Tom Spender, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: October 06. 2009 12:48AM UAE / October 5. 2009 8:48PM GMT Mae La Camp, Thailand // Spread along a series of hillocks under a huge rocky outcrop, the Mae La refugee camp presents a peaceful panorama of closely-packed thatched roofs amid the dense jungle.
But Mae La’s mellow aspect belies both the trauma suffered by its Myanmarese inhabitants and its changing ethnic composition as growing numbers of Myanmar’s Muslims, fed up with their position at the bottom of the pile in the poverty-stricken country, seek a new life in Thailand – and preferably further afield.
Mae La is the biggest of the nine camps for Myanmarese refugees on the Thai border and, since a sweeping UN resettlement programme was launched in 2005, has become the departure lounge for thousands of Myanmarese heading for new lives in countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada.
Amid the camp’s humble dwellings built by the refugees from tree trunks and bamboo poles, Mae La’s main mosque stands out. The big two-storey structure has painted concrete walls and a corrugate iron roof, and Muslims in white robes, some of whom physically resemble Bangladeshis or Indians, walk down a wooden staircase from the upstairs prayer hall following lunchtime prayers.
“The number of Muslims arriving in Mae La is increasing,” said Kamal, president of the mosque, a thin 43-year-old in a white T-shirt and dark blue longyi, the sarong-like garment worn by Myanmarese men.
“Before Muslims were just coming here from Karen state. Now they also hail from Rakhine, Mon and Yangon. Many of the young Muslims do not want to go back. Here in the camp they discover more about the world and see a better future for themselves and their children outside the country.”
Many among Mae La’s estimated 10,000-strong Muslim population have fled not just the repressive Myanmar junta but also the hopelessness that accompanies persistent persecution.
For Hassan, a 29-year-old from the former capital Yangon with dark skin and thick black hair, the final straw came when he was arrested in the wake of the failed monk-led “saffron” uprising in September 2007. A street peddler of Thermos flasks and aluminium pots, he earned about US$1 (Dh3.7) a day for himself, his wife and two children.
“Life was very hard and what I earned was not enough,” he said. “After saffron, there was an 8pm curfew and anyone caught outside after that time would be arrested. I was returning to my home one night and the train was late so I was caught. I decided life was impossible and we left.”
He and his young family trekked along the Thai border, scurrying into the jungle to avoid soldiers, before reaching Mae La.
“It was a terrible journey,” he said. “Now I just want to go abroad. I will go anywhere the UN sends me.”
Shamsuddeen, 28, was a fisherman in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region until Cyclone Nargis struck in May 2008, wiping out his village.
“After Nargis we had no idea what to do or where to live,” he said. “At last I met a friend and he said the best place to find shelter was Thailand. We just crossed the forest. We were afraid of encountering armed groups and being shot. When we saw them we just had to run and go without food.”
Now Shamsuddeen is one of 10 Muslims living in the mosque. He and Hassan are among about 6,000 Mae La residents who have not yet been registered by the UN, a vital first step on the path to resettlement.
Myanmar’s repressive ruling generals say the military government is necessary to prevent different ethnic groups, which make up about a third of the country’s population of 50 million, from declaring independence. Its army, the Tatmadaw, has battled ethnic guerrillas in an off-and-on civil war for decades, with the first refugees arriving in Thailand from Myanmar’s neighbouring Karen state in 1984. Overall, about 2m Myanmarese are thought to be living in Thailand, most illegally.
In June this year, Karen state was the scene of renewed fighting as the Tatmadaw and its armed allies the Democratic Karen Buddhist Association (DKBA), attacked Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) guerrillas. Some 5,000 villagers fled the fighting according to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which dishes out rations and other assistance to 76,000 Myanmarese in Thailand.
“The army makes people work for them so they cannot work for themselves,” said Kamal. “We carry the army’s food and if we have no more power, they just kick us off the edge of the mountain. If we get sick they leave us in the forest. There are big problems in Karen state.”
In Myanmar, Muslims have been targeted by successive Myanmarese regimes to divert attention away from its own failings, according to clerics and rights groups.
“They incite anti-Muslim violence and then say Buddhists and Muslims are fighting so the country needs the military junta to keep the peace,” said a senior Myanmarese Muslim cleric, speaking in Bangkok on condition of anonymity.
The government also refuses to issue national identity cards to many Muslims, making it difficult for them to travel even within Myanmar, graduate from university, set up businesses, buy property or find a job, the cleric said.
The biggest Muslim populations in Myanmar are in Rakhine state on the Bay of Bengal, where they form a centuries-old community known as the Rohingya, and in Karen state.
“Rohingyas are perceived as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are not accepted by the bulk of the Myanmarese population,” said Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project, which monitors the situation of Rohingyas in Rakhine.
The refugees’ hopes for a new life are not unfounded. More than 50,000 Myanmarese refugees have been transferred out of Thailand since 2005, according to Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok.
For Shamsuddeen, a high school graduate, he said the taste of life outside Myanmar had rekindled his ambition. “There are fewer troubles in Mae La and less fear,” he said. “I’m still young and I want to start my life. I want to become an educated person and I definitely do not want to go back to Myanmar.”