The man and his family don't want much.They would be happy if they could stay in their village, live in a bamboo house, and raise enough rice to eat.To have their kids attend school with options for a bright future is only a distant and foggy vision.They had been living the dream once.For years they had been in their village.Some years were better than others, but they usually had enough to eat.If they didn't, they knew how to forage for edible plants in the forests.
But seven years ago the army came.The rice fields were burned along with the village. Some in the village were killed and some were raped.The man and his family got away just in time.It was in the middle of the night, just before harvest.The old rice from last year was about gone and the new rice was still in the field, but they left so fast they couldn't have taken any with them even if they'd had something to take.
Since that night the family has lived in the mountains.They can't live in a real village since they would be too easy to find.So, they live in a small group.They have tried to grow rice, but it is hard.If the army is near they can only work at night.Plus, a rice field can be seen easily.It is good they know how to live off the land as that is how they survive.
The children have never seen the inside of a school.They are stunted physically from poor nutrition, stunted mentally from a lack of education and stunted spiritually from a lack of hope.Medical teams occasionally sneak in from Thailand, but they aren't around very often and they can only provide basic care.
The only thing the family did wrong was be born in Burma to a Karen family that lives in an area the government considers to be rebel controlled.But since they were born in the wrong place, the army can shoot them on site, use whoever they want for forced labor, take over any village, take any supply of rice, take any animal or take anything else they want.Villagers are forced to carry military supplies for the army, forced to build roads so the army can reach new areas, forced to build dams, and forced to grow crops for the army.
After 7 years of living on the run in the mountains, the family ran out of room and out of hope.The only alternative was to try and get into Thailand.This is not easy either.The Thai government has made it plain they do not want any more refugees.They will only accept refugees that flee fighting between two armies.But in Burma, there is only one army doing the shooting, so in the eyes of the Thai government there is no fighting to flee.Some though, are able to sneak into Thailand and into the refugee camps.Whether they can stay in the camps remains to be seen.
Today, 150,000 refugees are in a series of camps and villages along the Thai/Burma border.They are fed, housed, and generally looked after by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium.Other non-government organizations look after medical and other kinds of needs.Probably 1 million other Burmese are living with dubious legality in Thailand.Hundreds of thousands live in hiding like the family described here.Hundreds of thousands more live in "relocation sites" where the Burmese government can keep the people under tight control and where they suffer many abuses.
Most of the people in the refugee camps are of the Karen or Karenni tribal group.Most of these would be Christian and many of the Christians are our Baptist brothers and sisters who are proud to trace their history back to early American Baptist missionaries.Thai authorities restrict access to the refugees and the camps, but we try to offer support through the Thailand Burma Border Consortium and any other way that we can.
The Karen and Karenni refugees show a remarkable resiliency and love for life.It can only be their faith in Christ that helps see them through these difficult years.In the camps they get enough food to eat and have shelter.They have organized their own churches, schools and Bible schools.Their main problem is a lack of opportunity.Burma doesn't want them and neither do the Thai. They can't go anywhere else without money and without first having a passport.To have a passport, one must be a citizen someplace.But these people really have no country.The issues are many and complex with no end in site.
As American Baptists we help support the Myanmar Baptist Convention and a number of projects inside Burma.In addition, much of the work we are involved in here in Thailand helps support Burmese people that have left Burma by choice, desperation or were tricked or forced to come into Thailand.We also have worked closely for many years with the Thai Karen, Lahu and Akha many of whom have family connections in Burma.Still, one of our biggest frustrations is that we can't do more to help and to be more visible while helping.
One hundred and ninety years of American Baptist mission has left a legacy in Burma and much of southeast Asia.At a recent meeting of non government organizations involved in Burma it was said that the only real existing network that might provide a basis for communication especially in the remote border areas of Burma, was the Baptist churches.Your contributions to the World Mission Offering will help keep the assistance flowing both within Burma and Thailand.As we've written before, nationwide, a 36% increase is needed in the offering this year just to maintain the current level of support and the current number of missionaries.It seems an impossible task.The complex problems of Burma seem impossible too.But it has been said "the future is as bright as the promises of God" and God has promised us that nothing is impossible.
Note:Partly from habit and partly from protest, most in Thailand continue to use the name of Burma for the country rather than Myanmar.But with either name, it is the same troubled country.
Duane and Marcia Binkley