[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/08/11/art.laurabushmyanmar.jpg caption="First Lady Laura Bush visits Karen refugees in national costumes during her visit to Mae La refugee camp in Thailand's Mae Sot town, Thursday."]
It was never going to put the press pack in the best of moods. A start time of 4:45 is so early, it’s almost a late night out for many of us. But we dutifully turned up to have our bags sniffed by a bored looking German Shepherd whose tailed had been curiously cut off (Security risk may be? Danger of flying cups and saucers, if he wags it too much??). It was then off in a huge convoy of mini-buses, SUVs, limos and police cars. A brief glimpse for me as to what it would be like to be royalty, having every major road emptied of traffic, and lined by Thai policemen. Our plane to the border was slightly less regal though – a C130, with netting seats in the back for the press and legions of secret service guys. An hour later, we arrived in Mae Sot, a northern Thai border town, close to Myanmar formerly Burma, to a torrential downpour.
Speeding though the lush green jungle along a surprisingly good road for exactly 45 minutes before arriving at Mae La refugee camp. I say camp but it’s really a mini-town of more than 38,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Karen who’ve fled from fighting over the border. Houses are meticulously built from bamboo, with roofs of over-lapping leaves. Laura Bush and daughter Barbara, along with their coterie of advisers, security guards and press officials must have seemed like an alien invasion to these isolated people. I wonder how the Karen viewed the insane rush that accompanied the whole event, 3 minutes here, 4 minutes there, the press being almost dragged and pushed from photo op. to photo op.
The Karen certainly aren’t in a hurry – many have been stuck in this camp with no chance of leaving for more than 20 years. The camp has its own shops, schools and economy, but it is still effectively an open prison for these people, who desperately want to return to their homeland.
We managed to chat to one family who were lucky enough to have been given permission to be resettled in South Carolina – the contrast from the camp in the Thai jungle to the southern United States will be huge and daunting. Yet they seemed excited. After years here living in a bamboo hut with no electricity and no running water, surely any change would be considered good.
Laura Bush has taken the issue of Myanmar to her heart – critics of her husband’s policies though would argue US sanctions are not working, and are only serving to increase the poverty of ordinary people. But as rushed, and incongruous as the First Lady’s visit was, it did throw a spotlight on the terrible plight of these refugees.
There are eight other camps like Mae La – with more than 140 thousand people in total, left in a bureaucratic limbo – unable to settle properly in Thailand, unable to return home, many hoping and praying they will get their resettlement papers and have the chance to join the more than 4,000 other people from Mae La who’ve started over in the United States.
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