at the lush valley below. It is no longer cold now yet I am beguiled still by the paradox of beauty and shadows, and the epiphanies that come when one is elsewhere in someplace else, in an altitude of wide open spaces and clear skies, or in the radiance of a hymn and a shaft of light in a refugee camp, or upon encountering pilgrim souls who have nothing else but hope and the language of the soul – where then all of a sudden in a moment of stillness, one is bequeathed with a gift of luminosity that makes the befuddled heart clear, the paths known.

In the morning we are leaving and off to another border town, Mae Sot, which will be our last stop. Soon after in a week, I will be home on a midnight flight back to Manila, then afterwards, perhaps, to find myself once again on the road to some other wandering.

Then I glanced at Ana who had spent most of her life in war zones and refugee camps, and I wondered how she must have listened endlessly at the stories of refugees while tending to the broken and the wounded, or rescuing the dying who just came in from the other side of the border – and what would that be why a choice of life so embracing of human pathos?  I never got to ask her this as she got off at a crossroad somewhere in the middle of the village and the town just before reaching the Doi Kong Mu temple.

"Fifteen years is just far too long," I remembered her saying, her voice trailing off in the wind, so soft that I could barely hear her. Dusk had fallen by the time we got into town. We promised to meet for coffee that night but I never saw her again.  [To protect those who are in the border camps, initials to some of the names were used.] (Charina Sanz Zarate/MindaNews)

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