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The unforgettable sight of Burmese refugees held in cages like chickens

Although the military government in Burma has made some halting steps towards democracy in recent months, ethnic minorities in this country, such as the Karens, are still suffering persecution.

While we take medical treatment for granted, others die because of the lack of it
- Nigel Camilleri

Two years after a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, a general election was held, but the results were promptly annulled by the military dictatorship.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, which won the 1990 general election by a landslide, was kept under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years; she was only released, following international pressure, in November 2010. She had received the Nobel Prize in 1991.

In the past couple of months both the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague met Aung Suu Kyi in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). The Burmese democracy leader intends to contest a by-election in April.

Despite the improved outlook for Burmese democracy the situation of ethnic minorities is still of grave concern.

Last October, a UK-based charity, Burmalink, introduced me to the refugees living in Mae Sot, Thailand, all of whom had fled Burma for fear of the genocide taking place in their villages.

Mae Sot is just another border town; there are no tourist attractions and to the first-time visitor looks like any other dusty one-road town. Yet with time its many layers begin to unravel. It is home to hundreds of thousands of Karen refugees.

I volunteered for service in the clinic set up by Dr Cynthia Maung, a gynaecologist who fled Burma in the 1988 uprising. At the in-patient department I was the only doctor in a place run by lay Burmese refugees who are continuously been trained in medicine by Dr Maung and USAID, an American NGO.

I was surprised to find out that though their knowledge of medicine was limited (unlike my experience of working in other developing countries), the medicine practised by the local staff was safe, clean and evidence-based.

These health workers’ enthusiasm and thirst to learn, which I experienced when teaching at the Mae Tao counselling centre, struck me as being much more powerful than what I had seen from my colleagues in medical school.

In time I would hear shocking stories, on the painful experiences these strong people had gone through and how coping with life was a daily struggle for them.

I learned that most of the patients in the hospital had crossed the border illegally, as they had no access to good medical care in Burma. So this meant leaving their village, crossing the river separating Thailand from Burma, bribing police and other officials on both sides and making their way to the clinic.

They would do this with their families, and when they felt better they would go back to Burma only to return for follow-up visits.

I also learned that this clinic was not recognised by the Thai government because Thai law forbids foreigners from owning land in Thailand. Therefore, the hospital is unregistered and is not entitled to the free medication for TB and HIV that other clinics get.

So when diagnosing patients with these diseases we would inform them we did not have the medication and they were discharged without treatment, with little hope for much of a healthy future. This is something I cannot stomach to this day: how, while we take medical treatment for granted, others die because of the lack of it.

In Mae Sot I visited a few of the 74 migrant schools in the town, which look a lot poorer when compared to the well-equipped Thai schools across the road. Many do not have fresh water, food or toilets, and some are still built with bamboo.

What struck me in the Burmese people is the importance they give to education; they pride themselves in speaking better English than the Thais, they are a dynamic nation and not happy with the status quo, they refuse to sit and wait for world aid.

I can never forget the sight of Burmese refugees held in detention in cages like battery chickens on the roadside for all to see, the corrupt Thai police accepting bribes for these people’s release and Thai employers depending on Burmese migrants for cheap manual labour and the ever-growing sex industry.

Hundreds of families make a living by sieving out and recycling garbage
- Nigel Camilleri

The area around Mae Sot is dotted with refugee camps. Here, people are kept in a confined and controlled area. But what can this confinement do to a person apart from breeding apathy?

The saddest vision I have witnessed to date is what is known as the garbage village. Here, hundreds of vulnerable families live in a stench of dead bodies, making a living by sieving out and recycling garbage, while being abused in various ways by people around them.

I also visited the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and listened to the stories of the ex-political prisoners who were tortured and jailed indefinitely because they spoke up for a democratic Burma.

I left Mae Sot with a certain strength that the Karen refugees had given me, a belief that one day all people would be free to go back home and live in their village again, without any fear. The courage of these people is a light that will never be extinguished in my heart.

And in the words of Maung Maung Tinn, a great Karen artist and refugee from Mae Sot, “the blood and tears of the people will become a large river that cannot be dried…” It is time for the world to stop pretending it is not seeing and once again look at this nation which the world has long since forgotten.

I shall be joining a number of runners who will be taking part in the 2012 Malta Half-Marathon to raise money for the Karen refugees in Mae Sot. Donations may be made to HSBC Bank Malta account number 0740 6629 1050.

Dr Camilleri, a Maltese psychiatrist, lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and currently works as a specialty registrar in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Tees Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust in the Child and Family Department in Durham.

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