MAE LA CAMP, THAILAND—Aside from the checkpoints, it could be any village in Thailand. The bamboo houses, bisected by dirt lanes and picturesque streams, are well-tended and strung with brightly-coloured laundry; in dirt-floored cafes, men in Burmese longyi (sarongs) chat over shots of sugary tea and chew betel nut, while nearby stalls stock the latest Thai cosmetics and DVDs. Children, their cheeks daubed with swirls of traditional thanaka face paint, chant lessons in Burmese and English in well-equipped bamboo classrooms.
But for the residents of Mae La refugee camp, life is in an ongoing limbo. Created in 1984, the camp is now home to an estimated 47,000 inhabitants, most of whom fled ethnic violence and other abuses inside the military-ruled country to the west. Around 65 percent of the camp’s residents are ethnic Karens, part of the tragic diaspora born out of the group’s 60-year-old insurgency in neighboring Karen State. The remainder also includes Shan, Kachin, Mon and Karenni refugees from across Burma, as well as a small contingent of exiled student dissidents.
As the Burmese military junta gears up to hold elections for the first time in two decades, few of the camp’s inhabitants expect things to change for the better. Byran Awng, a 68-year-old Shan, is pessimistic over the chances that the elections, scheduled for November 7, will bring peace and stability to his native Shan State. In August last year, the retired teacher experienced the brief outbreak of fighting between junta troops and ethnic militias in the Kokang Special Region, a Chinese enclave in Shan State along the border with Yunnan Province. He says the incident, which sent about 30,000 people fleeing into China, will likely be repeated after the poll.
‘After these elections, I think there’ll be more fighting, because the people don’t like the elections, or these generals,’ he says in the gravelly English he learnt as a schoolteacher. ‘(The election) will make it worse.’
Over the past year, the security situation along the Thai and Chinese borders has worsened following the introduction of a Burmese government scheme to extend its control over the raft of armed militias that signed ceasefires with the junta in the 1980s and 1990s. The so-called Border Guard Force (BGF) plan—tied to the timing of next month’s election—now threatens to unravel a fragile status quo in the ethnic states.