WHEN I MET Panyuk he was sitting outside his hut on a seat made of fat bamboo tubes. Panyuk, a member of the Karen ethnic community of Burma, lost both arms and was blinded in both eyes in a landmine explosion five years ago. Since then he has lived in the Mae La camp on the Thai-Burmese border, exiled from his home, people and what might be left of his family. He spends his days singing songs and telling traditional Karen stories to other fugitives, which is how he makes a living. “I like telling stories,” he says simply. “I’m very good at it.”
Ten years ago, when he was 19, Burmese government soldiers attacked Panyuk’s village in Burma’s Karen State as part of a continuing vicious campaign against the nation’s ethnic minorities, of which the Karen, numbering about three and a half million, form the largest. The Karen speak their own language and have consistently opposed the country’s military dictatorship. The Burmese soldiers, young men hardly older than Panyuk, killed his father and uncle and raped his mother. They destroyed their rice crops and burned his village. Panyuk escaped into the jungle and joined the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
“After what I had seen, I knew I had to take action to protect my people. I had to strike back,” he told me. He fought with the KNLA until, on patrol, he stepped on the mine, planted by the Burmese Army, which almost killed him. KNLA medics treated him and took him to Mae La.
For his portrait, Panyuk struck a proud pose with an umbrella, his weapon against tropical downpours, hooked over the stump of his left arm. With 45,000 other refugees in Mae La, mainly Karens, who have fled decades of persecution, and up to two million other displaced people of various ethnicities along the Thai-Burmese border, he is a casualty of the world’s most durable military dictatorship, and arguably the most brutal. Burma’s mountains rear invitingly on the horizon behind him, but Panyuk’s homeland is as remote to him as another planet. He is in a permanent state of displacement, so close to home and impossibly far away.
Fleeing attack, rape and torture by government troops and other abuses, such as forced labour and conscription of child soldiers – the Karen, noted for their strength, agility and jungle skills are used as porters by the Burmese Army; they walk at the head of patrols and bear the brunt of the blasts from any landmines they step on – those who reach Thailand, to Burma’s southeast, must endure weeks or months of arduous trekking. The 2,100-kilometre border terrain is jungle, with intimidating mountains and snaking rivers. For most of its length and breadth there are no houses, roads, visible pathways or signs of human life. Mines, malaria and food shortages kill many refugees long before they reach a crossing point.
If the harrowing circumstances of people inside Burma are too often ignored by the world at large, even less attention is paid to their fate once they escape. By nature, borders in troubled regions are a surreal combination of official tension and lawless chaos, and I became fascinated by how exiles live, work and survive in such alien places. Thailand, with its stance towards its neighbour continually hostile, thanks to a history of discord, offers official refugee status to less than one per cent of asylum seekers from Burma. The illegal status of the rest condemns them to live life on the margins in more than just a geographical sense: they fall between the cracks of political responsibility, disappear from the radar of international relief and make easy pickings for exploitative Thai employers, human traffickers and corrupt police who demand bribes to allow them to stay at the edge of the map.
Some end up in the region’s ramshackle camps, comprising mostly thatched bamboo huts, with no freedom of movement. The constant peril of the Burmese Army and their position outside the law mean inmates are in effect incarcerated: they are not allowed to leave to farm or gather food in the jungle. Some take their chances as migrant workers, scraping an underground living in factories, sweatshops, rice paddies and brothels. Others, in muddy riverside encampments, pick through garbage to support their existence. Once they arrive they are trapped. Their only route back home is the fate they dread most: being rounded up and deported in cattle trucks by the Thai authorities to face certain imprisonment or execution.
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