In 2008, I had a life-changing experience in Thailand while visiting an NGO that serves Burmese refugee children who are at-risk of becoming victims of human trafficking. I was in town called Mae Sot, where many Karen Burmese had emigrated to escape civil war and ethnic cleansing in Burma. It was just after cyclone Nargis had decimated Burma’s delta region, and the Burmese army was using intimidation tactics to remove the Karen from the most fertile region in the country. Many had emigrated across the border to Mae Sot to avoid violence from the conflict that is the ‘longest civil war in the world.’
One day, we visited a Burmese refugee camp near the border, a few hours from town. Nearly 50,000 Karen Burmese lived in this camp in houses made of leaves with bamboo stilts that elevated them above the ground. The structures dotted the side of a hill next to a mountain range that acted as the geographic boundary between Thailand and Burma. If I didn’t know we were in a refugee camp, I would have thought we were in a scene from a movie. I quickly returned to reality when someone mentioned that there was still fighting occasionally, just on the other side of the mountain.
We climbed down a hill and thorugh a winding path to get to an orphanage in the camp, where an ex-military general and his wife cared for children whose parents had died in the war. We were treated as honored guests and given delicious food. Although we knew they did not have much to spare (the purpose of the trip had been to bring them food – illegally), it would have been rude for us to refuse their hospitality.
The children sang for us, as we sat Indian-style on the bamboo floor, and I learned that their parents had died in the civil war while fighting to give them a place to live. Now they were stuck in limbo in this refugee camp, unable to be adopted because they did not have documentation from Burma or from Thailand. I learned that the Karen Burmese were being ethnically cleansed because of territorial disputes between their tribe and the Burmans, who controlled the national government and the army at the end of World War II. The Karen leaders had been promised self-determination while they fought alongside the British against the Japanese; but, much like the failure of the McMahon Hussein Correspondence in the Middle East, wartime promises meant nothing after the troops went home.
When I went back to school after that summer, I changed my major from Health Science to undecided because I wanted to do something that would help refugees or alleviate the hardships that they faced. Eventually, I chose Political Science so that I could focus on International Relations. The following three years, I studied genocide and ethnic cleansing in Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States. I also focused on War & Peace in World Politics, Security Studies, and International Political Economy. I still think about these children, their stories, and my experiences in Thailand all the time.