Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Thailand: Border mission

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996

A mission to the Thai-Burmese border with UNHCR Protection Officer Ruven Menikdiwela makes for a very long but interesting day.

By Ruven Menikdiwela
UNHCR Protection Officer Bangkok, Thailand

My day begins early when I'm on mission to the Thai-Myanmar border. Normally, I have meetings lined up with the local military for 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning, since they start their day at the crack of dawn and can be found at their base only in the early hours. I am generally accompanied by a Thai colleague, Songsit, and a UNHCR driver, Wattana.

About 83,000 people from ethnic minority groups in Myanmar, mostly Karens (77,000) and Karennis (6,000) are sheltered in a string of camps along the Thai/Myanmar border. Some of them have fled separatist conflicts against the Myanmar central government. The Thai authorities have been reluctant to permit UNHCR to station an officer permanently at the border. UNHCR thus monitors the situation through a roving protection officer me. The refugees are primarily assisted by a group of non-governmental organizations known as the Burma Border Consortium.

On this particular mission, we are visiting the Karen camps in Mae Sariang district of Mae Hong Son province. Local military units are responsible for surveillance of the border and the security of the refugee settlements there. These are essential issues, since there have been 44 armed attacks (launched from across the border) against the camps in the first five months of 1996. The military officials outline the security arrangements in the various camps within their jurisdiction with the aid of detailed maps. Our next appointment is with local civilian authorities who administer the district and who are also responsible for administration of the camps there. They provide us with information regarding administrative measures taken in the camps, such as efforts to register the camp populations.

When we leave this meeting, it is already late morning. We find a truck full of soldiers who are there to escort us to the camps. This military escort has been a regular feature of our missions during the last 12 months. The Thai government insists on this because of frequent rebel attacks from across the border that have resulted in several casualties. The officer in charge of the group accompanies us in our Land Cruiser, leaving the truck to follow.

The journey to the camps that we will be visiting takes about three hours, most of it jolting along a dirt road up a mountain, leading deep into remote border territory. Our driver, Wattana, lives for these border missions, which provide a welcome relief from the stress and boredom of driving in Bangkok. I, on the other hand, clutch the door handle grimly and wonder for the umpteenth time why I did not pick a more sedentary occupation. However, we are lucky since this is the dry season and access to the camps, although difficult, is still possible. This will not be the case during the monsoon season. We are also fortunate in that we see some of the most spectacular scenery in Thailand during these journeys to the camps. The scenery makes it worth being occasionally stuck in the mud, stranded in the middle of a river, or almost plunging off the side of a mountain.

The camps are generally divided into sections, each with its own leader. Touring the camps can mean clambering up slopes and wading through streams. We are generally met on all sides by shy, but beaming smiles. This, and the serenity on the faces of the women (almost unbelievable considering the trials they have undergone) are what strikes one most.

When we arrive at the camp, a sprawling collection of bamboo huts, we drive straight to the camp leader's house. Other refugee leaders are also present. We discuss conditions in the camp, the security of the refugees and developments in Myanmar. The soldiers remain discreetly in the background during this meeting. We also try to get to the bottom of any rumours flying around the camps in regard to possible rebel incursions in the area. Generally, such rumours are difficult to verify, but we warn the Thai security forces in the camp, just in case.

We then meet with the international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who provide food, medical care and sanitation in the camps. We are given a briefing on the general camp situation and informed that stockpiling of all material supplies in preparation for the monsoon season has already begun.

Thereafter, we tour the camp clinics, hospitals and schools. We talk to the health workers and teachers, who are all refugees trained by the NGOs to provide these services, and to their patients and students. Time permitting, we roam the camp, talking with residents. One of the refugee leaders acts as our guide and interpreter.

However, priority is given to meeting with new arrivals, who are the surest source of information about current developments in the border areas of Myanmar. Such information can be vital in shaping our positions in regard to each of the minority groups and in assisting UNHCR's determination of refugee claims of Myanmar asylum-seekers in Bangkok.

When we leave the camp it is already past midday, but we still have other camps to visit. Lunch generally consists of a standard diet of sticky rice and fried chicken, consumed in the Land Cruiser while driving from one camp to another, with a wonderful disregard for hygiene and digestion. We arrive at the second camp after an hour's drive. We follow the same routine there as in the previous camp. Depending on the time and distance between camps, we also try to visit a third camp before nightfall. Our military escort gets visibly nervous towards dusk, and makes frequent references to the time. He heaves an audible sigh of relief when we are finally on the road towards the town, but only relaxes when he sees the lights twinkling at us in the darkness. Before we part, we make arrangements with him for visiting other camps in the district the next day. It will be a replay of today, in the wild and rugged hills of the border area.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)