ISHRA REPORT, September 2007
International Society for Human Rights Australia
I was introduced to "Rocky Mountain Village" in 2003 by Curt and Cathy Bradner (an American couple). At that time they were supporting a number of small projects there and at Umpium Mai Refugee camp some 80 km south of Mae Sot.
ISHRA went on to contribute towards the work of a small ceramic water filter factory that they built in Mae Sot.
The village is situated on mostly private Thai property, a quarry and farm land about 15 km out of Mae Sot.
On this occasion I was at Ban Thai Guest House where Thant (the Burmese manager) introduced Hen Sein to me when the latter came visiting Ban Thai, and I overheard "Rocky Mountain Village". Hen Sein is the 'mayor' of the community there and he was very happy to invite me to come and visit there again after I had explained my interest and past involvement.
Sein came in the village's small pick up truck and drove me to the village. It was much more concentrated than previously because following a Thai army raid earlier in the year, the original area where most of the 80 families had lived was some distance from the school complex, health centre, and the children's dormitory for orphans or boys sent by families over the border so that their children would have some chance of an education. There was also the question of being nearer a clean water supply.
Sein showed me around the village. First to the expanded school set up, where with very limited sources the villagers had established a resource that they took pride in. No electricity, no running water, very little in the way of facilities, books and other educational aids, a small computer room which could only be used a couple of hours per day limited because of the cost of fuel to drive the small electric generator. There is also the cost of employing one Thai teacher who they pay 2000 B per month (around $80 Aud) which is way below the Thai minimum rate, but as much as the village can afford. They supplement the teacher's salary with vegetable produce they grow. The principal is one of their own and they pay him 2500 B per month.
The couple of class rooms I visited had dirt floors, bamboo walls and blackboards, but polite, cheerful, enthusiastic students who were glad that they had the opportunity for an education.
We next visited the health centre which was in a different improved building than during my last visit. A bit larger with ferro-cement walls and concrete floor, but still with few facilities or supplies.
The assistant nurse, Naw Saw Kyi, showed me around. Their biggest purchase for the year was an $80 metal cabinet for the centre to store drugs and other medication in.
The head nurse, Khin Than Hlaing, arrived. She is qualified, having undergone training in Mae Tao. She said that most serious medical problem they face is Malaria. Of the 20-30 patients she sees each day some 60% have Malarial symptoms. She was anxious to obtain a medical microscope to assist her in identifying the malarial strain to assist in determining medication. Currently she takes a punt and treats for the less serious strain, but if a patient needs to be transferred to hospital at Mae Tao this can take time given that they are all 'illegals' and they are 15 km from the Mae Tao Clinic.
After showing me the computer room mentioned above, Sein took me to see the 'hidden' villagers, whose simple thatched huts or platforms are scattered in the fields or hollows, hidden from immediate view. They are ready to scatter into the nearby hills if Rocky Mountain is raided by the Thai Army, as happened early this year.
If 'illegals' are captured they can be arrested and sent back over the border, their huts bull-dozed and belongings scattered. Most manage to return and rebuild their flimsy homes but it is a precarious way of living. Yet in a way the villagers feel freer than if they were in a refugee camp.
In going around the "hidden village' I managed to speak to a number of the dwellers.
Suu, age 28, a quiet, pleasant and handsome young man, has been living on the run for 20 years. Earlier this year he seized by the Thai army when it raided Rocky Mountain and was sent back over the Burma border at Myrawaddy, but managed to return a few days later. His mother is on the village School committee, his father is in Burma, having been returned there after been picked up by the Thai police. The family sends him 3-400 B ($12-16 ) per month and his wife occasionally travels illegally to and fro across the border to visit him. He lives about 1 days travel away.
Suu has four younger siblings who attend the Rocky Mountain school, but apart from 3 years in a Buddhist monastery school in Burma between the ages of 5-8, he has had no education. His monastery education provided him with basic reading skills, a little writing and some Buddhist studies.
Like many other villagers Suu has had a bout of Malaria, as have the other members of his family.
Asked him what he would do if there was peace and stability in Burma in his life. He said he would like to 'do good things' and he would have been a farmer, Says he is 'not able to look at doing other things'. He sees no opportunity and 'cannot see any possibility'.
Here is a typical situation of a young Karen man denied a 'normal' life that we take for granted, because of the regime that rules Burma. He is denied education, he is denied a job, back in Burma he would possibly be shanghaied by the regime to act as a military porter and face brutal treatment and possibly death.
Ah Sei (48) came from the delta region of the Irrawaddy River Karen division was forced to flee 30 years ago and came to Rocky Mountain. He has a wife Amu (26) and a 5 year old child. They have lost 3 children, 2 boys and 1 girl. One child drowned, one suffocated whilst been breast fed by the mother, when she went to sleep through exhaustion and the other was still born.
Last year he was forcibly returned to Burma by the Thai Army after the raided the village at 4.00am allowing no chance to flee in to the forest, but he was able to escape back and return to Rocky Mountain.
I met other of the hidden villagers. One a family who had a new born baby who had to sleep under a torn mosquito net because the family could not afford a new one. It was one small good deed I was able to do for a few dollars.
They were also caring for their 11 year old nephew who suffers from epilepsy. The boy had also suffered severe burns to his arm when he fell in the family cooking fire during an epileptic fit. They had started caring for him because his family had splintered. Who knows how much was brought about by the stress of their insecure lives as much as the boy's health issues.
Another individual who was 57 and living by himself not far from the temple mentioned below, fled Burma 40 years ago.
This uncertain existence means that many of these families lack even the basic necessities, or live in so poor circumstances that they cannot afford to buy a mosquito net or replace a damaged or badly worn one.
Sein finally took me to a small Buddhist temple and shrine that he and a number of other villagers had built for their religious observance. The shrine was built inside a small cave in the side of a hill about 2 kilometres from the village. It would probably true to say that their religion which like the Thais and Cambodians is so enshrined in their culture is the social glue not only for their community but for their psychological well being.
After the tour, Sein accompanied me back to Mae Sot and with some ISHRA funds I purchased around 2 dozen mosquito nets, and 2 dozen blankets, and a small water filter system for the health centre. All up I spent around $250 and gave Sein a further 6000B to help with any plumbing needed to install the filter and for any urgent needs that the village needed. It may have a small contribution but one that may help save a few a few lives.
I also undertook to ask ISHRA to raise funds to acquire the medical microscope and accessories needed for the health centre. A new one from a Bangkok medical supplies store would cost around $2400 Aud.
Members and friends of ISHRA are invited to donate money towards assisting the village and its needs.