Date: 29th April 2016
What is the meaning of travelling? Last year, teachers and secondary school students including student Wong Yuet Yee and teacher Law Kit Ling went to Mae Sot, which is located at the border of Thailand and Myanmar, for a 3-week volunteer tour. At Mae Sot, Wong and Law met asylum seekers from Myanmar and listened to the stories of these asylum seekers. There were ups and downs as well as scary bits in their stories.
Burmese escaped to Thailand
Despite a popular holiday destination for many Hong Kong people, Thailand is a place where many Burmese seek asylum in. Burmese lived in Mae Sot for various reasons. Some went there in order to escape from the suppression of Myanmar government whereas some others went there to seek business opportunities. Burmese in refugee camps are able to enjoy a minimum living standard but they at the same time cannot work or receive education. Some could not endure the prolonged waiting period for the verification of their identities and decided to leave the camp. Those who lived in the city developed their own way of living.
Volunteering: helping others or being helped?
Wong showed photos taken in this trip and at the same time shared her travelling experience. They helped in painting, carpentry and fixing rooftops of those simple and under-constructed schools run by locals. These works seemed to be simple but were actually rather hard in practice. For example, they were not able to move bricks and spent hours in fixing woods which was from big tree trunks. She questioned herself as a volunteer whether she was helping others or being helped.
A girl in cowshed
Wong talked about her experience of visiting a Burmese school, an orphanage and a girls’ hostel. Wong and her fellow volunteers were responsible for singing, playing games and making handcrafts with refugee students. Before visiting the hostel, there was a girl whose mother just brought her away from the hostel. Sad news came a few days later. Her mother strangled the girl to death during a quarrel and abandoned her body on the street. Wong was very terrified to this news although she did not meet the girl before. Wong met a 15-years-old girl who was afraid of living with others in the hostel because her mother passed away at her birth. Her father decided to put her in cowshed. She lived only with animals at that time and therefore she did not learn how to communicate with mankind. Only after the re-marriage of her father, she was allowed to stay at home. However, she was kept in the house to do housework but not allowed to study or play.
Revision of photos of suppression
During their stay, they visited an NGO – Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. They were shown the model of prison and the instruments of torture for political prisoners. They also saw documentary photos about the protests in Myanmar in 2007. Those photos recorded images that Burmese soldiers shot Japanese journalists who are reporting the protest and how the military government suppressed monks in demonstration. Words cannot describe how sad it was to look at these photos.
No legal identity and subject to political abuse
Law said the biggest problem for Mae Sot refugees was that Thai government rejected issuing identity cards to them and they had no legal identity in Thailand. The refugees tried their best to stay away from police. If they are unfortunately stopped by the police, they have to bribe them to get relieved. Some Thai employers often exploited the refugees as well. Employers refused to give wages to refugees after their work by threatening to report them to the police.
UN’s concerns over asylum seekers in Thailand
Although Thailand accepted refugees, there was no law governing expulsion, repatriation and extradition in Thailand and there was also a serious problem of long-term detention of refugees in Thailand. In 2014, the UN Committee Against Torture urged the Thai government to formulate appropriate law and procedures to protect asylum seekers and refugees according to the Convention Against Torture. The laws should include setting up an official asylum-seeking system and clear procedures collaborating with UNHCR to verify refugees’ identities. The Committee also urged Thai government to stop unlimited detention of asylum seekers and to ensure those who need international protection would not be repatriated.
Contradictory Thai policies
Law said what she saw in this trip was incomprehensible. She could not figure out why Burmese government and other businessmen collaborated with each other to suppress a chicken breeder and to force him escape to Mae Sot just because of his excellent sales performance. She did not understand why the Thai government allowed offsetting up schools and hostels especially for Burmese asylum seekers while Thai enforcement agency arrested these people.
Conclusion: sorrow and sweat beneath their smiles
The first impression of Mae Sot refugees to Law was that they always smile. Workers at the voluntary organization nevertheless reminded her that those were actually not genuine smiles. These people were suffering all the time: some escaped from political persecution while some hoped that one day they can go back to their home country. Most of them did not have identity not to mention money. They lived in the fear of refoulement. A life with dignity seems to be out of reach for them.