Almost a year ago, I traveled to Mae Sot to write about what was happening in the Thai-Burma border camps after Thailand's military coup. This trip was spurred by my editor at Democratic Voice of Burma, Colin, who said before my trip, "No one knows what's happening in there at the moment."
Boy, was he right.
Mae La refugee camp, Thailand's largest camp with about 40,000 refugees from Burma, blew my mind. Established about 30 years ago, it upended whatever preconceived notions I had about displacement camps. The image most of the Western world holds in their head comes from the narratives churned out repeatedly by the likes of CNN, BBC, etc – floppy tents with the UN emblem, half-naked children looking hungry, adults with a desperate air of sadness.
All of this may be true, but the reality is – as it often turns out when we take a closer look – more than just that in Mae La. Because it's been around for decades, it has evolved into a mini-town with schools, marketplaces, gathering spots. With 40,000 residents making up about 13 different ethnicities from Burma, this camp is actually bigger and more diverse that most American towns. There is a rhythm to daily life there, which begins at around 6 am when families trudge to a nearby water pump with buckets to get their clean water for the day.
Like Jon Snow, I knew nothing, and to just go in and write a single article about how the military coup affected refugees was insufficient for me. (I'm pausing here to include links to my DVB and Al Jazeera stories, published last year, about this issue.) I had so many questions about the residents' lives, and very few of them can be answered in a single trip into the camp.
So I've decided that I need to start indulging this mini-obsession of mine with some long-term research. After some planning (and false starts), I traveled to Chiang Mai earlier this month to speak to some organizations that do work within the camps. I will next make my way to Mae Sot, just in time for World Refugee Day.
This is really just the beginning of an interesting year. I'm not sure what I will find, or if it will even materialize into published stories (the goal of many freelance reporters trying to pay for their long-term reporting). But it'll surely be an interesting journey, and I welcome any criticism and advice.