In October 2010, I was granted the privilege of entering this refugee camp, located in Thailand near the Burma border. Largely due to political reasons, foreign visitors are generally prohibited. However, I was fortunate the monk shown in this gallery has connections with the refugee community.
We drove through armed security checkpoints, parked near one of the camp’s entrances and quickly entered – scurrying through maze-like alleys until reaching a clearing in the camp. It was like entering another dimension. I felt secure, safe and accepted by those living there – as though in a bubble from the outer world.
This camp was originally established at the Thai village of Mae La in 1984 with a population of 1,100. Shortly afterwards, due to security concerns, it was moved to its current site. After the fall of Manerplaw in January 1995, a number of camps were attacked in cross-border raids, and the Thai authorities began to consolidate camps to improve security. Mae La was designated as the main consolidation camp in the area. Nearly 40,000 people currently live in the camp, and it’s sociological make-up is as dynamic as any community.
Mae La is considered a center of academic studies for Burmese refugees, and it includes several thousand students who travel from elsewhere and study in the camp (some from other camps but mostly from Burma). They are registered as temporary inhabitants. While I was in the camp, most everyone seemed willing to exchange information. “We are thirsty for knowledge,” one man told me.
The camp was attacked in 1997 by DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) troops with support from Burma Army units. There have been no incursions since then, but a mortar shell landed in a section of the camp in March 1998. Every dry season, tensions in the camp increase due to potential threats of armed attack or attempts to burn the camp.
Please, enjoy this rare glimpse into this world – while considering how life is vastly different for some people, at no fault of their own.