Mae Sot, Thailand – With his crutches resting against the clinic bed, Than Tin rolls up his trouser leg, gingerly pointing to a heavily bandaged leg stump. “All I remember was being blasted up in the air”, recalls the 48 year old father of 5, hoisting both arms to suggest the impact of the landmine. “First was no pain, but half my leg was gone, but then it was like so bad burning.”
He was logging in the forests around Myawaddy, a trading town on Burmese side of the border with Thailand and close to one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. Unknown numbers of landmines litter the hilly jungle terrain, on and off the beaten tracks close to where Government soldiers fight ethnic minority rebel militias and beleaguered civilians hide out in their tens of thousands, or make the hard trek to a precarious refuge in Thailand.
According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), Burma’s Government is the only one that continues to lay antipersonnel mines, mostly in
regions populated by ethnic minorities, the larger of which have their own militias and political parties and have become accustomed to de facto local autonomy even as the Government holds out against their calls for the creation of a federal state. Some rebel groups also plant mines, though they say they restrict use to roads near army bases, and inform villagers of the location of the devices.
A landmine took half of Saw Maw Kel’s left leg in 1986 while he was fighting in the jungle. He learned the prosthetics trade from medics and NGOs during his own recuperation. These days his department employs 6 people, turning out around 200 replacement legs a year, mostly for landmine victims from inside Burma.
“Not just refugees come here”, he says, referring to the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot, “but ordinary Burmese who cannot pay for treatment at home”. Burma’s people remain among the poorest in Asia, with per capita of US$469 according to 2010 US State Dept figures. Despite growing foreign investment, over US$20billion in 2010 alone according to the Burmese Government, and a sanctions-busting multibillion dollar oil, gas and gemstone revenue windfall, health spending for 2011 will be just 1.3% of the national budget, against 25% to be spent on the military.
Burma has been run by the army since 1962 and some of the brutal excesses of that rule have earned international condemnation and economic sanctions from the West. Attempting an image makeover, the army held elections on November 7 2010. These resulted in the army and its political party affiliates taking 89% of parliamentary seats and 26 out of 30 ministries in the new Government. The new President, Thein Sein, is an ex-army general, and was Prime Minister under the pre-election military dictatorship.
Burma is home to 135 ethnic groups, with the dominant Burman majority making up an estimated 60%+ of the population. One of the minorities are the Karen, a mix of animists, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims, some of whom have fought the central Burmese Government, and sometimes each other, for much of the time since independence from Great Britain in 1947. Karen state lies just across the border from Mae Sot.
Zipporah Sein is the head of the political wing of the main Karen group, the Karen National Union (KNU). In an interview at her office, the day
after the Burmese authorities blamed the KNU for a train bombing in central Burma, she dismissed the allegation, saying that “the Burmese regime always blames the KNU when something like this happens, but we do not get involved in such activity”
Her presence along the border no doubt irks the Burmese authorities. A few miles down the road, the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border crossing remains closed on the Burmese side. Thai traders say that they are losing out and a number of Thai officials have made ominous-sounding statements in recent months about sending the refugees back, referring directly to Burmese Government perceptions that Mae Sot is a haven for opposition groups.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva said that repatriation would not happen unless it was safe for the refugees to go back, but nonetheless some are keeping a low profile in their temporary abode, wary of on-off tensions surrounding their presence. “New arrivals are sometimes hiding in Thai villages”, said Poe Shan of the Karen Human Rights Group.
New arrivals have crossed the border almost every day since the the November 2010 elections, and ongoing fighting in Burma’s ethnic regions suggests that calls for the refugees to go back are premature. “The Burmese army has a shoot-on-sight policy in some places, and that includes civilians as well as rebels” said Mahn Mahn, head of the Backpack Health Workers Team, a group of mobile medics operating clandestinely in Burma’s ethnic minority regions. “There is no protection for many people inside, how can they go back?” he asked.
At Mae La, the biggest of the nine refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma frontier, and a 45 minute drive north of Mae Sot, around 45,000 people live in closely-packed timber huts on stilts, their brown roofs dovetailing with leafy green foliage and low clouds on the rain-soaked cliff-tops behind.
Undeterred by the Saturday afternoon downpour, two groups of men play takraw, a sort-of soccer-volleyball hybrid, at the camp’s edge. “If you go inside the camp, it might mean trouble for us”, says Aung Aung, a pseudonym for one of the players, who asked his real name not be used.
Since 2005, around 70000 Burmese refugees have been resettled, including 50000 to the United States, sparking a whispering campaign that some of those entering the camps are economic migrants seeking a ticket to a new life in the West.
Brushing off this suggestion, Aung Aung says “I don’t know about everyone in the camps”. He adds “for me, I do not want to go the West at all, even though my grandmother is already in Indiana. He says his family were involved in opposition politics in Burma, and worked with the National League for Democracy, the officially-proscribed party headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner who was released from house arrest by the Burmese authorities in November 2010. “I am from Rangoon”, he says, adding that “what I really want is to go back there, if ever there is a real democracy”.Show