Life of a Burmese landmine refugee
With his crutches resting against the clinic bed, Than Tin rolls up his trouser leg, gingerly pointing to a heavily bandaged leg stump.
“All I remember is being blasted up in the air,” recalls the 48-year-old father-of-five, hoisting both arms to suggest the impact of the landmine. “First was no pain, but half my leg was gone, but then it was like so bad burning.”
He was logging in the forests around Myawaddy, a trading town in Myanmar close to the border with Thailand, the site of one of the world's longest-running civil wars.
Countless landmines litter the hilly jungle terrain, on and off the tracks close to where government soldiers fight ethnic minority rebel militias; thousands of beleaguered civilians hide out or make the arduous trek to a precarious refuge in Thailand.
According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), Myanmar’s government continues to lay antipersonnel mines, mostly in regions populated by ethnic minorities.
The larger of these minorities maintain their own militias and political parties, and have become accustomed to de facto local autonomy even as the government holds out against their calls for the creation of a federal state.
Some rebel groups also plant mines, though they say they only lay them on roads near army bases, and inform villagers of the location of the devices.
Not just for refugees
A landmine took half of Saw Maw Kel's left leg in 1986 while he was fighting in the jungle.
He learned the prosthetics trade from medics and non-governmental organizations during his recuperation. The clinic where he works employs six people, turning out around 200 replacement legs a year, mostly for landmine victims from Myanmar.
“Not just refugees come here,” he says, referring to the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot, “but ordinary Burmese who cannot pay for treatment at home.”
The Burmese remain among the poorest in Asia, with an annual per capita income of US$469 according to 2010 U.S. State Department figures.
Despite growing foreign investment, over US$20billion in 2010 alone according to the Burmese government, and a sanctions-busting multi-billion dollar oil, gas and gemstone revenue windfall, health spending for 2011 will be just 1.3 percent of the national budget, against 25 percent to be spent on the military.
Myanmar has been ruled by the army since 1962 and in the country's first elections for two decades last November -- which were widely condemned as neither free nor fair by independent outside observers -- the army and its political affiliates won 89 percent of parliamentary seats and 26 out of 30 ministries.
The government is uncomfortable with some activity along the border, which they think is a haven for opposition groups. This is no doubt boosted by the presence of people like Zipporah Sein, head of the political wing of the main Karen group, the Karen National Union (K.N.U.).
The Karen are a mix of animists, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. They have fought the central Burmese government, and sometimes each other, for much of the time since independence from Great Britain in 1947.
In an interview at her office on the border, the day after the Burmese authorities blamed the KNU for a train bombing in central Myanmar last May, Sein dismisses the allegation: “The Burmese regime always blames the K.N.U. when something like this happens, but we do not get involved in such activity.”
Her presence in the area, where then K.N.U. leader Mahn Sha Lar Pahn was assassinated in 2008, no doubt irks the Burmese authorities.
The Mae Sot-Myawaddy border crossing remains closed on the Burmese side.
Thai traders say that they are losing out and a number of Thai officials have made ominous statements in recent months about sending the refugees back.
Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said that repatriation would not take place unless it was safe for the refugees to go back, but nonetheless some are keeping a low profile in their temporary abode, wary of tensions surrounding their presence.
"New arrivals are sometimes hiding in Thai villages," says Poe Shan of the Karen Human Rights Group.
New arrivals have crossed the border almost every day since the November 2010 elections, and ongoing fighting in Myanmar’s ethnic regions suggests that calls for the refugees to go back are premature.
“The Burmese army has a shoot-on-sight policy in some places, and that includes civilians as well as rebels,” says Mahn Mahn, head of the Backpack Health Workers Team, a group of mobile medics operating secretly in Myanmar’s ethnic minority regions.
Hard to go home
“There is no protection for many people inside, how can they go back?” he asks.
At Mae La, the biggest of the nine refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar frontier, and a 45-minute drive north of Mae Sot, around 45,000 people live in closely packed timber huts on stilts, their brown roofs dovetailing with leafy green foliage and low clouds on the rain-soaked cliff tops behind.
Undeterred by the Saturday afternoon downpour, two groups of men play takraw, a sort-of soccer-volleyball hybrid, at the camp's edge.
“If you go inside the camp, it might mean trouble for us,” says Aung Aung, a pseudonym for one of the players, who asked for his real name to be withheld.
Since 2005, around 70,000 Burmese refugees have been resettled, including 50,000 to the United States, sparking a whispering campaign that some of those entering the camps are economic migrants seeking a ticket to a new life in the West.
Brushing off this suggestion, Aung Aung says, “I don't know about everyone in the camps. For me, I do not want to go the West at all, even though my grandmother is already in Indiana.”
He says his family was involved in opposition politics in Myanmar, and worked with the National League for Democracy, the officially proscribed party headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize winner who was released from house arrest by the Burmese authorities in November 2010.
“I am from Rangoon,” says Aung Aung. “What I really want is to go back there, if ever there is a real democracy.”