May 2012 in Mae Sot

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.


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April 2012 in Mae Sot

Life seemed to return to ‘normal’ in April after the excitement of Karen state. It seems the world’s attention has been on Burma for a few weeks this month – they seem to be desperate for good news with the atrocities in Syria and the on going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You will probably be aware of the events as much as I.

April 1st was election day in Burma. As expected ASSK and the NLD won most of the seats with a massive majority but they still only have a small percentage of the seats in parliament. The scenes of celebration in Rangoon were wonderful but it is only one very small step.

April 4th was International Landmines Awareness Day – I bet hardly anyone knew that! It was practically ignored here as well but my heart bleeds when I see the many young men (and some women and children) who walk, crawl and hobble around Mae Sot with arms and legs missing. The psychological burden is as big as the physical burden for these poor unfortunate people.

Another huge step forward was the visit of the Karen National Union (KNU), the Karen government in exile to Karen state and Rangoon to meet the new government, Karen leaders and ASSK. This was unthinkable just 6 months ago. The Karen leaders are seriously committed to a dialogue on peace and development…

Then David Cameron visits Burma on 13th April meeting the new government and ASSK. April 18th we hear ASSK will travel to Norway and the UK in June. April 20th we hear the EU will suspend sanctions. The number of diplomats and business people visiting Rangoon means all the hotels are full and there is no affordable accommodation for tourists.

April 13th to 16th was Buddhist New Year in Thailand and Burma. It is celebrated with a water festival. Four days of throwing water all day. As soon as you walk out of the house someone throws a bucket of water over you. This continues all day. As it was very very hot we were glad of the cooling water, however it did stop us doing anything else. We had no choice but to join in. However, after four days it was becoming a little tedious. The real sneaky people were the ones who put ice in the water and then throw very cold water! I can tell you it wakes you up.

Back in Mae Sot we visit out Burmese friend NN who fell out of tree whilst collecting mango fruit. He has three broken ribs and a punctured lung. He says he will have to give up smoking now. But seriously he was very badly injured – he landed on a concrete bench and was lucky to survive. A few days later we bump into NN who tells us he is going back to Rangoon, his mother is very worried about him and wants hem to come home. At least the situation has changed and he feels safe to return. He asks us to visit him and gives us the address of his mother’s tea shop. It is five years since he has seen her. His friend ZT who has spent the last five years (wasted years he said) in Nu Poe refugee camp will go with him. They are both happy to be going back to their families but sad to be leaving Mae Sot. How many more will go home?

A UK trade union delegation arrives on April 27th in Mae Sot. FTUK have invited ten delegates, most are from the north east of England but one is from Scotland and another from the midlands. Anne and I help show the group around Mae Sot visiting the political prisoners’ office and Mae Toa clinic on the first day. Apart from these being very emotional visits the temperature reaches 40 C. It is good to see some ‘Geordies’ after 7 months. We remember how loud and busy a night out is. They never stop talking! And they love the food (and the beer). We visit the river Moei and then tour the migrant factories among many other activities. They are appalled to hear the many migrants get only 65 baht a day when the minimum wage is 226 baht per day. They now understand why many factory owners drive around in expensive cars. The workers are almost slaves. Most are registered and are entitled to the minimum wage but don’t get it. Other benefits of registration are access to Thai health care for them and access to schools for their children. This is an issue as many charities are funding migrant schools but the children could go into Thai schools. The situation is even more complicated by the ‘peace‘ process with many people considering returning to Burma. What is the future for many of these schools?

May 1st arrives and the delegation joins the May Day celebrations in Mae Sot. We have to meet at 7:30 am. The march assembles in a car park with workers in their factory T shirts and lining up behind their factory banners. Trade union membership in Thailand is only 3% of workers. Nearly all the workers are Burmese and all very young. There are few workers organized into trade unions in the factories. It is significant that they march with their colleagues from their factory. In the UK we would march with out unions. Thankfully the march is only about a mile or so as the temperature was already in the high 30s when we set off at 8:00 am. About a 1000 workers march to a field where inter-factory football has already started. We leave this celebration early to go to a meeting organized by a Workers organization. This organisation was not allowed to give any political speeches at the ‘official’ march so decided to hold their own. About 300 people are crowded into a hall when we arrive. People give speeches and banners around the room demand the minimum wage and an eight hour working day. We are going back in time to the London ‘Dockers tanner’ and other such campaigns. We are invited to give a speech and Anne volunteers. A translator does a great job and Anne’s speech is well received.

April in Mae Sot was very hot – uncomfortably hot on many days. We haven’t had rain for six months. The rains are overdue now and there is a drought in Tak province. No doubt the monsoon rain will arrive soon to make our last month in Mae Sot a wet one.

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March 2012 in the Revolution area of Karen state

Our friend LS had invited us to his village a few months ago and we penciled in March to make the trip. His village is inside Karen state, in the ‘revolution’ area as it is known. As the ceasefire was holding out and the peace process was on going we felt it was safe to go, and also safe for our friends to guide us there. We were told a short trip up the river by boat and then a day walking to the village. It sounded easy but it turned out to be the most remarkable journey I have ever made. I had seen the pictures and footage of Karen state but to see it with my own eyes was astonishing.

We left Mae Sot by car on a Tuesday morning to head for the Salween river. Four hours later we arrived at a beautiful Thai village with the wonderful Salween flowing in front of us. We could see the beautiful mountains of Karen state, Burma. Over a lunch of rice, which was to be our diet for the next ten days, our friends negotiated our boat trip. The first delay was upon us. No foreigners could leave from this village. We had to head to Mae Sariang for an overnight stay. Three of our Burmese friends headed off up the river – we hoped to meet up next day. PG would have to organize a car and a boat from another location tomorrow. Next day we travelled for four hours along dirt roads through a forest until we met the Salween again. We were at a deserted spot and told to wait out of sight. A boat would arrive within the hour and we would be on our way if the Thai authorities didn’t see us. One hour later after waiting in the baking sun a boat arrived. We quickly headed down to the boat and off we went up the magnificent Salween that separates Thailand from Burma. However, my view of the scenery was soon to end when I was told that I must lie in the bottom of the boat covered with bags. Both the SPDC and Thai authorities had spotters on the river banks and would stop any boat carrying a foreigner. After half an hour I was allowed up. We were now in a section of the river controlled by Karen forces. We arrived at our destination soon afterwards. We disembarked and were told to go straight up to a hut on the edge of the village. Our friends didn’t want any villagers to know we were staying overnight. Food and water would be brought to us. We were told we must set off in the dark next day so we could pass through the village without anyone seeing us. It was a very hot evening when we fell asleep for the first time in Free Karen state. We woke at 3 am not to start walking but because it was so cold. Declan, Anne and I had to get up and put on all the clothes we had to try to keep warm. We couldn’t wait to start walking to get warm. PG came in at 5 am to see if we were ready to go – we couldn’t wait. We knew we had a 12 hour trek ahead through the mountains but we needed to get warm. So with torches in hand we set off up a very steep mountain path.

It was all rather surreal – an armed soldier led the way and another followed behind. We were told to keep to the path they took and not to go ahead on our own. If we wanted the toilet we had to ask if it was a safe area to go off the track. Land mines had been planted in some areas and we must be very careful. As we climbed out of the village in the dark the soldier shouted at us to get off the track and into the trees. It was still dark as we clambered up a three foot dirt embankment into the trees. I was getting very frightened until I saw why we had to hurry. Coming down the mountain was an enormous elephant. I was so relieved – only an elephant. After a mile or so further we came across a section of the forest that was on fire – slash and burn farming. It was spectacular in the dark as we weaved our way through it. By now we were warm as the ascent was so steep. At first light we stopped for coffee – our friends were carrying a flask of hot water for us. The day was to continue relentlessly. We walked two hours, then rested. Our every step was watched by our guides. Our friends didn’t want us to have an accident as health care was at least a day away now. So we carefully climbed up and up as it got hotter and hotter – about 37 C at mid-day. Lunch in a Karen village was wonderful – rice with 3 in 1 coffee. A meal we had quite often in the next days. Going down hill was equally difficult as the terrain was very uneven but at last we made it to the village. Very tired, hot and sweaty. After a ‘bucket’ shower we ate rice with some vegetables before going to bed. It was absolute luxury – we had a wood floor and blankets. We all slept very well.

Next day we headed into the village to get permission to visit some schools. After a short 30 mins walk we arrived at the village community office. It was all very military with the officials in army uniforms. We were told that today was not possible but we could go the next day. We were all quite relieved as we actually wanted to rest. So Friday was spent resting. Dinner was fabulous– LS is catholic and as it was Friday and Lent he would catch fish and cook it for us. One tiny fish was all he could get between about ten of us, so we had to be satisfied with tinned mackerel which we bought from a shop.

On Saturday we walked to the next village Lay Pu Der to visit the primary school. BLUK have supported this school with teacher salaries for three years. After one hours walk along the river passing many Free Burma Ranger groups (Four people, two armed and two medics in each group) we arrived. All the teachers greeted us and thanked us for their salary – a massive £80 per year! The children arrived after lunch (more rice and chillies) so see us. After a motivational speech from Declan we were presented with Karen tops and the head of the school committee gave a vote of thanks to us. Really it is the people who donate money to BLUK who should be thanked. We walked to the next village for an overnight stay. We couldn’t stay in Lay Pu Der as they only had ‘jungle’ toilet. We stayed at the family home of one of the FTUK workers and had our first and last taste of meat whilst in Karen state. Unfortunately one of their chickens had broke its leg. So fortunately for us it was ‘put out of its misery’ and we ate it for dinner.

New Generation school was our destination on Sunday. 130 pupils aged 14 -19 coming from the nearby villages. The school was very poor with inadequate food for the children but these were the children of families who were determined to stay and fight in the ‘revolution’ area. The head teacher was very proud and determined to stay despite the very poor conditions. The school had a junior military training section, again confirming we were in a war zone. We walked back to our base in the late afternoon and were cooled by a light shower. The scenery was so beautiful but the passing soldiers on the path reminded us that this was a very difficult place to live. In the evening we were invited to meet the army general in charge of this brigade area. He was about my age and had been a soldier all his adult life. He lived with his family in the village and was very hospitable. But even in his home a soldier sat listening to the radio collecting information from the front line.

On Monday we headed for Day Bu Noh clinic where we heard that malaria, diarrhea and malnutrition are the main causes of admission. The clinic was series of about ten bamboo huts that tried to cater for all eventualities as they were at least a day walk from any modern facility. They showed us what they said was an operating theatre – a joiners bench in a bamboo hut with one light above the bench! They could amputate limbs they said but anything complex was carried to Thailand. They had one fridge, powered by solar panels to store medicines but this struggled in the rainy season when there was insufficient sunlight. It was truly very basic with so few facilities. Now I know why many walk for days to get medical care at Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot.

After another 30 minute walk along the rive we came to Day Bu Noh Number 1 High School. It was in a beautiful setting by the river with mountains all around. A pity the school was just a group of bamboo classrooms with a small whiteboard in each. The school has 500 pupils and 20 teachers who are paid £80 per year. It was the end of term and the tired head teacher told us she had no money to pay the teachers salary next year. This year’s funder had withdrawn funding because they refused to change the name of the school to the funder’s name. So children will suffer because of the ego of some charitable foundation. We were asked to address the children who were waiting for us – all 500. We did our best to encourage them. They seemed happy and relaxed but behind it all you could see hunger for food and freedom.

We went to sleep early on our last night as we had to set off before light the next day. We were glad to be setting off early as it was cool and the mountain we had to climb was enormous. It took four long hours to get to the top where we rested. We slowly followed the soldier in front as we made our way back to the Salween. Twelve hours after starting we arrived at the river. We had to wait another hour before we could enter the village when it was dark. We were all tired and very hungry but at least we were allowed to wash the dust off in the river with buffalo watching over us. As soon as dark arrived we jumped into a boat for a short journey to a sandy embankment near our hut. Exhausted we hoped for a big dinner to replenish our energy levels. We were out of luck as we had ran out of food. We were served rice with chillies and ‘rice soup’. When we asked what the soup was, we were told it was the drained water from the rice! We went to bed hungry like so many other people in Karen state. Rising before the sun we made our way to the boat. As we journeyed down the Salween the sun rose magnificently above the mountains. It was a magical end to a visit I will never forget.
As I hid in the bottom of the boat once again I prayed for peace in Burma. The resilience of these people is awe inspiring. I hope to return one day to a free and democratic Karen state..

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February in Mae Sot

January 31st was Karen Revolution Day celebrating the day in 1948 when the Karen people demonstrated for their political freedom. Sixty four years later they are still campaigning and demonstrating.

One of my Karen friends says perhaps they should rename the day Karen Evolution Day. But things are changing and perhaps we will see an independent Karen state within the Union of Myanmar in the not so distant future. There are many activities to try to move the peace process on already starting. Among them a Catholic bishop from Burma visits Mae Sot to meet with the KNU (Karen government). The bishop is ethnic Karen and wants to help by opening debate with the authorities in his area of Burma.

Fr J invites us to his house to meet with some health workers. When we arrive we meet eight young medics who work inside Burma with the Free Burma Rangers. FBR work in the most dangerous and difficult places inside Burma where health care is non-existent. They risk their lives on every trip. What amazed me was the age of these brave people, not more than 25 years old and sacrificing their lives for the care of others. For more info on the Free Burma Rangers go to

DLM from the KNU government invites me for a chat to discuss the ‘Peace process’. How things have changed. I would not have believed anyone if in October I would be invited to give my opinions on the peace process after 64 years of war. We live in important times. He shares with me his concern about the ‘new government’ as we agree to call it. He is, of course, very skeptical of them but understands it will take time for trust to develop. The KNU will ask for the removal of SPDC troops from IDP areas to allow displaced people to return. Refugees in camps will have to stay for some time as they have no homes anymore and land mines litter their villages. Although he is very cautious I am so pleased that he is talking about peace and reconciliation. It will be a long and hard process but at least we are at the beginning.

Another sign of changing times is the visit of Tha Pwee. I met him some years ago but since then he has been living in Canada. He has returned to Mae Sot to see his mother and father who live in Hpa An inside Karen state. They will travel to Thailand to see him. He dare not go to Burma but they feel comfortable to travel to Mae Sot (the sneaky way as they have no passports). Tha Pwe has not seen them for 10 years – he is about 30 years old and I wonder if they will recognize him? This is real progress – families being re-united, albeit only temporary in this case. But hope for the future. A few days later he brings them to meet DLM who gives his mother and father a huge hug – they are friends of his who he hasn’t seen for 10 years also. It was such a joy to see a family separated by war united once again. I hope for many more of these reunions in the coming months and years.

Sarah, my daughter, is visiting and she wants to go into Burma. We have to pay £10 each to enter Burma – I hope it goes towards the health or education service!! We take two taxis (a bicycle with a wooden bucket on the front!) to visit a school. As there are three of us in one taxi we have to get out as soon as we hit a small incline as the ‘driver’ can’t peddle up the hill. When we reach the top we all jump back in and continue to the school. We will be at the school for a few hours but the drivers want to stay and take us back – it would be quicker for us to walk but they don’ t seem to have any other customers and we are very good business for them. The school we visit is a nursery with over 120 children all about 3 or 4 years old and only 3 teachers. They had just finished lunch and were upstairs sleeping for an hour. We take a look and see a sea of children resting on the floor, some asleep, some just resting but no noise from any of them. What a contrast to a few miles away in Thailand were many refugee children have much better facilities. No-one provides lunch for these children – they bring their own and must pay for uniforms. Thank goodness the situation may be changing to hopefully allow all children an equal opportunity to education and health care. Still the children look happy and well cared for. The school is set in the grounds of a catholic church and run by a catholic sister. They told us that out of over 120 children only one was Christian, all the rest were Buddhist.

We head up to Mae Hong Son with Sarah and make contact with Al Khoune a member of the Karenni Teachers Union. He comes into town without a travel permit so is very nervous when we meet him in the centre of MHS. He introduces us to his friend who has brought him 4 hours on a motor bike from Karenni refugee camp 2. The man is a General in the Karenni army and has a special pass which allows him to travel to MHS. AK could not come on his own and needed his friend to bring him. He tells us of his work inside Karenni state and how he has to liaise with the warring factions to manage his education department. It is difficult and dangerous but another person who risks his life to do his job. He hasn’t seen his family for 4 months and is heading for refugee camp 1 to see them. He is going to Mae Sot next week so we arrange to see him there and link him with FTUK and FTUB.

Back in Mae Sot we learn that U Maung Maung has provided training to FTUK about how to register as a Trade Union inside Karen state and that things are progressing fast as PG (Gen Sec of FTUK) has already left for a meeting with other ethnic groups to discuss how best to go about registering. She will travel into Karen state for the meeting. This is really exciting as it is vital that workers meet together and that the development of civil society is not along ethnic or religious groupings. PG will travel for two days to get to the meeting as there is no road network as she must travel by boat and then walk.

At football coaching at BHSOH school I am greeted by a sad and tired headteacher Khaing Oo Maung, a 70 year old veteran of the struggle. He tells me his daughter died while I was away. She had TB and had been very sick. Anne had visited her a few weeks ago to see if she could help. She was very frail and being cared for by the older students at the school. We were concerned for the health of the students caring for her as they did not use any protective equipment. Anne advised them about the risks to themselves. TB in this area is quite common and even if they can get drugs many don’t work. So many people die for lack of health care.

See for more details on the lack of medicine and facilities.

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January 2012 in Mae Sot

Back in Mae Sot we head back to catch up with FTUK and meet up with DLM, former chairperson of FTUK but is now part of the Karen government KNU. He tells me about the peace talks with the new Burmese government to go ahead later this month. The KNU will go into Burma with a small team to discuss a ‘cease-fire’ but also with other requests such as prisoner release and return of land confiscated during the war. He is cautious but hopeful of real progress this time especially after I told him of the opening up inside Burma. My sister is visiting so she comes with us to Mae La refugee camp.

We go in the ‘tricky’ way. Alison does not have a ‘camp pass’ so can’t go in officially but there is always another way. We visit the handicapped hospital and I am shocked at the sight of a ward full of blind men with limbs missing. They are all landmine victims who are cared for here because they are both visually and physically impaired. They spend most of the day lying on beds as there is little or nothing to do. They need 24 hour care and a small team of nurses attend to them. We also meet Saw Blessing’s wife.

We have some photos of her husband from our time in Rangoon. She looks at them and doesn’t recognize him in the picture. She hasn’t seen her husband for three years and she is a little shocked to hear from him. We give her some more photos for her children and pass on a message from Saw Blessing. She was very emotional – I hope peace will come soon and they can be re-united. Back in Mae Sot one of our teacher friends has become a parent. A sixth month old baby was abandoned at the roadside.

The father couldn’t cope after the mother had died. The baby was quite sick but after a spell in hospital she is gaining strength. J will be her mother now even though she has a full time job. She will try to give this child a decent future. We celebrate Burmese Independence day on Jan 4th but everyone is disappointed in the release of only a small number (22 or so) political prisoners, but even so it is progress. I visit Aung Hlaing a former political prisoner who has his father visiting from Rangoon. His father is 79 years old and they haven’t seen each other for 5 years. AH wanted to hear about our visit to Rangoon and ASSK.

He was very pleased to hear that Rangoon was much more open and that NLD flags and ASSK pictures were on sale. He wants to go home to see his brothers and smiling he says he will go home next year if the situation keeps improving. He is very fearful of re-arrest and his health is not good. More time in prison could kill him! His father tells me he is very rich because he has 14 grandchildren and five children. Aung Lwin is fine and fully recovered from his stabbing. I visited him and asked who paid the bill. He tells me he only had to make a donation because he was discharged on December 5th (the King’s birthday). The hospital would pay the rest in honour of the King. AL’s friend arrives while I am visiting and another shock awaits me.

The man is blind in one eye and has severe burns to his face, upper body and arms. I am told he is the victim of an ‘acid attack’ in Burma. He came to Thailand for treatment as there was none available in Burma. He can’t work because of his disability and relies on his 14 year old daughter who works in the nearby factory to provide for him. The Karen Peace/Cease-fire delegation heads for Burma on January 11th. They are escorted to the border by the Thai authorities, then swop vehicles over the bridge and travel in Burmese government cars. Their safe passage is assured but many are still fearful of betrayal. Next day we hear thee good news that a cease-fire agreement has been signed. We are very happy but our Karen friends remind us that this has happened before. They say if it lasts for a few months they will start to trust the new government.

 After 63 years of war it is difficult to trust each other, but this is another milestone on the road to democracy. Even more good news on January 13th as reports of many political prisoners are being released. Lots of big names are released including the father of our friend Wai Hnin. We are so happy for her. 651 prisoners are released, all political prisoners. This really is something to celebrate. The freed political prisoners in Mae Sot hold a party.

They are pleased that many of their friends have been released, but still hundreds remain in prison so the campaign continues until they are all free. However, this is a historic day and what many have been hoping and campaigning for. Maung Maung, General Secretary of FTUB is in town and calls round to our house to see us. We discuss all the latest news. He is very optimistic that real change is on the way but we must keep up the pressure and keep working for it. FTUB have applied to register three trade unions inside Burma. MM says the government were surprised at the speed of the applications and don’t have the systems in place yet so they have delayed/refused their applications.

The application requires a list of 30 members with addresses. The authorities will visit each member to check they are real members – how intimidating! FTUB have their lawyers working on the process. They ask that FTUK apply as soon as possible to register in Karen state. FTUB will offer training on the process in. These applications will really test if the new government is serious about democracy or just playing a game. Our friend Sister Joy is leaving Mae Sot after about seven years working here. She has introduced us to some of the poorest communities around Mae Sot and she has been a ‘joy’ to work with, always positive and friendly. She is being transferred to Cambodia. Our loss is their gain.

She calls around to say good-bye, and we exchange gifts to remember each other by. We promise to visit her in Cambodia. We will miss her company and friendship. After another 7 hour drive we find ourselves back in Mae Ra Ma Luang refugee camp and then onto Mae La Oon to deliver more training but more importantly to bring news of our trip to Burma and the important changes that they will be unaware of. News of the changes is filtering through and some people are considering returning home. This is not possible for many who no longer have a village or home to return to. For example, one man tells me of his time as a ‘mine-sweeper’. The SPDC forced him to walk in front of them and check the road for land mines! He was given a six foot bamboo pole to prod the earth in front of him. He said he was so scared. After this experience he fled as soon as he could. He can’t go back to his village as it is littered with land mines. To make us feel comfortable and at home in the camp a scorpion decides to bite Anne. It is very painful for about 24 hours but has no long term effects.

After I was bitten by a dog and needed two rabies injections it was her turn. Back in Mae Sot we meet up with Khun Saing who is an ex-political prisoner now living in Sheffield. He is visiting his wife and son who live in Noh Poe refugee camp. They are awaiting permission to join Khun Saing in the UK but have been waiting for 4 years now. KS thinks they will never get permission and so they are considering going back to Rangoon. This is very dangerous as his wife is also an ex-political prisoner. They will monitor the situation carefully but she is fed up of living as a refugee. KS also tells us that many groups are looking for ways to return to Burma safely and with dignity. If the reforms continue he expects many to return and work for democracy from inside. To find out more about Khun Saing and political prisoners look at ‘Into the Current:Burma’s Political prisoners’ on youtube or Khun Saing’s story is featured. ‘We want to return safely and with dignity to help build democracy’ Khun Saing former political prisoner.

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‘We are with you now and always’

This month started with some shocking news for me. Aung Lwin, my subsistence farmer friend has been attacked and stabbed. He was taken to hospital by his friends when they found him by the side of his field. Fr J says he has arranged for a friend to stay in hospital with him to make sure he is OK. He also tells me that 30 IDP huts have been destroyed by the Thai authorities in a village near the border. There are thousands of these people who cross the border for temporary shelter but don’t wish to register as refugees as they want to return home as soon as it is possible. The authorities don’t like these settlements and so destroy them from time to time.

More positive news arrives about Burma with the visit of Hilary Clinton. Barrack Obama has sent ASSK a personal letter that says ‘We are with you now and always’. This news is greeted with excitement, but as ASSK says this is only the ‘beginning of the beginning’ and ‘there is a long way to go’. When we ask our friends if they think this is a turning point they all say ‘50/50’. They have been through this before and don’t want to get excited to be let down again.

Our work with FTUK continues. They are planning the first of five trips inside Karen state. This first one goes deep inside, taking seven days to walk to the village in which they will do the training. They will spend a week in the village and then start the long walk home. They will need a military escort as it goes close by or through SPDC controlled areas. I don’t ask too many questions as I can see they don’t want to think too much about the dangers themselves.

Declan has befriended EQ, a street child aged 14. This boy has been selling snacks around Mae Sot for all the years we have been coming, so at least 7 years. He works with his mother, Phon. He remembers Declan from previous visits and can now speak good English. Phon doesn’t speak any English so EQ translates for her. I remember EQ when he was very young and his mother used to carry him around Mae Sot late into the night when he was very tired. EQ doesn’t know his father. EQ and Phon invite us to visit their home as they are very proud to have just moved into a flat for the first time. The flat is just a concrete cell with a shared bathroom, but they are very proud to have their own home. All their possessions are in a small corner of the room. Everything could be fitted into two plastic carrier bags. Phon wears an ASSK ‘Freedom to lead’ T shirt which she is very proud to wear. She thinks she would be arrested in Burma for wearing it

December 5th is the King of Thailand’s birthday and we hear the news that the ‘Friendship bridge’ has re-opened. The bridge has been closed for over a year since fighting broke out in Myawaddy, the town on the other side of the river. However, now there is a lull in fighting and the possibility of a ‘cease-fire’, so it appears that the authorities think it is safe to reopen it and chose the King’s birthday to honour him. The papers report that one quarter of Thailand’s border trade goes over this bridge. Most of the trade had continued without the bridge with goods going across the river on wooden barges with the ‘tax’ going to the gangs who organize the illegal crossings. Both governments were losing a lot in tax revenue.

I spent three days this week at a teacher training college working with about 40 trainee teachers from various areas across Burma. They are wonderfully enthusiastic and enjoy (really) my input. The sad issue here is that in a class of 40 there are two landmine victims – one girl who has had her leg blown off and a boy who has lost an arm. If peace does come to Karen state then it will still be impossible to return to many areas because of the many thousands of landmines that have been planted, and nobody knows where they are.

Goods news about Aung Lwin. He is out of hospital. I go to see him and his scar is huge – about 18 long, but it looks clean and he looks well. Hopefully, he should be fine. The surgeon opened him up to check for internal damage and it seems there is no damage.

Our visa requires us to leave Thailand every 90 days, so we fly to Burma to visit our friends in Rangoon and Pathein. Arriving in Burma still shocks us. Although Burma is a much poorer country than Thailand it is much more expensive place to visit. We can only stay at registered hotels which are all very expensive, costing up to 200 USD per night! We have booked into the cheapest one we can find which costs 20 USD per room per night. But you get what you pay for!! We arrived in the dark to Karaoke music blasting out and cobwebs all over our room. The room is huge and very colonial. You could imagine it in the 1920’s as a magnificent hotel but as it had not been painted or updated since then. The manager dashes off to the local police station with our passports to register us. We are the first foreign visitors they have ever had. Surprisingly we slept well despite the music but woke up to a floor covered in cock roaches!! The staff are so helpful and apologetic about our room. They offer us other rooms. After looking at them we realize we have the best rooms in the hotel. The staff are very poorly paid at about 50 USD a month. Many stay all week as they cannot afford the daily journey to work at about 1 USD. Next night we hear about the ‘Fashion show’ in the Karaoke bar. Here young girls parade on stage in front of an audience of men. If a man thinks they are beautiful he pays for a garland to be put around the girl and she comes to sit with him and talk to him. The girls can earn up to 30 USD for ‘talking’ to the man. There is no dancing allowed and only ‘talking’ takes place – so we are told? Very strange but common around big cities in Burma.

Food poisoning lays Declan and I low for two days. I guess we can’t be surprised. We have sat outside restaurants eating our meal watching rats running along the streets. We have seen inside some of the kitchens and know hygiene standards are so low. We are careful where we eat and what we eat. Back at the hotel we are getting to know the hotel staff well and have seen where they ‘live’. Their sleeping accommodation is so pitiful. Two sleep in the kitchen and another in the store room, others in a shed. We are shocked but they are thankful as they say their boss is a good one – he allows them to stay at the hotel, saving them on transport costs, and feeds them.

An FTUK colleague asks us to contact B, a friend who is a university lecturer in politics at Myanmar Institute of Theology. He is very happy to talk about the current political situation and has a picture of ASSK in his office. He says that speaking about politics is not wrong and that he tries to encourage his students not be afraid, but admits that after 50 years of dictatorship this is difficult. After getting to know him he confides in us that he is married and that his wife and three children live in Mae La refugee camp. He used to work in Mae Sot, knows most of the FTUK staff, and has travelled recently to the USA. He hasn’t seen his family for three years. The last time he visited, the security service in Thailand visited him. He was frightened of arrest and deportation so now he uses a false name and no-one knows his past at his place of work. He takes us to see the bothers of our FTUK friend. We tell them their brother is alive and well. They are so thankful to hear news of a brother who never contacts them for security reasons. We ask to take a photo but they are too frightened. B persuades them it will be safe but they will only agree to a photo with their heads cut off! We tell them that they have a new baby nephew and they are delighted to hear the news. They will tell their mother she has another grandchild. It is incredulous to us that they fear contacting family to tell them such joyous news. B tells us he is off to Karen state with some friends for the Christmas period. He is going to look for his mother – he hasn’t had contact for some years but will head to where he thinks she is living as he has heard that the fighting has stopped. The best Christmas present he will get is to hold his mother once again and know she is alive and well. He says he is frightened to go into the ‘war-zone’ in Karen state showing us a bullet wound in his leg and missing finger from a previous encounter with the SPDC. We wish him well. He asks us to visit his wife and children in Mae La and tell them he loves them and that he is well. With tears in our eyes we promise to take a photo of him to them when we go into Mae La in January.
‘If there is to be trouble, let it be in my time, so that my children can have peace’.
Many have sacrificed so much already.

‘We are with you now and always’
Barrack Obama’s message to Aung San Suu Kyi

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‘Ask not what democracy can do for you, but what you can do for democracy’ – My meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi

We arrived late on 11th December and had been given the telephone number of the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters to ring when we arrived. We found our mobile phone wouldn’t work in Burma and for security reasons we were reluctant to use the hotel telephone so we delayed ringing until we could borrow the phone of a friend (buying a new one costs £400 so that was out of the question). When we rang it was late on the 12th December and we were told we had missed the appointment with ‘The Lady’. We were devastated – it had been planned for earlier on in the day but we hadn’t been told. After explaining our situation the NLD said they would call us back. We waited anxiously for the call. Two days later they rang our hotel saying they had another appointment for us. We were so grateful. We had travelled a long way to present Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with the ‘Freedom of the City of Newcastle’ award and we didn’t want to return without presenting it to her. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the iconic leader of the NLD in Burma. She was released in November last year after spending most of the last twenty years under house arrest for her peaceful opposition to the dictatorship which runs Burma. The days went slowly as we waited in Rangoon. On the morning of our appointment, 22 Dec, having had a restless night, we took a taxi to the NLD headquarters where our meeting was to take place. The taxi driver smiled when we gave our destination – he knew the place well and was very happy to take us there. Only three months ago we would have had to take a taxi to a nearby shopping centre and walk the rest of the way as no taxi driver would dare take passengers to the NLD as the Military Intelligence would take note of their taxi and withdraw their license. How things had changed. We arrived early not wanting to miss this appointment and were met by U Nine Nine, an NLD member of parliament elected in 1990, who had spent 19 years in prison for daring to stay loyal to the democratic political process. He had been released only two years ago. He looked remarkably well for his age of 70. We wondered what kept him going and were so proud to meet him. He told us he had shared a prison cell with our good friend Khun Saing, who now lives in England. The office was buzzing. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was upstairs in a meeting. Her security people were situated around the office but it was very relaxed. T shirts, caps and badges were on sale. This would have been impossible just two months ago. At twelve noon we were called upstairs. All three of us were very nervous. Apart from Nelson Mandela, we could think of no-one else we would like to meet. We walked upstairs and were asked to remove our shoes – common practice when entering a home in Burma. As we entered she turned and greeted us with a warm smile and shook each of our hands, then invited us to sit with her. She was very elegant and spoke very clear English – she had a little difficulty with our north-eastern accent at first. She was taller than we had imagined and very thin. We were told later that she eats very little and often fasts for whole days. The conversation was sparkling, the subject matter changing regularly. We asked her about the 100th anniversary of St Mary’s RC Cathedral she had attended recently in Rangoon. She asked if clapping was allowed in church after telling us of the warm welcome she received when she arrived – the congregation of about 10,000 had spontaneously burst into applause. We talked about politics and she said some people think politics is ‘dirty’ and that that excludes good people. She wanted to change people’s perception of politics. She wanted more people to get involved, more ‘good’ people and more young people, looking to Declan to inspire young Burmese people to get involved. She thanked Declan for speaking out in London last year on the occasion of the visit of the Pope. She wanted more people to speak out against injustice in their country. She asks them not to be afraid but to stand with her in the fight for democracy. She was clearly telling us that she alone cannot bring about democracy but that it requires all of us to work for it. She also reminded us of the responsibility that the rich have to take care of the poor. She indicated that this must start in Burma first where there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. She was very concerned for the poor in Burma. She was well aware of the extreme poverty many people live in. She was very normal after such a long time under house arrest. She talked about her two sons, Kim and Alexander, and her dog, and family life in general. She was very focused and not distracted at all. She asked what the people of Newcastle are called – on hearing our reply ‘Geordies’, she said ‘the Geordies are a very strong people’. We were so proud. However, when asked about football we found out she was a Chelsea supporter, having lived near the ground when she was in London. The only game she has ever seen was Chelsea v Fulham, many years ago. We explained that Declan was coaching young Burmese children in football and she was pleased saying it was a good game for team building and that the people of Burma needed to work as a team now. We mentioned political prisoners and that our friend Khun Saing sent his best wishes. Declan told her that Khun Saing has to sleep with the light on following 13 years in prison with the light on constantly. She was reminded of her short period in Insein prison where the light remained on all night. It was difficult she said but as it had been, for her, only a short time she had no long term effects, but she was very conscious of the need to free all political prisoners as part of the democratic process that was slowly beginning to take place in Burma.. The twenty minutes with her went so fast. Her assistant came into the room to indicate time was up and we hadn’t presented her with the ‘Freedom’ scroll yet. I explained what the certificate meant, that it was the highest honour the City of Newcastle could bestow on her and that she was now entitled to graze her cows on the Town Moor. She said she didn’t have cows but would it be possible to walk her dog there! We gave her a picture of Wai Hnin, from the Burma Campaign UK receiving the award on her behalf in Newcastle in June. She knew that Wai Hnin’s father was in prison as a political prisoner and had indeed met with her mother and sister. She was very pleased to receive the award and promised to get the scroll framed and display in her home. She thanked us for visiting and said she hoped to see us again. We invited her to Newcastle to receive the award again in person. If the situation changes she said she would hope to take up our invite. ‘Hope to see you again’ she said as we left her office. What an experience. She was so normal, showing that it is ordinary people filled with great courage that can change the world. We are all inspired and called to follow her example. We hope that all the children of Burma: Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and those of no religion will one day live together in peace, justice and democracy. In the words of the late Vaclav Havel “Love and truth will overcome lies and hate” Anne, Tony and Declan Stokle For more information on Aung San Suu Kyi follow this link for the newly released film ‘The Lady’

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