Thailand Day 11: Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp

The second major phase of photographing former prisoners involves getting into the refugee camps – in particluar Nupo but also Umpiem Mai and Mae La. The next few days will take in Umpiem and Nupo and potentially another 30+ former prisoners. Access to the camps is strictly controlled with checkpoints not only at the entry points but also along the surrounding roads. The highway from Mae Sot down to Umphang is littered with checkpoints – some that seem to spring up whenever tensions rise over the border in Burma or if there is a sudden clampdown by the Thai authorities. The problem for former political prisoners (and many others fleeing Burma) is that they may have no proper documents to show the Thai police if they are stopped. Without proper documents they will be arrested, deported and in the case of the former political prisoner that will mean straight back to jail. So many organisations will help them become registered with the UNHCR as ‘persons of concern’ (POC). Whilst this document will grant them refuge in Thailand, in 2006 Thai policy for refugees changed and then stated that all POCs had to live and remain only within the camps. Former political prisoners in Umpiang refugee campMany former political prisoners were forced to go to the camps and this had a damaging effect on their ability to continue their activist work for exiled opposition groups and organisations. One might wonder how much the Burmese military junta leaned on the Thai government to implement this change. So living and travelling around Mae Sot and outside the refugee camps is often very risky for former political prisoners (and other refugees). Many literally still remain as prisoners in their homes or in hiding in Mae Sot and the surrounding areas just so they can continue their activism. They have become stateless people.

The journey to Umpiem Mai is about 4 hours in the line car. We had arranged to photograph about 8 people in Umpiem Mai before heading off to Nupo the next morning. I was being taken there by Ko Thiha who had arranged the trip with his colleagues in the camps. Ko Thiha spent 17 years, 6 months and 16 days in 5 different prisons (Insein, Taungoo, Kalay, Taunglaylone and Maisatt) having been jailed in 1990 for his political activities. He was freed along with U Win Tin in September 2008 and soon after he fled to the border. He shared his prison experiences with me and no matter how many times you hear these horrendous stories of torture and suffering, you always sit listening completely transfixed, because they always resonate so much inside. We passed through 7 checkpoints on the way – more than I have ever encountered before and it was nervous times for many of the people on board as the Thai police were stopping and searching every vehicle. A quick phone call to a contact and we discovered that the Thai police had stopped a car further up the border near Mae Hong Son and found guns and ammunitions. The people they arrested were ‘Red Shirts’ of the Thai political movement and the police suspected the weapons had been given to them by the KNLA (which of course was not true). This naturally meant that security was tightened up all along the border. We got to Umpiang camp without too many problems, met our contact and sneaked into the camp without being seen. Again due to recent fighting in Burma there are strict curfews in the camps at the moment, especially for westerners working there… and even more so for westerners who shouldn’t even be there. Release card from Insein prisonWe made our way up to the Burmese section way up the hill at the back of the camp up by the pagoda. A great view but for all the wrong reasons. Life in the camps is not easy by any means. Rations are limited and there are all the usual social problems once finds in the outside world that are only heightened in the closeted environment of a refugee camp where so many people are living in cramped conditions often in a state of flux, often having just escaped horrendous situations back home in Burma. We met up with everyone and as always the warmest welcome was bestowed on me and yet again superb Burmese food prepared. We had to be careful not to draw too much attention so stayed inside huts most of the time, but had to shoot outside due to the light. It was great to spend so much time in the company of these former political prisoners inside the camp – watching and listening to them sharing their stories and experiences. They even showed me their release cards (pictured above) and joked about what they said to the guards once they were released. We only had a couple of hours in the camp as we had to catch the line car down to Umphang were we had to stay the night before travelling on to Nupo the following morning. We made our way back across the camp to meet up with one former political prisoner in particular who I wanted to meet and photograph. Saw Than Hla was sent to prison in 1983 for his political and human rights activities. A member of the KNU, Saw Than Hla lived in a small village in the Irrawaddy Delta. He spent 24 years in Insein and Thayet prisons before being released in 2007. When I asked him what the real reason was for him being sent to prison for such a long time he simply replied… “because I am Karen”. This is not hard to believe based on what is happening just miles away from where we are – ethnic cleansing and genocide as the military junta are trying to wipe out the Karen people. Swa than Hla was probably the most inspiring person I have met to date. He was suffering badly from hypertension and low blood pressure – so we went to the market and bought him some limes and sweet biscuits. He showed me his letter from the ICRC that recognized him as a former prisoner in Insein prison and therefore as a person of concern… however he is still waiting to achieve that status from the UNHCR… bureaucracy gone mad. Here is a man who has spent 24 years in jail as a political prisoner and the UN can’t see fit to award him full refugee status and ensure he gets food rations and is looked after. He proudly put on his traditional Karen clothes for the photograph. It was an honour to be able to take that photograph.



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