~ THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS ~
I would like to appeal the Thai government to understand and accommodate the requests of the Burmese refugees and persons of concern (POC) and treat them better with universal human rights, instead of pleasing the Rangoon government and forcing them in a Nazi way, in the camps along the border. According to the article by Khun Sam and Elissa Thet, the forced relocation of Burmese refugees come with inhuman ban on the use of mobile phones, internet and health, water, cross-cultural respect and sanitation conditions in the 9 border camps are poor as the Thai government may not be kind enough to the refugees.
Firstly, may I tell you that in the Burmese consciousness, Thailand has been considered the land of democratic freedom under the vision of a great King, His Majesty King Bhumibol. Burmese refugees came to be under the cool shadow of Thailand’s gentle monarch surely.
It is sad to hear that now Thailand, a champion of Southeast Asian human rights, plans to forcefully relocate the refugees against their will, due to Mr Taksin government’s business interests in Rangoon. Isn’t it an act of discrimination towards a fellow Southeast Asian sister nation? Often some ASEAN nations and China ignore to claim responsibility for the consequences of their business and diplomatic deals with Burma. Often I feel the best of Burma, like the unsung heroes of freedom in Ratchaburi, have long gone and the worse is yet to come for the Land of ancient Pagodas.
Since the doom of dictatorship in 1962, Burma’s governments had forced or intimidated its own people to the lowest socio-economic plight of the runaways. Some leaders who went into exile during the last 40 years included the late Prime Minister U Nu, Bo Let Yar, U Win and the Shan State Army leader the Mahadevi Sao Hearn Hkam (first First Lady of democratic Burma). The Mahadevi, a lady of Tai blood herself had to flee Burma with her three children through Mae Sot. I also know of a Ph.D. candidate in politics at the University of Wisconsin and a Lu Yay Chun (most outstanding) would-be doctor of medicine from Rangoon who fled through Thai-Burma jungles which belong to ethnic minorities and freedom fighters.
Thailand, endowed with Khun Pridi Banomyong’s constitutional monarchy, has always been a stepping stone for the Burmese searching for opportunity and freedom. I remembered the sense of liberty and sanook, uniquely Thai, I felt when I was lucky to see Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle in 1988. Our sister nations, only minutes apart by air, rivers, hills and the Andaman, are in fact free from human-made immigration borders and narrow-minded laws. Before Burma was Burma, Thailand was Thailand, these earthly rivers, hills and the sea belonged to the people ruled by their elders, sages and lords. These ethnic groups, no less than a hundred, include the Shans (Tais), the Kachins, the Nagas, the Mons, the Kokangs, the Was, the Muslims, the Karens, the Kayahs, the Chins, the Akkahs, the Lisus, the Lahus, the Padaungs, the Palauns, the Pa Os, and many more. Today, most of these communities have been displaced unfortunately due to the political and economic forces of the British colonialism, 26-year long dictatorship, the communists and the military’s forced relocations of rural people.
In his passionate book “Burma: The Next Killing Fields?” the writer Alan Clements described two atrocities in the Thai-Burma border region. The first was a fifteen year old boy, infested with Malaria, whose leg had been blown off by the Burmese soldiers while fleeing for Thailand. The boy died a day after Mr. Clements met him at the Manerplaw camp. The second was a Buddhist monk who was tortured by the troops. My own classmates Ko Ko Soe and Ohn Than Htay were lucky they did not become the likes of refugees and displaced people, expected to be in hundreds of thousands—my friends died instantly after being shot in 1988. Even the powerful Burmese who have had connections with the former Socialist Programme Party fled Burma and took refuge in New Zealand, Northern Europe and America, albeit they didn’t experience real danger and abuse as the political heroines and heroes of all ages did.
At heart the Burmese refugee problem is that Burma ws systematically plagued by the British and Japanese invasions, U Ne Win’s dictatorship and later its military. Its citizenry have thickened the skin facing the oppression and difficulties common to people of under-developed nations. The difficulties may have been less obvious to the middle-class, for they have been given moral and financial support by American, European and Asian democracy and human rights groups, universities and individual philanthropists like George Soros. However, since Burma entered the ASEAN, things have worsened for the poor as the wealth and the trade of ordinary folks were funneled into the big pockets of the ruling class and some corrupt traders. In the early 70s, the unofficial exchange rate was 1 kyat to 4 bahts. In the late 80s, the official rate traded 1 dollar to 25 bahts which was equal to 6 kyats. And now, Lo and behold, 44 bahts could buy you almost 750 kyats!
Singapore, Taiwan, Laos, Japan, France, Australia, Malaysia, China, the U.K., Thailand and some U.S. companies cooperated with the junta in raping the teak, fishing, gems, oil, gas, islands, cows, construction, the national airline and tourism market of the peoples’ Golden Land. I am convinced that the ASEAN’s “constructive engagement” policy has been destructive towards the refugees and the folks next door who are far from having access to humanitarian, social justice and economic gains. Meanwhile, the environmental abuse, deforestation, prostitution and AIDS continue to affect the realities of the Thai-Burma region. The policy did benefit the business-minded ASEAN nations constructively for Burma, shall we say, seemed a virgin with the blemished soul. China, the shop house selling arms to the Burmese government, signed major cooperation and sinicization pacts this year, as did Thailand engage in numerous business deals that both Thai and Burmese citizens know little of. But there is one light left in the garden of good and evil: the leadership of National League for Democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with the UN negotiator Mr. Tan Sri Razali, will eventually restore Burma as a land of refuge, freedom and opportunity.
When the last Mogul was displaced to Burma by the British, the Indian King wrote a forlorn poem on the walls of the confines that all he needed was six feet of freedom to die in and yet the British refused to grant him such liberty. King Thibaw of Burma passed away on a remote Indian shore compromising his wishes to the orders of the same government. Now the leaders of human rights in Ratchaburi asked the Thai government to allow them to stay for only one more year, and not to move them to border areas since they fear the Burmese army may attack them.
The Thai government can easily be humane enough to grant these logical requests. As there are only 130 people who were considered illegal immigrants. I would also like to appeal to the Royal Thai Immigration Department to grant legal immigrant status to these troubled few for they have all natural and human rights to enter the region which, I am sure, belonged to their ancestors. Romania, under the Cold War dictatorship and in poverty, kept its German and Jewish immigrants, legal or illegal. America, under the Bush Administration and in prosperity, plans to legalize thousands of illegal aliens from neighboring Mexico.
With the UNHCR’s expertise and funds from the ASEAN businesses and international Burmese community, a program could be set up to support jobs, education, Thai-culture immersion, and children-care issues so that illegal Karen, Mons and other Burmese refugees can provide a living wage for themselves and their families in freedom. I know of Mr. Sharan and my Thai friends who applied for the 8000 baht work permits that last 6 months for their illegal immigrant workers at the Thai Immigration Department this year.
The civic tradition of democratic nations has emphasized that we are all members of a common society. A developing and open society can use its resources and power in no better way than helping the most vulnerable of the communities, be they Burmese or Thai.
In 1999 at a merry gathering of northern Thais, I had the pleasure of meeting charismatic candidate Khun Taksin, now the Prime Minister of Thailand. This smilng star of the party chatted with all and when he learned that I was from Burma, he pointed out to the Kantok dishes to me and said, “The hin le curries from a Lanna home and a Mandalay home are so similar.” Perhaps the courtesy, or was it the humanizing truth one could sense in Khun Taksin’s insight that Thai and Burmese cultures, people and their lands have been inseparable.
We all want to be free and be loved, my uncle preached me once, I believe that this very love and this very issarra are what the displaced Burmese or any other Southeast Asian needs in his or her inner struggle to conquer modern evils of power and bureaucracy’s double standards. The Eastern values of compassion (Karuna) and loving-kindness (Metta) also remind us to treat all with goodwill and equality. On January 4, the Burmese government will celebrate the 54th anniversary of independence from England. I am sure Thailand wishes freedom for all Burmese. Had they wished the Burmese refugees well, Thai authorities would be blessed with the good Karma in their lives as well: isn’t Karma a boomerang?
Long before Thailand was Thailand, and Burma was Burma, a northern Thai woman came to live and start a family on the west side of the Shan Hills and the Salween River. This lady’s name was Chao Phwar San and she was the grandmother of my great-grandfather. As I write these words, I could hear the singing of the caged birds on the busy street nearby. It is an act of calling, of protest probably, but also in a way, of appeal to the Thais that her blood in me runs freely and boils to the kindness of Thailand, the ghosts of the suffering and the dead, many voices of the Burmese refugees and apparitions of power-greed and money politics.
The Bard Kyaw