The first thing to hit you when you begin to ask questions about the situation with the Burmese refugees/migrants on the border is how unbelievably complicated it is. There are so many questions and almost no answers. The Burmese and Thai Governments want to repatriate the refugees, but what would they go back to? The land is full of mines, many villages have been burned to the ground, no jobs, no infrastructure and the peace is still fragile. Fear drove these people into Thailand and nothing has made this fear go away.
The situation on the border is all tied up with what’s going on inside Burma. First of all, will things improve so that the Burmese can go back? This really isn’t happening at the moment. Then there’s the question of funding as most major funders have said they will stop donating next year. So if the situation isn’t good enough for people to return then what will they do? The land where the Mae Tao Clinic is has been sold and so the clinic has to move. A lovely Thai woman has donated more land and they are well underway with the building of a new clinic. CDC is also being rebuilt, so there must be some understanding that these institutions are going to stay and function beyond 2016. But what will happen in anyones guess and must be awful for the hundreds of thousands of Burmese currently on the Thai border.
The military coup in Thailand has brought new hardship for the Burmese and there are many arrests and forced repatriations happening. They are also doing head counts in the camps. One NGO for Save The Children told us that everyone was made to stand in the immense heat for these “counts” and people were becoming ill and fainting with exhaustion. When StC spoke to the military, they agreed to count the vulnerable first and let them go, so at least the army appears to be listening.
Some teachers and parents at CDC are having to return to the camps to get the official stamp otherwise their refugee status will be removed – and some of them receive punishments such as carrying heavy loads in the heat. All fairly barbaric. Up until quite recently, people came and went in the camps. This has all stopped and people are having to return and stay. The rations at the camps have been reduced over the years, and now no one is allowed out to earn money for more rations so if the continues it will have drastic consequences.
What a mess. We are all left feeling very small and helpless – not to mention ANGRY!!!
It started raining as we were cycling back from the market and didn’t really stop. We had arranged to meet Sylvia at Borderline to drop off stuff for Lisa and collect more to take home. Borderline is an amazing shop full of bags, paintings, books hangings and lots more all from the various areas of Burma. Even better, it has an amazing tea shop at the back which serves the most gorgeous grub ever. Even Livvy loved the chick pea dish (sorry Sheila). While we were eating the rain got heavier and heavier until it was bucketing down. We were admiring the home-made drainpipes when we arrived (made out of bottles stuffed into one another) and they certainly did their job as the water came rushing through them.
Maya and I had decided to get a tuk tuk to the border, but the rain was so bad Maya decided against it. We waited for a lull and went back to Phan Nu. It did get a bit better, so David and Livvy went to the lovely Centara Hills for a swim, but Seth and the girls were being lazy and didn’t really want to move.
I eventually dragged the girls out to the huge Tesco Lotus to get food for the journey back to Bangkok. I hardly ever go into Tesco at home, and as soon as I walked into the place I knew why. It was a very strange mixture of Western and Asian – and very possibly the worst of both. Most British food you can buy in Thailand has added sweetness and tastes pretty yuk. We saw a lovely looking cheese baguette, but they were giving tasters and it was covered in something like clear icing.
We bought, bread (sweet), biscuits, crisps and cheese for the journey and cycled home. It was almost but not quite dry.
That night we went to Canadian Dave’s for a change (although I would have preferred Casa Mia), and Immy and I left early to make sure we were back for 8pm as Bobo said he was calling then to bring our Batik. The others arrived, but no Bobo. He eventually arrived at 8.30, but had called round at 7pm. Burmese time is very elastic.
Bobo had a teacher with him, who used to work at Say Ta Nar on the back of his bike. This teacher hasn’t worked since the school closed more than two years ago. I think he brought her to see us as we were a very poor substitute for Queen Sheila of Mae Sot, but she wasn’t fooled or very impressed. This was our very last goodbye and Bobo said that if we came back in two years time he would be in Shan State as his dad said he had to go back. He told us we had to go and see him there and it was a short journey. Hmmm… Mae Sot to Bangkok, 8-9 hours, flight to Yangon 1 hour, overnight bus journey from Yangon to Shan state, well probably 8 hours, no said the women more like 12. We’d love to Bobo, but we’ll see.
This morning after a very nice but random breakfast at the lucky tea shop. Thein Naing and his wife led us back to our hotel through the Burmese market which was overall a very random experience. As Seth is still a little weak, so staying in bed, the five of us wheeled our bikes through the rather narrow and busy market.
Thein Naing being the kind man he is took dad’s bike off him and wheeled it (as he had left his motorbike at the beginning of the market) through the market although dad soon of course was wheeling Livvy’s for her as she was being a wee bit moany. The deeper into the market you went the more crazy and random it became. At one point, we came across big metal buckets which contained eels and small fish still swimming about alive, we also saw a bucket with three live turtles in which we all thought were very cute and I was hoping the Burmese wouldn’t take home to eat!
Many people think the French are mad for eating frogs and snails but anyone who goes to this market who isn’t Burmese or Thai and used to the mad food would think the French are just playing it safe! Today I saw, frogs alive in the orange net bags we buy our fruit in, deep fried cockroaches and other bugs you would see scurrying about the street, eels and other fish I hadn’t seen before and meat which from what I thought looked like intestines!
It’s fair to say it wasn’t the most pleasant experience with the smell and the meat which seemed to be rotting away and making me glad that I was a vegetarian! However it was fun too and interesting to see – and overall a good little walk through the randomness and madness of the Burmese market!
One thing I have noticed in Mae Sot is that everyone we have spoke to has Facebook and uses it regularly. At Thein Naing’s house last night, we were talking about it and everyone talked about looking at Sheila’s very regular posts on Facebook. Myoe Nyunt then said that if someone doesn’t have Facebook that they are considered to be very out of date here in Mae Sot so we told them mum didn’t have it which was quite strange for everyone.
This then sparked a rant about Facebook this morning when we visited the Burmese tea shop as mum seems to think that signing up to fb is surrending to a cyber world where you do nothing but sit on your phone on fb and ‘blog’ as she called it. Despite me trying to explain to her that signing up for Facebook does not include a contract where you sign away all communication skills, she was not too convinced and said that she would maybe register but only add our friends from Mae Sot, who probably use Facebook more than us!
(She is going to very mad about me posting this but her lack of understanding of social networking needed to be shared with you)
We were all delighted to be able to see Thein Naing, his wife and baby son. We headed off only an hour or so after returning from Liberty’s, picked up in the Mae Tao Clinic song-taow (pick-up truck with seats).
Myoe Nyunt and Sai Heh came along too, as well as other teachers from CDC, including the lovely Aung Kyaw Kyaw Oo, who has a fabulous, white-toothed smile and good English. Aung’s wife was there too as well as one of the senior teachers from CDC.
Livvy was so delighted to see Thein Naing’s baby, who is seven months old, and we gave him a toy and blanket. He seems a very good-natured boy and his mum, Wai Mar Phyo, was so lovely. She is a teacher-trainer who helps the Burmese refugee schools teach English in a more coherent and standardised way. She chatted away to Livvy, Immy and Maya and made us all so welcome.
It was great to see Thein Naing much happier than last time we were here. Then, he was really torn about what the future held for him – he wanted to go back into Burma, but couldn’t at that time. Since then, he has been back to Burma a few times to visit his family – but has decided that he can do more good with the refugee community in Thailand. He travels a lot within Thailand talking about curriculum development and trying to raise capacity and knowledge in the Burmese refugee education community. He also does a little work inside Burma and edits an online educational and cultural magazine. He is a great guy, really interested in politics, education and culture, but with a good sense of humour too. We reminisced about when he stayed with us in 2011 as part of the Campie-CDC partnership and ran into the sea, even though it wasn’t the warmest of September days in Musselburgh. When he got in, he shouted “I’M SWIMMING IN THE SEA.”
We all had some lovely food and stayed chatting and eating for a couple of hours before the song-taow brought us back. We had a laugh with Myoe Nyunt on the way back and arranged to see Thein Naing and Wai Mar Phyo at the Lucky tea shop when we went there with Bobo the next morning.
Liberty gave us directions to her house, but these were so vague no one had any confidence that we would actually get there. So we decided to get a taxi. We ordered one at the guest house, and realised we had been right. I gave my phone to the taxi driver to speak to Liberty and after a long conversation we set off. It was pretty obvious we were all in the dark.
When we were about 20 minutes along the Highway we slowed down and we all looked for signs of anything vaguely recognisable that Liberty had mentioned. Unbelievably we made it!
The house is gorgeous and the garden is so beautiful and productive with coconuts, mangoes, star fruit, dragon fruit, lemon grass, turmeric and lots more. It is also full of huge mosquitos and we were all bitten to pieces. The house belonged to her parents, and is in the middle of nowhere. Liberty stays there on her own as her kids are boarding at school in the camp and her husband is a head teacher in a school two hours away. She said she used to get quite scared staying there on her own.
Liberty’s daughter Marvel was also there and we had a lovely few hours, eating great food, looking at the garden and chatting. Liberty’s son didn’t make it as he was in the middle of exams in the Me La refugee camp school he attends, and Seth decided not to come as he still isn’t feeling too great.
Liberty has been so good to us and it was lovely to be able to go and see her house and sit and chat with her. The house is really lovely with wooden floors and walls and a huge veranda.
The taxi driver came too soon and we had to leave Liberty and Marvel, which was really sad as who knows when we will see them again. Liberty is such a lovely woman and has been so helpful and good to us. We will really miss her.
This is the batik that we made at the Puzzlebox Art Studio today. To be fair, my contribution was minimal and messy – the girls were the artistic directors. I’ll let one of them blog about it, but I think the end result is pretty good.