Adulthood and the Burmese Border
It's official, I'm an adult now, I've turned that age where a quarter life crisis is accepted, if not expected. I had anticipated passing my 25th birthday in Thailand to be a sad affair, one that involved me alone on a beach somewhere learning to like whisky, writing a pretentiously premature memoir. Instead I found that, somewhat to my surprise, there is no crisis afoot (and no new found camaraderie with jack daniels either). I began my celebrations Thai style complete with live pop, awful dancing, and even a painful rendition of happy birthday from the wanna-be alterna rockers who entertained us for the evening. It was followed by a day of rest and relaxation on my actually birthday and then three challenging days visiting a refugee camps, an IDP (internally displaced persons) area, and crossing into Karen State in Burma. At the end of it all, I slept and slept and slept, and woke up feeling that in fact, I am exactly where I want to be at 25.
The day after my birthday I rose early to ride out to my school where I was met by a moto on the way to the refugee camp. Though I've been working with refugees for a few years now, I had little idea what to expect. Camps vary drastically from place to place and it's impossible to put the stories I've heard into any kind of visual expectation. I was a little nervous to be honest, and not just because I was entering illegally, but because there are so many people I've come to admire and care for that have spent years in this very camp, and I wasn't quite sure I wanted a visual image to go with their stories. I comforted myself with the knowledge that the Thai camps are some of the best equipped in the world and it would likely be far less a shock than I could have imagined. Which was true.
I spent the day walking around and visiting people in their homes to learn about their experiences. They told me about their struggles, and their lives in the camps, and their thoughts on the future. What struck me though was not the trauma of their histories or the destitution of their lives, or the lack of basic sanitation or food that plagues the 50,000 residents with constant sickness and disease -- these things were all expected. I guess in the wake of such a huge resettlement announcement(the US has agreed to accept 45,000 refugees from Mae La camp over four years, anyone who has never been a combatant can apply), I was most surprised by the utter lack of hope. No one I met with had registered for resettlement yet, though most saw it as an unavoidable conclusion. For many people, resettlement is the final dissolution of hope rather than a sparkling opportunity for the promised land. Emotions seem very mixed. Everyone agrees that for the children, this is the decision they will eventually make. But at the same time, the Karen have been fighting their struggle for freedom against the Burmese military regime for more than fifty years and it seems that only more recently has it begun to seem an unwinnable battle. No one I spoke with thought that the liberation movement would succeed, yet no one seemed ready to walk away from the struggle. For most, it is all they have ever known.
After leaving the camp we drove an hour and a half further north into the dusk to visit an IDP area. My driver/interpreter/guide felt that it was something I needed to see before I left Thailand and to be honest, I wasn't sure why. At this point it was getting cold and dark and I was drowsy from exhaustion and homemade rice wine. When we arrived and hopped in a little motor boat to take us over the river that divides Thailand from Burma and crawled up the steep hill to the quasi village where internally displaced people from Karen State live, it wasn't what I was prepared for. It had all of the same problems as the camp but none of the resources. Like in the refugee camp, the aspects of every day life, of routine, all exist. But it redefines what a "home" is (what is a home without protection?) or a "school" or a "hospital". The names are the same, but their form is hardly recognizable. I thought (naively I know) that somehow it might be happier on the other side where they at least weren't confined by barbed wire and constantly harassed by the Thai police. It wasn't. Like the camp, the IDP areas are without freedom, without opportunity, without growth. The atmosphere is stagnant in the most profound sense of the word. We left quickly in order to get back over the border before night set in and it might become more dangerous to cross. We rode three hours home in frozen silence.
The following two days were significantly more uplifting as I cross the border once again, in the back of a Karen National Liberation Army protected pickup truck to celebrate Karen New Year with my students at the 101st battalion headquarters. Though little more than an hour from Thailand, there is admittedly something different about being in Karen State. Maybe it was the elation of my students at returning, though briefly, to their homeland. Or the excitement in the air from the celebration. Or all the soldiers with large guns around making my pulse race. But it felt good to be on Karen soil. The festival itself was nothing spectacular and the newly set in winter weather made it uncomfortable (that and the frozen wooden boards I slept on and the fish bone filled gruel we ate from buckets on the floor), but being there was, well, just special. The KNLA are national heroes and it was fun to see my students dress up in the soldiers' fatigues and pose for photos with guns and generally be star struck. It was interesting to compare those who have come over to Thailand with villagers from deeper in Burma. My students somehow looked infinitely wealthier and more hip (though, I assure you, they are neither) in comparison. It made me proud to see all the female soldiers marching in unison with their hair in beautiful braids and their mouths fixed in uneasy sternness. It was just good to be there, and see how happy everyone was, protected for the few days by heavy artillery and the air of celebration.
Dancers waiting their turn:
I rode home wearily when it was over thinking about it all. Thinking about my students and how dedicated they are, how good they are, how much they want to help. Thinking about how likely it really is that things will change for the Karen people, how difficult it must be to be as hopeful as my students are. Thinking about the refugees in the camps struggling to make a decision on resettlement and the villagers in Karen state without the opportunity to make the decision. Thinking about how impossible it is to imagine what it means to give up your home. To give up your culture and your family and the struggle that has defined your existence. I can not begin to fathom the vacancy.
In the end it made me proud of where I've come and excited about where I'm going and what I will continue to learn. I had left my resettlement job in America to take this trip feeling as if I wasn't doing enough. I felt in a way as though my work were not as meaningful as I would want it to be. I guess I expected that what I would learn in my travels is that this was true, I hoped to be inspired and educated and forced in a way by my experiences to do more than I have been. Coming here to the Thai border though made me see not just how difficult life is for people struggling to survive, but how difficult it is to leave that life behind. Anything that makes that transition easier once the decision is made is meaningful work (and all you LFS staff at home in the trenches of it right now, your work and dedication continue to inspire me, even across the vast expanse that separates us).
p.s. Dear readers who miss the days of funny sarcastic blogging, fear not, it will return one day soon. You have to allow a few long dramatic imagined epiphanies once and a while.