Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
The tribes were there first. At some point, individuals and groups exerted power and influence, drawing arbitrary boundaries which may or may not relate to the natural tribal groupings and migratory patterns. Most of the latter were defined in simple ways — by the crops available and the needs of the animals for grazing and water.
With the imposition of boundaries came conflicts over land ownership and use, as well as property on the land. The conflicts were exacerbated by inter-tribal marriages, linguistic differences, religious beliefs and cultural norms. In some cases, even the names of the group’s and countries have been changed. Burma is now Myanmar; Siam, now Thailand; and so forth.
In the past three decades, disputes escalated to severe conflicts in Myanmar, which have caused many to seek refuge in Thailand. I have found myself becoming habituated to using the words “refuge”, “refugee”, and so forth without thinking, indeed even becoming too complacent, not considering nor comprehending what this means to the people involved. True, I knew a few individual stories or I sent a contribution to a well-meaning NGO. But then it is easy to walk away from the opportunity, even the demand, to consider the inhumanity of the whole process – camps, bureaucracies, lives on hold.
In this short week in Mae Sot, I and the other Rotary Peace Fellows have looked more closely and thoughtfully at the various border-related relationships – the flow of people back and forth across the border of Myanmar and Thailand; government policies and laws; and, the wide assortment of NGO’s doing their best to maintain services for the refugees, migrants and internally-displaced persons, while chasing the funding sources. In this setting, I found no escape from a myriad of uncomfortable questions:
How are human beings labeled, categorized and “defined”?
What positive components of the refugee camps should be retained?
What patterns of community are not effective or humane?
How is it possible to “prepare” a refugee for resettlement back to Myanmar? to other countries? Who determines who goes? When? What are the rules? When are they used? Who benefits?
And, then some of the most disquieting questions for which I have no answers are:
What is my role? the roles of others?
Is personal experience helpful in resolving these challenges?
Or does it simply present too many emotional layers that impede or cloud one’s effectiveness in planning and implementing the transitions needed?
Is there any possible solution?
Another week of redefining my borders and changing migration patterns.
Frances Jeffries, USA
Rotary Peace Fellow, January 2016 session.