A Trip to Thailand Exposes the Plight of Burmese Refugees

January 20, 2011

The NEED Farm
Photo by Emily Sessoms (Class of 2012)

Students at the Network for Environment and Economic Development (NEED) Farm

Since 1962, Burma has been ruled by a military regime that has oppressed many ethnic groups and civil liberties. Reports of rape, torture and destruction of land abound, and minority ethnic groups have been subject to attacks and denied independence.

In January, 14 students and two faculty members traveled to Thailand to study human rights violations in Burma. The field-study, led by Assistant Professor of Political Science Dan Chong, visited the towns of Chiang Mai and Mae Sot and allowed students to gain first-hand experiences of the current situation, the culture and what different organizations are doing to help.

Chiang Mai and Human Rights Organizations

Beau Thomas (Class of 2011HH), Sandra Chacon and Emily Sessoms (Class of 2012)
Photo by Emily Sessoms (Class of 2012)

Students visit a Buddhist sanctuary.

The trip began in Chiang Mai with visits to Buddhist temples and the opportunity to attend a monk-chat, which helped enhance understanding across religious differences. Many students had little prior exposure to Buddhism, and gained insight from the intimate discussions.

Then, the real work began. Students found themselves carrying banana trees, digging trenches, weeding, chopping hay, planting chilies, mixing compost and—for some of them—breaking shovels. They performed this work with the Network for Environment and Economic Development (NEED) Farm, an organization that recruits Burmese citizens and teaches them organic farming techniques to use upon their return to Burma. For two days, the students attempted to learn farming techniques while talking with Burmese citizens alongside them. During these discussions, one man revealed that he had been a monk and was forced into the army for two years until he escaped to Thailand.

Students used their hands for more than just tilling the earth. They gained a fuller appreciation for homegrown and organic food, as they devoured delicious meals that had been produced at the NEED Farm, wholeheartedly practicing the Burmese custom of eating with their hands.

In addition to working with the NEED Farm, the group met with other organizations working to improve the Burmese’s plight. One included Free Burma Rangers, a group that delivers relief and medical supplies into Burma, often risking their lives. (The most recent Rambo film is based on their mission!) Another was Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an un-biased media organization. They discussed their work and current issues within Burma, whose government censors television programs and newspapers. DVB explained how most footage from within Burma seen on international news comes from their organization, which sends their footage via satellite from Thailand to televisions within Burma. They represent the only source of non-state-controlled media.

It wasn’t all work and no play. While in Chiang Mai, students enjoyed evenings spent at the Night Bazaar, filled with thousands of vendors selling scarves, hats, delicious food and much more. And a day of elephant riding, hiking, and bamboo rafting allowed everyone to see the countryside.

Education and Living Conditions in Mae Sot

Emily Sessoms (Class of 2012)
Photo by Emily Sessoms (Class of 2012)

Emily Sessoms (Class of 2012) stands in front of the trash-dump site that has become home to many Burmese refugees.

Next, students ventured to the border town of Mae Sot, where over a 100,000 Burmese refugees have fled over the years and made a home. Here, students volunteered at a primary school and witnessed extreme living conditions.

Ashin Sopaka, a Burmese monk who has dedicated himself to helping refugees, introduced the students to one of his many projects: primary schools for refugees. As Burmese children are not allowed to attend Thai public schools, their education could easily be overlooked. At one of these schools, students volunteered to teach English (the “Hokey-Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” were big hits) and play with the students, who were loving and unable to stop giggling although verbal communication was nearly impossible. Amy Uhl (Class of 2012) expressed her desire to return to the school and volunteer teaching English. “Those kids are the hope of all of Burma, and they now have my heart,” she said.

One of the most eye-opening experiences of the trip was visiting the “homes” of Burmese citizens who have not attained refugee status and instead live as illegal immigrants. Their hand-made huts, lacking facilities for showers or toilets, were scattered across mountains of trash, and children ran around unsupervised. Their parents sorted through the trash to find recycled materials to sell in the city, earning enough for just a few dollars a day. Some children had to stay on the dump working instead of going to school, and others were separated from their families who remained in Burma.

The situation was overwhelming and devastating. Emily Sessoms (Class of 2012) couldn’t believe the living conditions. “You see a city around these people, that’s developed and has houses and running water,” she said. “But these people are not allowed to have their basic rights met, as if the society has said, ‘We know you’re there and we don’t care.’” Marissa Mikolenko (Class of 2011HH) shuddered at the sight. “The fact that these people would rather live in these conditions than in their home country speaks volumes,” Mikolenko said.

Returning to Rollins for the first day of class after a red-eye flight proved to be a tough transition, but not from a lack of sleep. Many students felt the trip had a huge impact on them, some feeling a personal calling to the plight of Burmese refugees. Says Uhl, “This trip honestly changed my life for the better and for forever.”

View more photos from the field study

Contributed by Emily Sessoms (Class of 2012)

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