On the Thai-Burma Border
We have just come back from our first village experience along the Thai-Burma border. The village was named No Boh, and primarily consisted of ethnic Karen, an indigenous group living on both sides of the border. The Karen have been engaged in the world’s longest military conflict with the Burmese military government since the late 40s. They were unhappy with the new Constitution that consolidated power with the Burmese, and very distrustful of a government which had targeted Karen villages during WWII. The Karen declared independence and many other ethnic groups in Burma followed shortly after.
Starting in the 1970s, the Burmese government began targeting civilian populations in effort to drain resources from the ethnic militaries. These included destroying villages, forced relocations to Burmese-controlled areas, forced labor, imprisonment and execution of anyone they deemed not supporting the Burmese government.
These brutal tactics resulted in massive waves of refugees fleeing to the Thai border. Thailand did not want to absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, so it allowed the United Nations to set-up camps along the border. On our way to Noh Bo we passed Mae La, the largest camp, with roughly 50,000 refugees.
While in No Boh we were working on a project with Border Green Energy Team (BGET), a local NGO that does sustainable development projects in Thailand. BGET is building a learning resource center where they will provide vocational training for refugees and migrants who are unable to access the formal Thai education system. The classes will include sustainable agriculture, computer technology, language, and green technologies such as solar installation and maintenance.
BGET was also able to obtain temporary work passes for eight refugees from Mae La camp to join the project while we were there. They were of similar age as our group, and were engineering students in classes set up by a local NGO in the camp. For some of them, it was their first time out of Mae La since arriving from Burma. It was very gratifying to see our students connect with them, resulting in I think some lifelong friendships.
Our grouped worked on a number of tasks from hauling sand and rock for the building’s foundation to constructing a chicken coop to revamping a bamboo fence to keep ornery pigs out of the crops. Given the 90+ degree heat and our winter-hibernating bodies not used to long days of manual labor, it was difficult work…but we were quite proud of how the group rose to the occasion.
This experience again reminded us of approaching international service work with a huge dose of humility. We are not here to “help” these communities, but rather to make genuine human connections with people from cultures different, but not too dissimilar, from our own. There is something about shared work that really helps form these bonds. And if we can be a resource in some way to our friends, even the better.
We are going to be out of email range for the next week while we travel to a Thai village in Kanchanaburi. Hope all is well in WA and we will be in touch soon!
Charlie and the IVS group