Marking Time in Thailand

The tent homes occupied by Burmese refugees stand side by side at the Tham Hin refugee camp in Ratchaburi province in southwestern Thailand in April 2005.
The tent homes occupied by Burmese refugees stand side by side at the Tham Hin refugee camp in Ratchaburi province in southwestern Thailand in April 2005. (By Apichart Weerawong -- Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

MAE LA CAMP, Thailand -- The wooden shacks of Mae La Camp have multiplied ceaselessly over the years, rising in a lush green forest only a few miles from the border with Burma. Over time, they have spread across several hilltops, spanned a little stream and become long-term shelter for 40,000 Burmese refugees.

The latest spasm of turmoil across the border, concentrated in Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma's two major cities, has drawn broad attention and urgent demands from President Bush and other world leaders for political reform by Burma's long-ruling military junta. But conflict -- ethnic as well as political -- has riven Burma for years, sending a steady stream of refugees into Thailand and creating a huge and potentially destabilizing foreign population all along the border.

Kraisak Choonhavan, a Thai senator until last year's military coup d'etat, said Thais cringe when they hear Western leaders say Burma's repressive military government previously had not generated high-level attention because it did not create a security problem beyond its borders. Viewed from Thailand, he said, Burma's junta, in power for more than 40 years, and the recurring explosions of violence it has engendered are clearly risks because of the number of people fleeing here for safety.

"For us, it is indeed a security problem," he said.

Thai government officials estimate that 3 million Burmese have taken up residence in Thailand over the years. Some have been confined to camps such as Mae La, the largest of several refugee communities closely guarded by Thai soldiers. Others have moved farther from the border, seeking employment and, to some degree, melting into the Thai population. The actual number could be higher, officials said, because many of the Burmese fleeing conflict, repression and poverty have not registered with the government and nongovernmental agencies that provide care.

In the border region around Mae Sot, a market city 30 miles south of here, the Burmese population has grown into the majority, estimated at up to 70 percent. "When you walk around Mae Sot, sometimes you can't even hear anybody speaking Thai," said an Australian relief worker.

The entry of so many desperate Burmese refugees into the labor market has created downward pressure on wage levels, causing resentment among Thai workers. Kraisak said some Thai industries that need cheap labor have come to rely on the Burmese, some of whom accept particularly low wages because they are below the radar of Thai immigration authorities.

Soldiers have allowed Burmese refugees to leave Mae La freely in recent days, for instance, because it is harvest season in the border region and Thai farmers need extra hands for low-paying fruit-picking jobs, said Lawla Say, a Burmese refugee and medical worker.

Thai authorities, although far from happy about the influx, have allowed the Burmese to remain on humanitarian grounds. But increasingly good relations between Burma and the Thai government, which is also run by a military junta, have meant controls on Thai-based anti-government activity. Refugees and relief workers said dozens of Burmese were deported across the border Sunday after demonstrations backing the uprising in Rangoon.

Refugees are picked off buses regularly and transported back across the border because they lack requisite registration cards, relief workers said. But often they return the next day. Crossing the border has never been hard. Burmese were seen Monday paddling unmolested across the muddy Moei River from Myawadi, just inside Burma, atop truck inner tubes topped with canvas to make a dry seat. Others entered legally across Friendship Bridge leading directly into downtown Mae Sot.

As the Burmese military clamps down inside the country, with more than 15,000 troops said to be stationed in and around Rangoon and up to 2,000 monks and other activists arrested, Thai authorities have begun bracing for another flow across the border. Unless there is a political resolution, relief workers here said, it is only a matter of time before the monks and secular political agitators who are hiding make their way to the border.

Khin Ohmar, who was a student demonstrator in Rangoon during a similar uprising in 1988, said it took her and fellow protesters two months to sneak across Burma and into the safety of Thailand. Now 39 and a Mae Sot-based anti-government activist, Ohmar said she sees on the televised faces of protesters in Rangoon the same frustration and anger that she and the other students felt in 1988.

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