Our last month is Mae Sot. How quickly 8 months passes. The rains are late this year so we start the month with lots of sunshine and continued high temperatures. Following the success of the trade union delegation visit we have a few days rest before heading to BKK to meet my brother. We show Geoff around BKK for a few days and then head back up to Mae Sot on the night bus (9 hours but thankfully about 3 asleep).
After a few days in Mae Sot we prepare to head for Chiang Mai. Declan will fly home after ‘the best 8 months of my life’. We have a leaving party with our Karen friends – it is so good to see them enjoying themselves, singing and dancing, after the long struggle they have endured. If we can give them one thing, it is confidence – Paw Gay says this often. She wants the Karen people to be confident to speak out and lead their nation into democracy. Declan is very emotional but holds it all in – We are Karen – the Karen have so many people coming and going that it seems inappropriate to be emotional. He receives a Karen shirt in his favourite colours – black and white stripes!
Before we leave to Chiang Mai we have a meeting with Zippora Sein, leader of the KNU – Karen government in exile. She is very busy but DLM asks her to spend some time with us. DLM is 2nd Secretary and often stands in for Zippora when she is out of Mae Sot. The meeting is interesting. She is very different from ASSK We ask about her meetings with the new president and ASSK. She is very reluctant to say too much about the president other than it will take time and actions on his part to trust him. The Karen have requested a ‘political’ dialogue and agreement before they will enter into discussions about ‘development’. She is very candid about ‘foreign development’. She knows exactly what it means – rich countries exploiting the mineral wealth and the workers of Burma. She wants a political settlement – an agreement for a federal union of Burma, the rule of law, rights for all ethnic minorities, an end to war in Kachin and Karen states, the removal of troops from Karen IDP areas, the release of all political prisoners, etc. She does not want to be fooled into ‘development’ and not win any rights for her people. She was very resolute and I admire her for this. I left with more confidence that the Karen people will have a role in deciding their future.
We visit Mae La for the last time with my brother and all I can recall is the hospital ward full of blind land mine victims. This is the second time I have visited them. Who will protect them if the camps close? They cannot go back to Karen state which is littered with land mines. I will always remember the man with no hands or forearms and completely blind showing me how he can use a mobile phone. He takes the phone out of his shirt pocket and places into his mouth. He uses his tongue to dial the number and then moves the phone to his ear. Absolutely remarkable! He has no hope of false arms or a dog to guide him. Eleven years in a hospital ward and no hope of leaving!
Declan leaves from Chiang Mai to head home. His time in Thailand is over. He came to Thailand a sixth form student and leaves a young man. He will start medical school in September. He has had so many medical experiences – including a visit to a Thai hospital to get 9 stitches to a head wound! He has seen patients with acid burns, children without legs, a friend’s daughter die of TB, realized he has been working with people who are alcohol dependent and severely depressed, worked with a local doctor who treats the hill tribe people who won’t come to hospital, been amazed by the resilience of people who live on rubbish dumps – and not be phased by any of it. It has reinforced his desire to be a doctor and serve the poorest people.
We discuss the highlights of our 8 months in Mae Sot and all agree that just living in the community is the most important. They do not need our charity – they need our solidarity, to stand with them against the injustices they suffer. They want our friendship as equals and we hope we have been able to pass the test of being their equal. It is living in a community that helps you understand it. We realize we give them so little and they give us so much. We are humbled by their concern for each other and how they truly live in solidarity with each other.
We come up with a list of over 20 highlights and find it difficult to narrow it down.
For me I will always remember trekking and staying in Karen state with our FTUK friends. The simplicity of their way of life is awe inspiring. I now understand why they have fought for over 60 years for the right to live in Karen state. With no electricity, little food, no roads, no traffic – it was Kawthoolei (The land without evil) as they call it.
Secondly the meeting with ASSK will not be forgotten. An icon for democracy by peaceful means. Influential but humble. Ordinary but yet extra ordinary. A remarkable lady. It was an honour to meet her and be inspired by her.
Thirdly I will never forget Christmas Eve in Laputta, deep inside Burma where few foreigners ever venture. Walking in the dark (no electricity) we could see families living in huts along with their farm animals – goats and cows – with babies being put to bed in cradles. It was the Nativity scene being re-enacted a thousand times. The sky was clear and stars shone brightly as if guiding us to these people, only the three of us had no precious gifts to give.
I’m sure the journey will continue. It was 12 years ago when I first came to Thailand to work with the Burmese people. I have had disappointments but overwhelmingly I have had the most positive of experiences. I have met many people who I hope will give me the greatest accolade anyone can give you – I hope they accept me as a friend.