We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

A shrunken world

Uprooted villagers attempting to reach a place of safety away from the soldiers.

Photo: Thierry Falise

The red mud path slopes down almost vertically. Riding pillion, with my belongings strapped to my back, I grit my teeth as my young motorcyclist descends it, braking all the time. At the bottom, he revs up and lets fly for an almost vertical climb. It has rained overnight and midway up the wheels start to slip. I hop off and run alongside.

I have arrived in Wan Bai Pay, a refugee camp inside the Burmese border, on the southern fringe of Shan State. To get here I have had to hire a minivan complete with beer-swilling driver to drive me up mountain slopes decked with the ostrich plumes of pampas grass, past vast plantations of orange and tea. I have been smuggled past a Thai checkpoint. The Thai authorities are not keen on foreigners reporting on their doorstep.

And here I am. Wan Bai Pay stretches out, hugging a series of slopes, its huts on stilts dotted amidst lush jungle vegetation. It has tourist paradise potential. Instead it is a place without expectation.

The settlement began life in 2000 and now has 3,000 inhabitants. A previous settlement, on the Thai side of the border, was moved on when it began to show signs of permanence. The border refugee camps are such a mote in the eye of the Thai authorities that in May 2007 they ordered another camp, Loi Sarm Sip, to relocate 500 metres further into Burma because it was ‘too easily seen from Thailand’.

The people of Wan Bai Pay have fled through the jungle from burning villages, from beatings, murder and rape by the Burmese regime’s soldiers and by an armed ethnic faction, the drug-running United Wa State Army, which has the regime’s blessing. It is the Junta’s old divide-and-rule policy. There are currently 30 non-state armed groups in Burma, some belonging to ethnic nationalities that have entered a ceasefire pact with the Junta, others part of an active armed resistance. The strife in Karen State qualifies as the longest-running civil war in the world, dating back to 1949. The Karen were denied autonomy in a Burma newly independent of British rule, but with a government dominated by its largest ethnic minority, the Bamar or Burman. Over the years, the policy of Burmanization – a catastrophic attempt at nation building through the attempted erasure of the ethnic nationalities – has led to military aggression, economic domination, forced conversions to Buddhism and forced marriages. Even today, the SPDC’s soldiers are mainly Burman, while the people they attempt to subdue are of different ethnic nationalities.

‘My mother was wounded and we had nothing. I had to beg the other villagers hiding in the jungle for rice’

No wonder Burma’s borders are leaking. People who make it across to Thailand, India or Bangladesh receive a far from warm welcome. In recent years, an estimated 60,000 ethnic Chin have wound up in the Indian state of Mizoram without documentation, without rights, surviving on the worst of jobs. In Thailand, migrants are registered for only certain categories of work (construction, plantation, domestic, garment factories and in the docks) and paid less than Thai workers. Checkpoints stop vehicles to look for ‘illegals’ or migrants straying outside of zones where they are allowed to live. Thai television regularly exhorts residents to snitch on neighbours they suspect may be illegal migrants. Many who have official refugee status end up in camps patrolled by the Thai military.

And then there are places like Wan Bai Pay, within Burma but in a ‘liberated area’– in this case, liberated by the Shan State Army - South, which keeps the camp under its protection. The region around it is laced with landmines. Visible from the camp and but a half-day’s walk away are camps of the Burmese military and the Wa Army. The only employment is tea-picking across the border in Thai fields for an exploitation wage, all movement monitored by Thai border guards. Some of the camp’s women are trying to get a sewing project off the ground to earn some extra income. The permitted radius of movement is all of five kilometres.

Much of the food, clothing, medicine and education is funded by aid, with the dependence that implies. In the camp’s bare-bones clinic a notice from an aid agency announces apologetically that certain food rations are being cut, due to a cash shortage. International funding for such cross-border aid is anyway difficult to gather.

When I talk to children in the camp, they want to grow up to be teachers – that is, not tea-pluckers, but one of the few other jobs going in this shrunken world. When I talk to their parents, they want to go back to their fields and villages – that is, to be able to earn their own keep and live in peace, without recourse to handouts.

Wan Bai Pay has got many things right: there are no conspicuous bigwigs; its various ethnic communities live harmoniously, side by side; there is a clinic and school, however rudimentary; water has been tapped from a nearby stream. The only generators have been assigned to the clinic and the dormitories for the orphans, one for the boys and one for the girls. When new arrivals emerge from the jungle, half-starved and scared, they are helped by others who’ve been through the same ordeal. Most importantly, here people can live in peace, even if it is a hemmed-in, precarious kind of peace.

There are over half-a-million people internally displaced in Burma; few have found a community like Wan Bai Pay.

The camp’s main path runs right along the border. Walk a few steps into Thailand and you can make a call on your cellphone; cross back into Burma and the signal goes dead. At night, the distant twinkle of lights from Thai villages on one side, pitch darkness on the other.

*Running with the rice pot*

The following morning I visit the dormitories for the orphans – two large, clean halls, with rows of beds and a trunk for each child. Among the children I speak with, Nang Seng Lao is the most eloquent. This is perhaps because she is, at 19, no longer a child. But her childhood will run like a torrent through her life. This is what she tells me.

‘I was living in Murng Karn, very close to here. The Burmese soldiers came and took my father and other villagers to be used as porters [carrying heavy loads for battalions operating in the area]. My father was sick, but they took him anyway. This happened when I was six.’

When the other villagers returned, her father was not with them. They had given the slip to the soldiers on the pretext of going for a pee; her ailing father couldn’t join them. ‘They told us: “We have to run, because the soldiers will come back again. They will come and force us to move.” The others abandoned the village, but my mother didn’t leave, because she was waiting for my father. The soldiers came, as the others had said.

‘They told my mother and me to move out from the house, but my mother replied: “I don’t want to go – I have to wait for my husband.” So one soldier got angry and beat my mother with the butt of his gun. She was bleeding. Some of the other villagers came and took me and my mother a little bit further away. The soldiers burned all the houses.’

Such senseless destruction of entire villages has taken place over 3,000 times in the last 10 years. It’s part of the Burmese Army’s counter-insurgency strategy, known as The Four Cuts. Villages presumed sympathetic to resistance groups are destroyed in order to cut links to food, funds, recruits and information. Civilians are also forced to move from contested areas to ‘relocation centres’, where their lives can be regimented at all times.

‘We could not take anything from our house, not even clothes or food,’ continues Nang Seng Lao. ‘My mother was wounded and we had nothing. I had to beg the other villagers hiding in the jungle for rice, but they also had very little rice and were hiding with entire families and children. So I got little from them. My mother got really sick, so I gave the rice to my mother.

‘At night people would sleep in a group. But because my mother kept groaning, the other villagers said: “Please go a bit further away.” Eventually my mother and I had to separate from the group. The soldiers came and found us. They asked: “Where are the other villagers?” My mother said: “I don’t know.” They started beating my mother again and my mum told me to run away. I said: “I won’t, I’ll stay with you.” But my mother told me again to run. I found the other villagers and told them to go and help my mother. But they were afraid of the soldiers and didn’t.’

Eventually she was taken under the wing of a childless elderly couple, who took her with them, while the group hid in the jungle. But the soldiers caught up with them and this six- year-old girl was again on the run. She ran to tell the group, who had just put on a pot of rice to cook. ‘Everyone just separated and ran away. I picked up the rice pot and ran. Eventually I reached a stream very close to this village and I found some Aka people. They took me to their house and I lived with them for many years. When this dormitory was built I came to stay. I’ve been here three years.

‘Before I was very lonely and wondered: “Is it only me who suffers like this?” When I came to stay in this dormitory I found friends who had also lost their parents like me, and they also feel some of the things I feel. I feel encouraged by them.’

In total, Nang Seng Lao’s period of hiding in the jungle lasted a full year, even though the village she fled is not far from the camp. It was a year of surviving on banana flowers, wild fruit and whatever kindness others chose to show her. She came out of it with just the longyi (wrap worn around the legs by Burmese women and men) her mother had used to cover her at night; now her most precious possession.

*The Lazarus of Naw Tao*

In the afternoon, I meet some older residents of the camp. They all tell of Burmese soldiers coming to their former villages every month, rounding up people for portering, forcing them to carry their weapons as the battalions move about. San Sai, a 75-year-old man who was taken into porterage, tells how the women in his group were forced to carry loads during the day and raped by the soldiers at night. The lands of his village were confiscated and given to Wa people loyal to the troops. Others tell of routine looting of their food stores and livestock by the soldiers, and being forced to pay arbitrary taxes.

Nar Auin clutches her young granddaughter as she explains how the situation became increasingly insecure for women in her village, which was close to the border and thus attracted regular visits by soldiers. Rape accompanied the visits, and eventually her daughter-in-law was abducted by the soldiers. Today, Naw Tao, her village, no longer exists. Gazing into the distance, holding on to the child, all she can bring herself to say is: ‘I really miss my daughter-in-law.’

From top: Jar Ta, who was left for dead; Nang Seng Lao, who ran with the rice pot; Nar Auin, whose daughter-in-law was abducted.

Others tell of being forced to grow jatropha (a plant whose oil can be used for biodiesel) instead of food on their lands. This is one of the junta’s export-oriented money-making schemes. Last September, Soe Myint, the director of Burma’s Energy Planning Department, announced that jatropha had been planted on three million hectares. The villagers say they are made to pay exorbitant prices for the seed of a crop that no-one wants to grow and no-one can eat. Famine-like conditions are developing.

A wraith of a man comes up to talk, bending low politely as he approaches. Jar Ta explains how survival became impossible in Naw Tao. ‘The soldiers came to ask about the Shan and other resistance groups. They wanted information, whether we had it or not. So if we said we didn’t see any Shan State Army soldiers, they beat us. I was the secretary of the village, so they really went for me. Thinking I was dead, they took me to the river bank and buried me hurriedly. Fortunately, I had been buried in sand and could still breathe. When I regained consciousness I was able to claw my way out.’ I ask him what he thinks should happen to the soldiers who did this. ‘We cannot fight them because we are weak. If I were able to, I would kill them right away.’

This is the Burma no tourist will see. People keep telling me to tell the world what is happening to them. It’s a story that has already been told time and again, of course. The question must be asked: is the world interested in listening?

I leave Wan Bai Pay as I came, clinging for dear life to the pillion of a motorbike as we negotiate roller-coaster dips and rises. Turning a corner, we suddenly come upon armed Thai soldiers and have to dismount. The senior one has a face like thunder and he’s alternately pointing his gun and his walkie-talkie at me. He takes my passport, puts a camera to my face and clicks, relays my name down a walkie-talkie and addresses fusillades of anger toward me in Thai. I feel like public enemy number one. Eventually, my passport is returned, I release my breath and we make a swift exit. Apparently, I have been read a sermon on endangering international relations in this sensitive area: one way of saying I have seen and heard rather too much.

Wan Bai Pay, which means refugee camp in Shan, is not the real name of the camp, which cannot be revealed for the security of its inhabitants.
More reports from Wan Bai Pay will appear on Dinyar Godrej’s blog.

New Internationalist issue 411 magazine cover This article is from the May 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop