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Lee Capristo
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Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
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The Harsh Reality of Living in a Camp

Written by Rachel Spivack ’10, Religious Studies and Asian Studies major

Author Rachel Spivack with Happyman, 16, who fled his home country of Burma to go to the school in a refugee camp in Thailand, and local professor Jessica Loh

Running for Refuge: Why Burmese Are Fleeing their Country

The grey fog and rain exuded a sense of foreboding, like it does in the movies. Our university van slowly wound down a curvy road choked by dense jungle. When barbed wire began lining the curb, we knew we were approaching Mae La Refugee Camp-one of the largest of nine makeshift communities nestled along Thailand's side of the Thai-Burma border. The forest opened up suddenly, revealing a mountainside crammed with thousands of huts, filled with Burmese who had fled the poverty and violence of their nearby home country.




Burma mapMae La camp, which was established in 1984, is located just outside Mae Sot, Thailand. The Thai-Burma Border Consortium estimates that it has grown to about 37,300 registered residents, although it is possible that more periodically sneak in. It is run on donations and with the help of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Its structure includes a Christian school with dorms, a health clinic, a sports field, livestock, tiny houses, and "stores"-almost everything to make it a "temporary home." However, residents are prohibited from housing unregistered people and from leaving without permission.

While visiting Mae La's school, I befriended a 16-year-old boy appropriately nicknamed "Happyman." A few years ago, he had walked alone across the border because he wanted to attend school at the camp. He lives in the school's dorm because he has no family residing in the camp. He spoke with a resilient, determined, and grateful demeanor, despite his circumstances, which impressed and humbled me.

This trip to the camp was part of a class about Burma that I took during my year of studying abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand. As part of the class, we also visited a political activist prisoners' museum, a health clinic, the leader of an ethnic group opposed to the Burmese military, NGOs working to distribute bare necessities to internally displaced people inside Burma, and the Mae Sot (Thailand)-Myawaddy (Burma) Friendship Bridge, where we witnessed refugees attempting to illegally escape across the river to Thailand on inner tubes.

The military took control of Burma in a coup in 1962 and has ruled the country with a strictly authoritarian, xenophobic hand since then. The government has completely centralized power. Development within Burma (now officially called the Union of Myanmar) has stagnated and a substantial portion of the population is trapped in desperate poverty. Opposition groups who fight against the military government have formed, especially in regions near the border. Regions that the government designates "black areas" are free-fire zones where the military allows soldiers to clamp down on any behavior that strikes them as suspicious. Many civilians flee these war zones, where any semblance of daily routine is impossible. Forced labor, taxes, and community relocations also drive people from their homes, as government project coordinators order civilians to help with construction and/or confiscate the land where they live, usually with little to no compensation. Some people, like Happyman, are drawn to refugee camps in order to attend school.

campLife in the refugee camps is not preferable to a peaceful home, of course, but it offers access to food and aid. It also provides some semblance of protection from being caught in other parts of Thailand as an illegal immigrant.

As I wandered through the camp and learned their stories, my empathy for the Burmese and their inability to escape their situation grew. I realized this is a reality that people live with every day. I have studied complicated situations in several other countries in my classes and I try to keep up with the news. However, just because the media stops reporting about it does not mean that the problem has been fixed.

You don't choose a cause to be moved by, it speaks to you. Since I have returned to the United States, I continue to be moved by the plight of so many people so far away. I am completing my senior St. Mary's Project about the state of education in Burma with adviser Devorah Schoenfeld, assistant professor of religious studies. The education system lacks adequate facilities and up-to-date resources, the teaching of critical thinking and job-applicable skills, quality teacher training, and equal access to school entrance. Though education is compulsory through primary school, many students drop out for a variety of reasons: Some have to help their parents work for money or help with household chores, other families run away from violence and forced labor, or they are forced to relocate due to government projects.

I argue that reinforcing compulsory and quality schooling is the best way to reach an entire generation of children and influence the way it shapes the future. I believe that improving the country's education system can also improve economic conditions, encourage development, and revive connections with the rest of the world. Due to the military's strict isolationist policies, radio broadcasts and coveted foreign books are some of the only windows to the rest of the world that the Burmese people have.

For more information on what's happening in Burma, go to www.burmanet.org, www.dvb.no, www.hreib.com, and www.uscampaignforburma.org.