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3 Eckerd students and the Director of Service-Learning spent 3 1/2 weeks in Thailand on a service-learning research project with Burmese/Karen refugees on the Thai/Myanmar border in June of 2003. The work was funded by a grant given to Eckerd College by the Freeman Foundation for research in Asia.
Once a colony of Great Britan, Burma enjoyed a diverse culture composed of 8 ethnic groups, world trade, and a growing economy. Burma's independence in 1948 was followed by a military coup in 1962. Since that time, Myanmar's economy has struggled and the country is now considered one of the 10 poorest in the world.
The military government in Rangoon has ruled its people in what many have called an Orwellian 1984 state. Myanmar's citizens are not free to leave the country or even travel freely within. The government has supported forced labor (slavery), state-sanctioned rapes of women, heavy taxation, and torture. The press is not free and citizens are unable to discuss dissatisfaction with the government at any time.
The most prominent spokesperson regarding the situation in Burma is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Currently, Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest.
Students met Americans traveling in Myanmar who, on occasion, would be able to converse with a Burmese person about the government but only in very private settings such as a taxicab. Students met another American who spoke with a Burmese refugee who was raped by a Burmese soldier while another soldier threw her newborn baby into a nearby fireplace. The group met a Karen refugee in the camp who showed them the bullet wounds on his leg and he explained that he was shot simply because he is Karen. The students met refugees who are missing limbs because they stepped on land mines while in their fields. The group met an American who said that he ran into a forced labor group while on a bus in the middle of the night in a place where few Westerners ever go. Students stories from refugees who had their houses burned down by the military simply because they were of a particular ethnicity.
The camp the team visited is composed on Karen refugees. The Karen are one of 8 ethnic groups that have lived in the Thai/Myanmar part of the world for centuries. Most are farmers and want nothing more than to till the land in peace. The military government has sought to control the Karen, however, and has persecuted them since taking power. Karen villages are often burned and Karen men are often shot on sight. The government in Rangoon has also made attempts to divide the Karen by religion or via ethnic struggles.
The camp where the students worked was built in 1995. On one occasion, Myanmar soldiers crossed the border into Thailand and burned a portion of the refugee camp. Most of the refugees are trapped in the camp. They cannot return to Myanmar for fear of their lives. They hope for either a democratic government that will allow them to return or, as some hope, an independent Karen state. They cannot move into Thailand to Chiang Mai or Bangkok because the Thai government doesn't officially recognize these refugees. Thailand, while possessing a relatively strong economy, is struggling to develop and seeks good business relations with the Myanmar government. They do not want to stir the waters too much by making demands regarding refugees or even by being willing to allow them into the country. To their credit, the Thai government does give them the land for the camps and does protect them with their military (while also containing them in the camps however). Additionally, Thailand has borne the brunt of refugees from almost all of its neighbors. So the Karen are waiting there in the jungle valley, a lost people stuck between two countries.
The refugee camp is remarkably poor. Most food (rice, beans, and little else) and charcoal are donated by NGOs. Vegetables collected in the jungle provide the rest. There is little opportunity economically for the people there. There is no running water or electricity and folks bathe and get their water from the nearby stream. The people are in desperate need of a dentist and have limited access to medics.
My students spent several days there in service to the camp by teaching English in the high school. Most classrooms contain around 40-50 children in an open-air school with the sounds of the stream, chickens, and other classrooms floating in. The teacher has an out-of-date textbook and a single chalkboard to work with. Most pupils do not have texts of their own. The work the students did there was meaningful and gratifying to the participants.
The Director of Service-Learning returned to the refugee camps with 5 students in 2004. The group also made a visit to Yangon, Myanmar to interview scholars and NGOs involved in refugee issues.