Embracing the Mekong in Distress
Ajahn Saneh tugs at the ropes to make sure that everything is securely fastened on the bed of the pickup truck. There is little time to waste on the road—over the next few days, the convoy of vehicles bearing boxes of donated clothes, food, medicine, blankets, mosquito nets, school materials, and other needed items will trek more than 500 kilometers over rough terrain, from Wat Suan Dok, a temple in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, across the border with Myanmar to very isolated communities in Kyaing Tong in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State. Despite having traversed the same route countless times before, there is still a sense of anxiety. A ruptured tire, damaged roads, mudslides, drastic weather changes, or even an encounter with militia groups . . . who knows what lies ahead?
Born in nearby Chiang Rai, Ajahn became a monk at the age of 14. Now in his 50s, he is the chief abbot of Wat Suan Dok and a senior lecturer at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU) in Chiang Mai. Some 12 years ago, a chance visit to a Shan refugee camp in Wiang Haeng, a district bordering Shan State, opened his eyes to the tragic conditions of life on the border. From hut to hut, he heard horrendous stories of murder, torture, and rape, of how the Shan people fled their homes or were forcibly conscripted by the military.
“In one hut was a small boy about five years old crying because of hunger,” Ajahn recounted. “His father had gone to the jungle to find food. He had not seen his mother since they escaped Myanmar. In another was a little girl with untreated burns on her legs and body from a fire that was lit to keep the family warm during the night because they had no blankets. There were also many sick children who received no treatment or simply used herbs found in the jungle for medicine Some were naked because their only outfit had been washed. How could people live in such miserably poor conditions?”
Back in Chiang Mai, Ajahn started asking devotees for used clothes for the children of Wiang Haeng. Thus began Mekong Embrace, a foundation dedicated to relieving the suffering of communities in distress in the Mekong region, particularly in Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.
Initially, the projects centered around Koung Jor Camp in Wiang Haeng, an area where many Shan people crossed over. Koung Jor means “happy hill” in the Shan language. Set up in 2002, this is the only Shan refugee camp in Thailand, with about 500 refugees, almost half of whom are children.*
Unlike refugees from the other minorities, such as the Karen and Karenni, the Shan are not recognized as asylum seekers in Thailand. Koung Jor Camp is classified as “temporary” and is not listed by the UN Refugee Agency. This means that no permanent structures are allowed. Instead, houses are made of bamboo and wood, with roofs of thatched leaves. This lack of legal recognition translates into no access to humanitarian assistance, little legal protection and few rights, and limited livelihood opportunities. As such, Shan refugees are highly vulnerable to exploitation and live in constant fear of being arrested and sent back across the border. Their suffering has been expressed in this poem written by a Shan woman:
Some Shan live in Thailand, working as servants or as slaves,
Some live in relocation camps, without money, food, or hope.
Some live in the jungle and hear their dying child’s cries,
Mosquitoes on their limbs, and leeches in their eyes.
They dig a shallow grave and place the child inside,
And then they must run, run, run, until their legs break,
Refugees without a home, without a camp.**
“If they had a choice, these people would not be here,” Ajahn explained. “It is not easy for NGOs to provide charity in the area. As Buddhist monks, we can do something. Buddha didn’t divide human beings by status, nationality, race, or color. All of humanity is one family.”
Encouraged by the generous support of the Thai people, the foundation’s activities at the camp expanded. From mere provisions for daily needs, the foundation built basic infrastructure, such as water-filtration, proper sewage and sanitation facilities, and solar panels for electricity to improve living conditions.
“Such changes can have a very positive impact. For example, now children can study in the evening after dark,” Ajahn said with a broad smile. “An elderly woman in her 80s was so thrilled when we installed a solar-powered light bulb in her house that she started to cry. She had lived all her life in the jungle and it was the first time that she had received electricity in her home.”
Over the years, an orphanage, a clinic, a community hall used for prayers and meditation, and a school have been added. Much emphasis is placed on education. The camp’s 320 children attend school five days a week, and spend an hour at night for English lessons. Students who finish primary school can apply for special travel documents with the local administration to continue their studies in Chiang Mai, an opportunity that is often more accessible especially to boys who are willing to become novice monks.
To assist those able to continue their studies, a scholarship program was set up to support novice monks for their studies at MCU. Among the 30 sponsored monks is 21-year-old Somporn, who escaped the fighting in his village in Kyaing Tong five years ago. Now in his first year at MCU, he is learning Thai and English. With these skills, he hopes to be able to help other refugees.
“Many refugees speak only tribal languages. Without Thai, it is very difficult for them,” said Somporn. “I can help to teach Thai at classes run by the foundation for refugees at MCU. There is also a mobile school that goes to the worksite where many Shan people work to provide classes for children living onsite with their parents every Sunday.”
Despite being only “temporary,” Koung Jor Camp has evolved into a well-established settlement with a level of stability and normalcy. For the Shan refugees, this is home. Many of the young children born here know of no other life than that in the camp.
The camp’s leader, 65-year-old Sai Leng observed, “Many of the people have no desire to return to Myanmar in the near future. Many have become dispossessed, their houses burned or taken over. Many have seen their family members killed or taken away. Fighting is still going on in many regions, with no permanent peace in sight. With so much uncertainty, staying here is the safest option. At least there is access to education and employment, even if it is in the informal labour market.”
In recent years, Mekong Embrace has expanded its mission across borders. In Myanmar, the foundation supports internally displaced persons in four very remote communities in Kyaing Tong. Another key project is support for the local sangha and Buddhist practices in those communities. In Laos, monks from MCU are teaching the Tripitaka to local monastics and working together to translate the Tripitaka into Laotian. In addition, the foundation supports the rebuilding of old, dilapidated temples along traditional lines in an effort to help preserve Laotian culture.
But Ajahn is not only concerned with material support. “The mission of Mekong Embrace is guided by Buddhist principles. Humanitarian aid and Buddhism have the same goal—to relieve suffering in the world. Humanitarian aid tries to decrease suffering with material solutions. Buddhism searches for an inner solution to suffering. Spiritual and psychological support is also needed. It is very important that people who are in distress know that others care about them. Many have lost loved ones. Some were tortured or raped. Sometimes I have nothing in my hands. I just sit and listen. Just by listening, we can provide comfort and compassion.”
“As a monk, I depend on the support of others. But many Thai people have more than they need and are very generous and ready to help. Life is not long. We don’t know whether we will be here tomorrow. Today, if we have the capacity, we can do something for others. Real happiness comes from giving. The more we give, the happier we are. The more we give, the more we get. This way we gain peace of mind. By giving, sharing, helping, and working for the benefit of others, we create good karma and improve as human beings. This is the best way to practice Buddhism.”
Photos courtesy of Mekong Embrace.
* Oppression, forcible relocations, and persecution by Myanmar’s military have driven an estimated 300,000 Shan across the border with Thailand. Shan refugees in Thailand are particularly vulnerable as they are not recognized by the Thai government and have not been allowed to set up camps on Thai soil. According to the TBC (c. 2013), more than 125,000 remain internally displaced in the state, all in desperate need of basic supplies such as water, food, and medicine. (http://www.burmalink.org/background/burma/ethnic-groups/shan/)
** Shan Refugees: Dispelling the Myths. 2003. Chiang Mai: The Shan Women’s Action Network.