Notes from the Border
February 15 We meet in the steamy heat of Bangkok. With hugs and tired cries of delight, we remember our time together in Guatemala. The food is different, green and red curries instead of beans and tortillas, and lots and lots of rice. The Burmese women introduce us to the variations in chillies, their differing colours and fiery intensity.
A temple along the Thai-Burma border.
February 18 In a town in the northwestern region of Thailand, we talk with Burmese refugee women's groups from the area. We are all a bit nervous, the translation rusty, our timing not quite right, but we know that as time goes by our conversations will become more fluid.
February 19 In a tiny plane, we head off to the border town of Mae Sot, where we continue our discussions with refugee women's groups. Vicenta talks about her experience as a young girl hiding from the army in the mountains of Guatemala, and describes ways to escape the scrutiny of hovering helicopters. The Burmese women around the table nod their heads in instant recognition: this sounds all too familiar to us, we too have hidden in fear for our lives.
February 21 When men participate in the discussions, they are particularly interested in hearing about the accords that were negotiated and signed between the Guatemalan government and the refugees for a dignified and safe return. Some take notes when the conversation turns to the importance of women's participation in the decision-making processes around organized return - in the Guatemalan case, women were mostly excluded. A young man from one of the student organizations says he will write an article on this issue for the student paper.
February 23 For Vicenta, Ana and Marķa, the highlights of the trip are the visits to refugee camps. They are anxious to compare camp conditions with their own experience: "We want to see how Burmese refugee women live, how they survive." With concern, they note the cramped and crowded conditions. However, they are also impressed by the strength of women's organizing in the camps, by the fact that there is a safe house for women survivors of domestic violence. They buy woven cloth from the women's cooperatives in the camps to take back to loved ones at home, fragments of memory from the journey of a lifetime. Guatemalan and Burmese weavings are similar in their colours, intricacy and beauty. Weaving techniques are discussed and compared.
February 26 One of our vans breaks down on the winding and isolated road between Mae Sot and Mae Sariang. We stand by the side of the road as our driver tries to fix it, anxious to reach our destination before night falls. Eventually, we cram into the other van, piling belongings in among us, and continue on our way. We tell jokes, trying to ward off the travel sickness brought on by the twists and turns of the road. At dusk, weary, we sit on a veranda swatting bugs and looking over the river into Burma, a distant home for some, for all a country that has begun to haunt our dreams. We are struck by how similar our dreams have become, our nights mirroring our days, the commonality of differing histories and experiences. Our conversation turns to the future, and the ways we can support each other.
Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962. Currently called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the junta is among the most repressive regimes in the world and continues to intimidate and brutalize members of the pro-democracy movement, including 1991 Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as members of ethnic nationalities. The population of Burma is estimated to be approximately 50 million. There are approximately one to two million internally-displaced persons largely in the border regions where most of the 8 major, and over 100 minor, ethnic nationalities reside. Thailand hosts almost two million unrecognized refugees while about 150,000 live in refugee camps along its borders with Burma. In addition, there are more than 350,000 refugees in India, Bangladesh and China. Inter Pares has worked with border-based organizations to support these refugees since 1991.
|Reviewed June 1, 2004||Publishing Policies|