Editor's note: On Sunday, Burma, which is officially recognized as Myanmar, will hold its first general election in two decades. But with the main opposition party boycotting the vote, few political observers and human rights advocates believe the process will affect any change in the country. In this special report, GlobalPost goes inside Burma and the refugee camps along the Thai border to give voice to civilians who are often silenced under a repressive regime.
MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thai-Burma border — For the 45,000 inhabitants squeezed into this refugee camp, the enemy was once perfectly clear.
It was Burma’s army, which gang-raped their women and forced their men into slavery. It was land mines, hidden in the jungle muck, that threatened to liquify their limbs as they fled eastward. It was malaria and fatigue, ready to shut down their bodies before they slipped across the river border into Thailand’s U.N.-monitored camps.
But inside Mae La, Southeast Asia’s largest refugee camp, new enemies await. Boredom. Complacency. The desire to keep fleeing eastward, all the way to America, where the spirit of resistance will be bred out in just one generation.
“The army always wins. We always lose,” said Hpoo Hpoo, 21, a female refugee with porcelain cheeks and dark, liquid eyes. “They killed my father already. I don’t want to go back so they can kill me too.”
With the military junta in Burma, officially recognized as Myanmar, readying Nov. 7 elections, widely seen as a guise to entrench ruling generals’ power, the U.S.-backed pro-democracy resistance is limping along.
Though plainly rigged, elections will lend a tinge of legitimacy to Burma’s military rulers, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). This will smooth the way for more investment from China, India, Thailand and various regional powers. It may also invite more Western aid, fortifying the rulers’ position of power over the ethnic guerrilla armies.
Worse yet, it may kickstart plans to evict the 150,000 refugees living in nine camps along the border. Thailand has been hosting exiles since the mid-1980s, but its foreign minister now suggests a post-election plan to return the “people in the camps, the displaced persons, the intellectuals that run around the streets” of Thailand.
Even with Thai assurances that refugees will be returned only if elections ease the conflict, there is creeping dread within the resistance. With guerrilla fighters eking by on scraps, and a generation of refugees who’ve never seen their homeland, how much longer can Burma’s ethnic tribes continue their fight?
“You can’t send these people back over the border. To do what, just sit on the riverbank?” said Tim Heinemann, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and Burma specialist.
“Many in the camp, the ones born there, have never had to survive in the woods before,” he said. “They’d die like flies.”
There is little to do in Mae La refugee camp but gossip, lay about and await the next meal.
Boys aimlessly wander the camp’s rutted trails, wet mud sucking at their flip-flops. Men crowd around TV sets broadcasting Premier League soccer matches. A peek inside one refugee’s home reveals a makeshift salon, where teenage girls have pasted over walls with J. Lo and Avril Lavigne posters.
The industrious study English and prepare requests for asylum. Most appeal to the United States, which has shouldered the majority of the 50,000-plus resettlement cases. Children who’ve never left the camp’s barbed-wire perimeter speak glowingly of a new life, perhaps in a place like Indiana, the state’s exotic syllables exciting their tongues.
Just a few kilometers to the west lies the Thai-Burma river border. Few who’ve crawled out of that impenetrable thicket of vines and gnats and disease wish to return — and for good reason. Though it lacks the profile of Tibet or Darfur, Burma has borne conflict since the late 1940s, shortly after the destabilizing departure of colonial-era Britain.
The ruling junta’s half-a-million man army has long suppressed the country’s patchwork of ethnic tribes, who defend their ancient territory with guerrilla armies. With ethnic minorities accounting for 40 percent of the 55 million population, much of the country has seen conflict.
Most inside Mae La camp are Karen, a largely Christian tribe aided by American ministries. Though little-known in the West, their conflict with the Burma’s military is the world’s longest-running war.
Even after other militias conceded to uneasy ceasefires, the Karen have continued to fight. The army is held back from crushing them once and for all by the tribe’s guerrilla army, the Karen National Liberation Army.
“The Karen kill the Burmese army at a 100-to-1 kill ratio. They may be the best jungle fighters in the world,” said Heinemann, who helped plan the U.S. invasion of Iraq before his retirement.
Heinemann thinks little of the largely conscripted Burmese military. “They’re bullies. They can roll up with mass artillery and burn down villages, but that’s it. You could take an American infantry company and kick the snot out of them all the way back to (the capital) Rangoon,” he said.
The junta’s U.N.-documented atrocities tick off almost every war crime imaginable: forced labor, sanctioned gang rape, child conscripts and more. Families of Karen farmers who are ripped in half by land mines can expect an officer to demand cash compensation for destroying military property.
Still, Heinemann insists the junta’s army can “roll through eastern Burma forever ... but they’ll never beat the ethnic groups out in the field.”
This natural grit and fighting spirit, however, is hard to detect in refugees. First established in the mid-1980s, the camps are now populated with the original escapees, their children and even their grandchildren. Many have never stepped outside the perimeter. “The camps weaken the bloodline,” Heinemann said. “They basically lose their basic instincts of self-protection.”
Mindful of camp complacency, Karen leaders instruct all refugees in the Karen National Union’s resistance oath. It begins with “For us, surrender is out of the question” and leads to a vow to “retain our arms.”
This oath is posted outside a schoolhouse attended by Saw Royal ZuZuu, a 23-year-old refugee at Mae La camp. But ZuZuu is weary of struggle. He barely escaped troops rounding up boys for forced labor on supply lines. And he recoils at the thought of joining his tribe’s guerrilla army.
“Oh, no! I am a student!” he said. “I will never, never become soldier.”
Gathered around a table inside their schoolhouse, ZuZuu’s classmates relate their own tales of escape. Each account is darker than the next.
“They said my father used drugs, which was not true, and put him in jail,” said Hpoo Hpoo, a classmate who arrived two years ago. “They killed my father in jail. My mother was so weak and sad and she didn’t eat. A month later, she died too.”
Her friend, 19-year-old Naw Nee Tha Blay, casually recited her own path to orphanhood. “The SPDC came and made my father and mother dig a river. With their hands.”
That was four years ago. Encouraged by her family, Tha Blay slipped on her rubber sandals and started walking. She reached camp 30 days and 300 kilometers later.
“I hate SPDC,” she said, provoking her classmates to nod in agreement. But instead of stoking revolutionary fires, their hardships seem to have numbed their hope for change. Asked where they envision themselves in several years time, five responded with “America” and one with “Canada.”
“I don’t like the camp,” ZuZuu said. A classmate, Naw Khin Htay Kyi, chimes in: “It’s crowded. Boys walk around at night, yelling, drinking. But this is where we live now. There’s nothing to go home to.”
Some 40 miles south down the same caramel-brown river border, Pi La, a 12-year-old Burmese refugee, squints into the sky. He tugs at a spool of cheap thread. On the far end is a kite, a diamond-shaped speck in the clouds, zipping in wild diagonals.
Suddenly, the wind betrays Pi La and snags his kite in the tree line across the river. The string goes slack and he spits with anger. His kite is stuck. In Burma.
Still, with an inner tube and some initiative, Pi La could retrieve his kite rather easily. The Moei River border is notoriously porous. And this is “No Man’s Land,” a loosely policed territory given over to a migrant shantytown and ragtag gangs brazenly shuttling Burmese people and goods into Thailand.
On the Thai side, families crowd into bamboo shanties. Children like Pi La run about in torn T-shirts. Crews run salacious duty-free shops selling smuggled liquor, tobacco, sex toys and porn.
For many of the 2 million Burmese migrants in Thailand, this is their first glimpse of the other side. Some will only go so far as the garment factories in Mae Sot, a riverside industrial town and reputed hub for smuggled Burmese gems, timber and more.
But Mae Sot — or “Little Burma” — is also the unofficial headquarters of Burma’s resistance movement. Political exiles have fled across the Moei River to establish a safe haven for shoring up cash, Western volunteers and international sympathy for the pro-democracy cause.
After Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won Burma’s last election for prime minister in 1990, the junta revoked her title and threw her in prison. Many within her National League for Democracy party fled to continue their fight in Mae Sot.
Mae Sot remains a refuge for exiles and Western volunteers who’ve fallen in love with the struggle. At downtown bars, backpackers can join in too, clinking whiskey shots with ex-political prisoners, some with teeth gone gray from decades in Burmese gulags.
But these days, the exiles fear their long run in Thailand may be skidding to a stop.
“The election, it terrifies me,” said Thiha Yarzar, 43, a former prisoner who spent 18 years in Burmese prisons. The self-described freedom fighter — who organized demonstrations and helped smuggle weapons for the resistance — escaped across the Moei River in 2008.
“The military will change into civilian clothes, but we will still struggle under their boots. If I am deported, you will find that I have committed suicide,” Thiha said.
He is interrupted by a bandana’d dirty blonde named Julia, who offers hugs and pink roses to celebrate the release of his recent memoir. “Sorry,” he said. “What I mean is that, after deporting us, you would hear that I killed myself or had a heart attack in the interrogation center. We would be killed.”
Cynicism toward the coming elections is well-founded. Voting is canceled in regions under siege from the junta. Suu Kyi’s party, which won the last elections two decades ago, is disqualified from running. Burmese villagers report official threats to vote for the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party or face prison time.
Still, the benefits of staging an election, even a transparently rigged one, are numerous.
An election will scrub away the stain of dealing with unabashed dictators, particularly among rising economic powers in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. It will smooth the way for more investment from India and, the largest backer, China, which last year boosted Burma investments sixfold to $1 billion.
Even Thailand, gracious enough to host exiles agitating for revolution, is pressing ahead with unprecedented business dealings. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva also recently helped negotiate one of the largest potential Burma investments ever: a $13 billion Thai-built deepwater port in coastal Burma.
The United States, sure to reject election results, is also drifting toward a less provocative anti-junta position. American officials, among them U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hope to lure the junta away from reputed plans to acquire nuclear weapons through North Korea.
“The elections are a huge threat,” said Khin Ohmar, a pro-democracy exile who fled Burma in 1988. The international community is dangerously close, she said, to deciding Burma has entered a “post-conflict transition stage.”
This is NGO-speak for a nation on the mend, in need of aid similar to that showered on nearby Laos and Cambodia after conflict tore apart their societies.
Ohmar fears the arrival of the global donors such as International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whose funds could “help the regime cling on to power. These agencies would just become their supporting pillars.”
But Heinemann, drawing from his Special Forces experience, said well-intentioned Western aid has already harmed the resistance.
America’s chief foreign aid arm, the U.S. Agency for International Development, has directed the majority of its aid ($34.8 million projected in 2010) toward refugee education, vocational training, medical treatment and pro-democracy classes.
Ethnic tribes such as the Karen, he said, are neglected by a U.S. Congress skittish of aiding groups who maintain guerrilla forces. “People on the inside, they’re absolutely puzzled,” Heinemann said. “Why is America dumping all this money on people who’ve given up? Who are trying to go off to America? What in the world are you guys smoking?”
Instead, the U.S. should fund the ethnic groups’ essential needs — food, shelter, farming supplies — so tribal leaders can invest in their own “fundamental right to protect themselves,” he said. “You don’t have to send them a single bullet. Keep your hands lily white.”
Combined, the various tribes’ forces number about 80,000, enough by Heinemann’s estimate to intimidate the junta into relenting their strikes in ethnic territory. Government and private aid groups focused on refugees and exiles, he said, sponge up the guerrillas’ much-needed funding.
More daring NGOs that train exiles to creep back and support the resistance can’t compete with salaries offered by U.N. agencies, he said. Heinemann’s own non-profit, Worldwide Impact Now, trains promising leaders within “oppressed peoples” to resist their persecutors. They are nearly broke, he said.
“I would maintain that some NGOs kill the people they’re trying to help,” Heinemann said. “They’ve enticed (young recruits) away from the war zone and into air-conditioned comfort in Thailand. NGOs say they reserve the right to hire the best and brightest. Well, guess what happens when that village is attacked where a trained health worker would have been?”
Karen refugees ZuZuu and 19-year-old friend Saw Si Thu say nothing, not a sense of tribal duty, not even a paid salary, could compel them back across the river. The final statements in their tribal oath proclaim that the “recognition of Karen State must be complete” and the Karen people “shall decide our own destiny.”
But ZuZuu and Si Thu have decided that their destiny lies in the West. Their hopes hinge on joining the 300 per week graced with asylum papers and a plane ticket to America, Canada or Europe.
“Of course, I would like to go back someday to Burma. To see my village, maybe after it has democracy,” Si Thu said. “But I don’t want to kill people. I don’t want the SPDC to kill me. So I study and study in the camp because my family has nothing. This is all I can do.”