..: Seat of My Pants :..

Monday, March 06, 2006

Shok La Camp - Thailand 1996

It was the eighth day of photographing in the camps, and the third camp visited. Thailand is host to several Karen refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. While Burma is referred to as Myanmar by itself and, diplomatically, the world at large, it is still spoken of by its long-standing name of Burma. These camps number between seven and five, depending on who you speak to, and contain anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 people.

The Karen (Kah-wren) indigenous peoples of that region of Southeast Asia are widespread geographically. They can be found not only in Thailand and Burma, but also Laos and China. They are a diverse people, having experienced nomadism, pastoralism, and even modernism within recently memory. But they are a particular thorn in the side of the Burmese junta (Hoon-tah). There are other indigenous groups besides the Karen in that region: the Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and others. However, these groups can largely be said to comprise their numbers more or less within the national boundaries of the mentioned nations. This, from the Burmese Junta’s point of view, makes them far easier to manage than the Karen, for example. The groups can be encircled, intimidated, pressured, threatened more easily than a trans-national group like the Karen. As intimidating as the Junta is, they still find it difficult to cross international boundaries and enforce their brand of hatred and suppression. This is a very good thing.

So what’s a poor Junta to do with a trans-national group that is fiercely independent and funded from without its borders? They took a page from what is arguably one of the older militaristic systems in history – the Romans. When an opponent seems insurmountable the cleverest strategy is to cause it to collapse from within – divide and conquer. First, locate some vocal Karen dissidents from within their ranks. Second, fund their weapons needs and fan their flames for perceived injustices, and third, promise riches and rewards for forward action. This strategy produced the following oxymoron: The Karen Democratic Buddhist Army (DKBA). Really. They have become the thorn in the Thai camps’ side much as the camps are to Burma. It is this Army that regularly insurges Thai national territory, and invades the refugee camps, sometimes razing them to the ground (the camp of Mae La, which I photographed at first in my time there, was burned to the ground two weeks after I left, sending 6,000men women and children into the jungle overnight).

But it gets more interesting. Due to the unstable and unpredictable nature of the Army and its attacks, the westerners working therein have had to create bomb shelters to protect their numbers and as many of the refugees as they can from rocket attacks, resorting to them every couple of weeks or so from threat of attack. However, it has happened that on occasion, DKBA soldiers have strolled into the camps from the jungle and simply begun asking refugees for the names of the westerners working in the camps. The terrified refugees when confronted with arms-carrying zealots, often comply and those westerners are obliged to remove themselves to other camps our out of that theatre altogether. The Army’s purpose? Capture of the medics (mainly), for servicing of their own sick and wounded.

However, there is a sinister collusion at work here atop this human drama. I photographed in three camps for two weeks in late 1996. Each day, I accompanied doctors and nurses from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) in their white Toyota trucks, bouncing and bumping along the country roads into the camps. On every occasion we were obliged to pass through not one but several Thai army checkpoints to each camp. This indicated a fair Thai military presence in what was, after all, a fairly sensitive border with a testy, fundamental communist neighbour. How could it be, then, that refugee camps containing thousands of people get burned to the ground and DKBA insurgents have the capacity, not to mention audacity, of walking onto foreign soil and questioning foreign citizens on repeated occasions? The answer is fairly simple, actually. The Thai government lets them. The camps have been in operation for decades, with little resolution in sight between the Burmese Junta’s denials of human rights and the Thai government’s requests for closure. The camps are strung along the backbone ridge of the two nation’s borders and in later years have come to represent a fair value in shrinking real estate in a nation of 50 million that physically would loosely fit into Alberta, Canada (whose population is approximately 2.9 million). Land is valuable, and no less so in a country yearning for the life of a developed nation. What’s a poor Thai nation to do with all those refugee hangers on? Well, the easier path is to allow the DKBA to make some in-roads and help solve the problem their neighbour created in the first place.

On that eighth day of photographing (I hesitate here to say ‘shooting’), we were traveling to a somewhat more remote camp right on the Burmese border – Shok La (Shoak-Lah). The doctor I was travelling with had been in-country for just 4 days or so and this was our first visit to this camp. It maintained the largest collection of cholera-infected persons defined in Thailand and comprised a camp all its own as a result. The road was choppy to a degree hard to imagine. At times, the truck was literally side-ways and very nearly toppled to left or right. I saw the red-earthed road ahead of us, twisting through the jungle slant this way and that as I bumped my head alternately on my seatmates, the ceiling and the window I sat beside. I cradled my gear in my lap and tried not to get sea-sick.

The camp was red throughout - from the earth in the area. Red dust had been flung up on most surfaces by the region’s heavy rains through the monsoon seasons, and even the air had a warm and cozy red feeling to it. The people were quiet and shy, unlike other camps we had visited, and there seemed to be an air of resignedness, even sadness pervading the village. Many refugees were Burmese nationals and maintained the Burmese dress; women in sari-like garments, and men in long cloth wraps around their waists (the Lunge – ‘Loon-gee’). I sat beside some men preparing long poles for timbers in building. They worked with machetes, stripping bark off the poles and nicking out notches here and there which I supposed were for future lines to be knotted – nails being in short supply that far in the jungle. Structures were often built with materials to-hand, and this included making their own fibre ropes from available materials to use as binders between structural elements in buildings. The men didn’t acknowledge my presence, just twisted away at the ropes and hacked with their machetes methodically. They were festooned with tattoos around their legs and up their backs. I was fascinated, and mainly could make out dragons and spirits writhing in static poses.

We were led to a small grass-thatched hut off the main village path to our right. Inside, a beleaguered-looking indigenous nurse had two patients with her; an older man wheezing and coughing every few seconds, and a small child looking quiet and uncertain. MSF routinely trains local, indigenous staff for many hospital and out-clinic duties in efforts to guide peoples toward self-sustainability in their environment. The nurse gently thumped the old man on the back and listened attentively to his chest via stethoscope. Perhaps she seemed beleaguered because of the mountainous task of caring for a village consisting of mainly of people hopelessly infected with what is largely a terminal disease. I never found out. The American doctor I was with melted before the small child and sunk to her knees in the earthen hut before the little girl. The urchin sat upon a table of bamboo slats and regarded her evenly. The American reached out and placed her hand on the child’s knee and patted and then stroked it comfortingly. Exactly what she should have done. No words. The girl smiled shyly and looked up to the nurse who smiled back reassuringly. The American conversed with the nurse, while keeping her attention on the girl, speaking with her about the girl’s recent history and prognosis. I heard later that the American doctor became known in the camps as Dr. Mary Wash-Your-Hands because of her repeated admonitions to do this to all who came her way. I was enormously impressed with her caring and sense of humanity for the human beings around her. The girl was given some prescription and passed over to her family waiting patiently outside.

The more northern of the camps struggle against the most virulent form(s) of malaria in the world. All available drugs in the western world have failed or are failing. The MSF teams had resorted to the American Army’s anti-malarial treatments, then still in narrow use as probationary drugs. This was 10 years ago. What on earth could they be using now? Shok La, with its cholera contingent, was working more on containment-theory and palliative care for deeply affected people.


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