Living in Limbo: Reflections on the Thai/Burma Border Trip
Susan Vincent, Thailand Spring Break 2013
It seems that we all crave a sense of safety, identity, and opportunity. But so many of the people who walked alongside us in Thailand are living in limbo, finding comfort and community in what tenuous ways they can. In an environment characterized by uncertainty and rife with oppression, the hope of a better life can seem distant and vaporous.
A refugee's life is--by no fault of his own--dependent on others. The host government provides protection and information (not always well), outside donors and governments provide food and necessities, immigration services halfway around the world decide whether family members will be granted permission to relocate, NGOs and universities sometimes make educational opportunities available. Ideas and phrases like career path, upward mobility, life plan, bucket list, and retirement have no context.
For the Karen refugees in the Mae La camp, returning "home" hardly seems much better. With the threat--real or perceived--of violence in Burma, the concern of ethnically-based subordination/discrimination, the difficulty of education, and the uncertainty of land rights and vocational opportunities, the older refugees on the Thai-Burma border looked "homeward" with significant trepidation. Others, for whom the small island of Karen refugees had been their whole childhood world, had no place in Burma with any special claim to their hearts. All spoke of justice, equality, and peace, but only some could offer suggestions as to what these terms would look like in their situation. Most wanted "autonomy" for their Karen people, and many appreciated the improbability/impracticability of this desire, but few appreciated the political maneuvering and difficult compromises that would be necessary to achieve a durable form of self-government.
For victims of trafficking and prostitution, no less than those displaced by ethnic and political violence, a "way out" seems elusive at best. With a million tribal people in Thailand denied the right to land, citizenship, education, and sustainable work, the potential for exploitation is apparent. Thai cultural practices and beliefs regarding women often result in a blind eye being turned when girls enter prostitution--so long as they are able to send money back to their parents and thus fulfill the "duty of daughters" that is their birthright. Undocumented Burmese immigrants--including the 10,000 Burmese girls who arrive in Thai brothels each year--have few protections from those who would take advantage of their poverty and invisibility.
The pallor of these injustices stood stark contrast to the vibrancy, beauty, and hospitality that Thailand is rightfully known for. On our first full day in the country, we wandered through the streets of Chiang Mai, were introduced to Khao soi, took in the mystic beauty of a Buddhist temple, encountered the long agricultural history of the hill tribes and strolled in their beautiful gardens, climbed up and slid down a tumbling waterfall, and finally explored a sprawling night market. We met Thai nationals engaged heart and soul in restoring children who have been sexually abused, American professionals dedicated to providing essential health services to Burmese who could not otherwise receive care, the Free Burma Rangers of diverse ethnicities dedicated to documenting human rights abuses and bringing hope to places where no one else is able to go, diplomats engaged in the essential intergovernmental work of analysis and persuasion, and a lawyer-turned-advocate who spends her days working to help more effectively combat sexual exploitation.
This trip made me consider again the role of outsiders in situations like these, where a terrible equilibrium has settled and trapped a disempowered group beneath the crushing weight of the status quo. Attempts at quick reform may result in formal changes--as when Thailand "abolished" prostitution in 1950--but entirely fail in their substantive aims. Engagement with the Myanmar government may eventually result in a more free and democratic society, but may inadvertently (or inevitably) ignore the rights of those who have been long victimized, disenfranchised, and dispossessed by the military regime. If we dare to acknowledge that our ultimate aim--justice for all, but particularly for those victimized--requires the reordering of a society, how can we ensure that our motives are pure and our means are appropriate? When 97% of the people visiting brothels are Thai nationals, what voice do outsiders have? Conversely, when tens or hundreds of thousands are working in the sex industry--many refugees or aliens drawn into Thailand by its economic promise but kept by more nefarious threats--how can anyone justify remaining silent?
On a more personal level, I realized again what a privileged life I lead. While I may sometimes feel inclined to complain about the uncertainties and questions in my own life -- what's next after law school? what should my life look like? what kind of person do I want to be, and is that who I am becoming? -- I was poignantly reminded how much I have. I know that even if I have to work at a job I'm over-qualified for, I can take care of myself without having to sell my body or family members. (The idea of being over-qualified even exists because of the tremendous educational and experiential opportunities available to me.) My conception of the world has been shaped, not only by the people and who have come to me, but also by the places I've travelled (along with the joys and challenges of returning home). Neither going outside their small community nor returning "home" are possibilities for many of the refugees in the camp we visited.
I've returned from this whirlwind trip with more questions than answers. Perhaps that is as it should be. I am home with a renewed sense of gratitude--both for the daily life I lead and for once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like this. I've also acquired an deepened sleep deficit, a greater awareness of this fascinating part of the world, a group of quickly-bonded classmates, and new insight into the complexities and necessity of pursuing justice.