For the past two weeks, I have been travelling in Thailand, and here is an excerpt from my writings on a refugee camp that I visited on the border between Thailand and Burma (Myanmar).
Resting on the mist-shrouded hills, temporarily, permanently, Umphium is a sprawl of Burmese people, a spread of thick thatch, a sprinkling of roads, veins of mud paths, beating with the slow rhythm of a waiting life. This refugee camp, any refugee camp, is an indictment against humanity, a blot on our psyches. It is also paradoxically a saving grace, for the refugee camp exists rather than a scattered diaspora of misery.
When you enter, the brown thatch resolves itself into individual huts upon closer examination, and as they spread upwards through the hills to meet the mist, they encounter two Buddhist temples (wat) that watch restlessly, golden and proud, overlooking the green valley below.
The next thing you notice is the ubiquitous and grasping mud. As you walk the treacherous and slippery paths down- and upwards through the hills of the camp, mud marks your feet and legs with shades of brown. You slip on a particularly steep part of a path and grab on a bamboo fence post, and realize that simple mobility is freedom, and that a frustrating slip on the brown mud is symbolic of what the Karen people of the camp have been denied for years.
The Thai government, up to until recently, had decreed that nothing permanent could be built, forcing the refugee camp to continually build and rebuild with renewable but fragile materials like bamboo. No concrete, no strong wood, and no strong paths made of brick. But now people can be seen mixing gray concrete in vats of wood, slowly and surely erecting buildings by the roadside.
Passing by the high school, which is perched high on a hill both overlooking and part of the camp, you can hear children loudly reciting their lessons to their teachers, filling the road nearby with their cacophony. Their irregular and strong beat washes over you with a tingling force, because you know that learning is taking place. In a hidden corner between school buildings, a child squats and voids himself, looking downhill at the white mists flowing over the valley. Next to the high school is a Baptist church with a cross and white walls.
Twenty thousand refugees live in Umphium, all Karen people. The Karen are a minority ethnic group from Burma (now Myanmar) who have fled their country to escape the tyrannical rule of Myanmar’s military government. Forced labor and relocation, sexual violence, and widespread closing of schools are parts of the array of tactics being applied against the Karen people to suppress and control.
My thoughts filled with fevered questions and the beautiful, moist landscape around Umphium gave me no peace as we drove away later that afternoon, through the mountains. Nor did the radiant expression on a child when I took her picture, or the grimace of a father with his son in the battery recharging shop.
To come: the English Immersion Program and Teatime.