Category Archives: KKBBSC

Videos of the fire

Here are videos of the fire. Still no news of the people…

Karen News reports that a fire has devastated the KKBBSC buildings

Photo of the fire from the Karen News website

A fire has destroyed a bible school and other buildings in Mae La Refugee Camp, 57km north of the Thai town of Mae Sot at 12.30pm today. Camp residents managed to put out the fire after about an hour.

A camp resident whom witnessed the fire explained to Karen News that the fire destroyed several buildings in the Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School and College (KKBBSC) compound located in Zone C.1A of Mae La refugee camp.

“The fire started in the food storage building. Now many buildings including the school, food storage, library, teachers’ houses and other buildings were destroyed by the fire.”

Unintended consequences

The beautiful hills of the border country

Today Dr Simon took us some 80Kms in a northerly direction from the camp. We passed through a land of beautiful limestone crags, steep hills and rich valley farms. From time to time he said: “We are planting a church here.” or “We planted that church, a graduate of KKBBSC is the pastor.” This litany continued all the way.

The chapel in the valley, with its huge cross

Finally we arrived at a glorious valley deep amid the steepest and highest hills. There at the end of the valley, beyond the village and farms, stood a brand new, unused church. Three stories above it towers a huge white cross. It was the dream of Dr Simon’s wife, and he drew the plans. It is constructed of metal piping and clad in white painted sheet metal. There are rooms with magnificent views in each arm of the cross.

Looking from the cross over the open church land to the current two small dormitories

The new church and its cross will be dedicated on Feb 14th. But already there are dormitories for children of neighbouring villages, allowing them to attend the school. The elder was an Animist until his recent conversion, now he seeks to convert all the valley. Villagers in such a remote rural area have even less access to resources and education than some refugees, who may have relatives in good jobs in Thailand, Burma or Third Countries. So, access to education, like the cross, is a symbol that the good news of Christ has come to this remote valley.

Many such rural development and evangelistic efforts here, result from local initiatives, sometimes attracting outside support, rather than foreign “mission”.

Burma on the Left (an area currently in the hands of the DKBA a Burma Army surrogate force), Thailand to the right, the river Moei marks the boundary

Senior General Than Shwe and his clique seem determined to eradicate Karen nationalism, they may even desire genocide (think of their response to Cyclone Nargis, which affected mainly areas of the country where Karen comprise most of the population), they perhaps also hope to remove Christianity from Burma.

Looking down the stairwell, the steel construction of the cross is evident

The Burmese Generals might perhaps eradicate Karen nationalism, though there is small sign of this yet. They will surely fail at genocide, as other evil men have failed before them. But they have already succeeded in planting vibrant evangelistic Christian churches all along this borderland. Gen 50:20 (the motto displayed at the jubilee in 2008) springs to mind.

Lives in a refugee camp

Thra William's smart house and colourful garden

Living in a refugee camp involves continual attempts to adapt restrictive circumstances so that life can become more “normal”. For different people, the pressure points are different, therefore as anywhere people have different priorities.

William in his garden

For Thra (Teacher) William, gardens are important. He also wants a nice house and is currently converting his basement to make new rooms. He  always opens his home to others – there are currently several young men staying long term while they study, and Shirley lives there too when she is teaching at KKBBSC).

College chapel, in winter even the preacher finds it cold in the morning

His small yard has become a colourful and attractive oasis amid the brown packed earth that is more usual, he even has a lawn, all grown from cuttings and a few transplanted starters.

Teachers are respected, so sit at the front

For many refugees the camp provides the sense of being “shut up like a bird in a cage”. Here access to cell phones, and cheap deals that let you call without extra charge in the daytime, mean that they can speak to friends and family even those far away. Phones are a special joy, since they are kept out of the reach of ordinary people in Burma, where the military government prices a SIM card at US$1000.

Students and Shirley use laptops and Internet for work and to contact friends and family

With the dropping price of laptops, and an increase in availability of second hand ones, more people than two years ago can access the world by this route.

Singing in chapel

The market is also a large scale adaptation, people spot a need: flip flops, cloth, rechargable torches, tea leaves… and arrange (or themselves risk a trip to town) to get a supply and sell them at a small markup. Where the money comes from is as they say another story (or rather many many varieties of story).

The Bible School is another huge and complex set of adaptations. Teachers and students get purpose in a place where paying work is forbidden. Familiar values from the “old days”, and the home land, are preserved and celebrated. Community is built. Music is performed, which requires extensive practice, thus in yet another way filling time that would in the outside world be demanded by paid work.

How is my teaching being changed through becoming a Theologian without Borders?

Last time we visited KKBBSC Geoff Pound (Theologians without Borders) asked me to reflect and write about how my teaching is being changed by being here, at a Bible School in a refugee camp. At the time for various reasons I did not really give much response (you can see what I did write here: How is my teaching changed by being here?) I now have a much more explicit example of how teaching a class on Wisdom and Worship literature of the Old Testament (which I did at Carey for the first time last semester) will change next time.

This year at KKBBSC I’ll be taking the classes Thra (Professor) Wah Do would have been teaching (I am told he is having a great time, on the fraternal visit to Karen living in Australia). One of his classes is Philosophy. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Philosopher, I am a Bible teacher. So how can I usefully in a few weeks teach the beginning of his class?

I can’t try to teach his material, I do not have his outline, nor do I have his experience. What I do is teach Bible, so I thought I could lay foundations he can build on by teaching about biblical resources for building a Christian Philosophy. Having just taught Wisdom, I immediately thought not only of the current interest in St Paul among Philosophers  (on which I am far from expert having so far only one fine ABC podcast to inform my thinking ;) but of Ecclesiastes. That book brilliantly demolishes approaches to Philosophy or worldviews which fail to recognise that life “under the sun” is not all there is, or indeed even ultimately meaningful.

From there it is a small step to see in Job another limit on any Philosophy which can call itself Christian (or indeed Theistic). We must begin to philosophise recognising our radical ignorance and our need to take any further step only in the context of our relationship to the One who does understand, but whom we understand only partially….

So, assuming this teaching works out anywhere near what I expect my teaching of “Wisdom and Worship” will be deeply reshaped by questions of Philosophy and worldview which will give core and coherence to the revised course, and already in anticipation, my draft outline for Wisdom and Worship is being rewritten here in a refugee camp in the jungle! 

Mae La and Mae Sariang (Work begins, and “real” holiday also)

KKBBSC across the gardens, this is NOT a typical view of the camp, but does show the industrious nature of Karen refugees

From Klee Thoo Klo we were dropped at Tee Toh’s home in Mae Sot. Tee Toh is the Dean at KKBBSC, so we needed to discuss what (and exactly when) we could teach on this trip. He is also one of the Karen with KKBBSC diplomas who would like to upgrade but finds current possibilities difficult, so in both roles he is a key person in developing possible postgraduate opportunities on the border.

I will be covering subjects that Wah Doh (who has travel documents and is making a fraternal visit to Karen in Australia during January) would have covered:

  • Understanding the Bible: this course was begun last semester, so I’ll be giving the students guided practice at studying and interpreting sample passages – this is the easy one to teach and prepare, especially having prepared and taught Understanding and Interpreting the Bible at Carey last semester :)
  • Ecclesiology: this course starts this semester, so I need to lay foundations, so I’ll deal with biblical resources for being and understanding church – this one will be harder as it does not relate directly to any of my teaching experience so far!
  • Philosophy: also starting this semester, this course will later on include sections on “Nietzche and the Nihilists” and other groups that were dead trendy in the 60s ;) Since I have never formally studied philosophy this might have been the biggest challenge to my academic integrity, till I had the bright idea of teaching Ecclesiastes as a biblical foundation to Philosophy. This may broaden to include other elements of a biblical foundation to Philosophy, with a special focus on Old Testament. Since we only have three weeks that should enable me to do something useful that is also academically respectable and more important something I can actually do well ;)

Barbara will teach:

  • Introduction to Counselling: which she will enjoy and find easy :)
  • English Grammar: for which there is a textbook!

    Borderland hills north of Mae La

Term starts in “the second week in January” which actually means on the 4th or 5th January, so we are traveling north enjoying ourselves as tourists, planning to return to Mae Sot early in January to be ready when term actually starts.

But before this tourist phase started we were collected by Dr Simon Htoo who had things to do in Mae Sot, and taken to the camp. Although on the journey he was somewhat withdrawn and distant like in 2008, there were glimpses of his more cheerful self . However, once we were at the camp and fed, we had a really useful and lengthy chat. Perhaps he had more time with the students all away on mission trips (many “on the other side” = in Burma), or perhaps as with others the “second term” effect has cut in.Hills on the road from to Mae Sariang

[In Kinshasa we noticed that most of our African colleagues became noticeably more friendly and cooperative almost instantly when we returned after our first furlough – we call this the “second term effect”. People naturally have more trust in and respect for someone they perceive as offering a long term relationship.]

Compared with younger Karen (or Rev Newton, who is like an enthusiastic teenager with an elder’s wisdom, experience and mana) he was more aware of the difficulties (that’s twenty years experience talking, so really useful to listen to) and perhaps less inclined to consider starting with small achievable goals (here I am less sure how far we should agree, on the one hand institutional donors prefer big showy projects, on the other big plans are less likely to achieve anything, small is fast as well as beautiful ;)

The entrance to the river (border) crossing

We had a somewhat disturbed night’s sleep, the camp was tranquil with fewer people in the Bible School area, and no big jamboree in view, but we were not prepared either for the cold (we’d left our warm clothes with Shirley to have less to carry on our travels) or for cockerels (every house seems to have at least one) who took it in turns to compete with each other in relays crowing from midnight till dawn.

We were invited to share in a wedding anniversary celebration starting at 7am, the couple’s home was the other side of the river up the lower slopes of the cliff-like hill. We really enjoyed the walk and seeing more of the camp.

Crossing the Moei

I was again invited to speak a “word of encouragement” so gave them the word hesed (faithfulness/loving kindness/loyalty) like that of Ruth or God as the biblical secret for strong marriages and families.

The couple had been married 27 years, and provided a magnificent spread, including a delicious cauliflower and egg dish as well as fish with peanut and soya which was so savoury I ate it instead of the traditional pork and chicken :)

Boats at the crossing

Then Dr Simon (who had a pastor to drop at a river crossing and a load of stuff to deliver) took us on the road north. The river crossing was fascinating, totally unauthorised with no border posts visible, but a fleet of “long tailed” boats ferrying people and goods across the border. We drove through the most beautiful hills which stretch here for miles in every direction, jungle interspersed with occasional villages and their surrounding gardens and fields.

Mae Sariang from our guesthouse

Mae Sariang is a small town set on a beautiful river surrounded by more distant hills. We stayed at the fairly comfortable middling priced Riverside Guest House lashing out on a room with access to the roof top terraceand are enjoying a lazy morning drinking in the views :) We have been eating at a neat restaurant a few doors down which also has superb river views, Internet and makes delicious Northeastern Thai dishes (last night I had fragrant Green Papaya Salad with sticky rice – I think I prefer the Karen style cooked inside a bamboo stalk to that prepared in a hygenic plastic bag, the bamboo adds to the flavour) as well as real bacon and coffee for breakfast. I’m getting a taste for the Hill Tribes’ coffee with its smokey flavour, but it is an acquired taste and Barbara would still prefer the cleaner sharper taste of the PNG based roasts we get in NZ.

This afternoon we catch the 1st class minibus to Chang Mai – we are really on holiday now :)

Leaving with more than photos

Here’s an article from this month’s NZ Baptist magazine.

Jasmine at work in the kitchen that supplied the visitors with delicious Karen food

A refugee camp seems an odd place for a spiritual retreat. Is a place where food is scarce, people are forbidden jobs, banned from travel, suffering the physical and mental scars of decades of strife against a brutal and unrestrained military dictatorship somewhere to refresh the soul?

It may not seem obvious, but that is what we did. We must admit, some aspects of life in Mae La are not conducive to spiritual renewal: The toilets double as “shower” rooms but have mud floors. We are not used to sleeping through noise, so band practice starting at 5AM, with choir finishing at 9:30PM, followed by chatting and even mobile phones till late into the night just through the partition next to our sleeping mat, left us tired!

Yet our four weeks in the Mae La camp were part of Tim’s sabbatical from teaching at Carey, and “leave of absence” from work as a family therapist for Barbara, and a Big(ger than usual) OE for Sarah (a University student). It is not as daft as it sounds, we learned in Africa that often people who have the least can teach the most about relating to God – Kiwi Christians often look embarrassed giving thanks for a restaurant meal, African Christians will naturally pray over a glass of cool clear water.

Pastor Dr Simon Htoo principal of KKBBSC at the Jubilee. Pastor Simon was the second ever winner of the BWA Human Rights Award after President Jimmy Carter.

Karen refugees certainly don’t have much: a roof over their heads – usually made of leaves since “permanent” materials like corrugated iron are forbidden, some food – because refugees can’t work officially, rice and some fish-paste is provided for each registered refugee family (naturally it’s shared with those who are not yet registered), and safety in Thailand – the army of the Myanmar Government won’t burn their homes down or “recruit” their young men as porters and work them to death here… but they do have faith, hope and love.

Many Karen are Baptists, and have been for nearly 200 years, Christianity is deep-rooted here. We visited a village of IDPs (Internally Displaced People) whose village was burned following an army raid. They had rebuilt not only homes, and a temporary church, but a school that attracts children from villages in Burma and from the refugee camps – all with no help from any government, and only a bit of help from NGOs: one charity gave materials for permanent classrooms another feeds the children with rice everyday, vegetables and fish-paste twice weekly, and meat once a month. We were at the village to celebrate their new permanent church building, with tiles and a bright blue roof. The singing lasted hours, as you can imagine it was a time of great joy.

We went to Mae La to teach (Tim – Old Testament Narratives, Barbara – Human Development, Sarah – English) and to share in the jubilee. The Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School & College was founded 25 years ago in Burma, but 18 years ago moved to Mae La, when the army burned down the school and the village around it. Today, some students were born as refugees, but others have crossed the border recently and do not know the fate of the rest of their family.

The refugees we met are Christian and their faith is in Jesus (who else can a refugee trust?), their hope is in God (humans have tormented them and let them down – they used to hope that Westerners would help against the military dictators, but after years of waiting that hope is less strong now) and their love comes, not only from Karen tradition, but also from the Holy Spirit working in them.

After all, maybe a refugee camp is a good place for spiritual renewal! There’s a popular quote about tourists leaving only footprints and taking only photos. It makes some sense, but it misses the real point of travel. When you go elsewhere and live among a different people you are changed. If you are not then you have failed to really be there no matter how long you stayed!

So, when we visited the refugee camp at Mae La though we went as teachers it was inevitable we’d learn more than we could teach.

For more information:

Karen Konnection an American Baptist site,

Christians Concerned for Burma [warning some pictures are gruesome],

Where is the Mae La camp

Uses Google Earth to show where the Mae La refugee camp is situated and how big it is.

What is a refugee camp like?

It seems a funny question to ask, and doubtless every camp is different, certainly the two we have seen were not the same as each other! Doubtless too among readers of this blog there will be some who’s ideas of a “refugee camp” may be as unrealistic as ours were before we went to Mae La. I can’t describe “refugee camps”, but I can describe our experience of one corner of one camp.

Many people arrive at Mae La on the main highway from Mae Sot the nearest town about 40 minutes to the south. The first time hopefully a contact will pick you up from the bus station, after that it is easy (except on the behind) to catch a “line bus” (a ute with bench seats for passengers either side of the luggage). At first the highway goes through farms, then as it climbs into the hills there are less and less people, and lovely forest on either side. Pleasant country, though not spectacular.

After a Thai Army checkpoint you start to pass the camp. The main purpose of the check points seems to be to “catch” Burmese citizens moving freely around Thailand without proper papers (i.e. to restrict the movement of refugees and illegals – there are checkpoints on many roads in the border area, not just near the camp). KKBBSC and its associated Baptist centres (like the home for landmine victims and the children’s “orphanage”) are at the far end, almost were the camp stops and the hill rises to Prayer Mountain.

Mae La is the largest in a chain of seven camps inhabited mainly by Karen refugees fleeing the Myanmar Military Government. The chain stretches along much of the length of the Thai border with Burma from the extreme north down to one east of Bangkok. The official figures are certainly an underestimate of their populations, since there are many reasons why some inhabitants of the camps do not want their presence officially known. The UNHCR figures cover only those people who have been granted official “refugee” status, something that sometimes takes years to achieve. According to the figures used by The Thailand Burma Border Consortium as a basis for the food and other resources they supply there were 38,923 refugees in the Mae La camp during March. All one can really say is that between 40 and 80 thousand people inhabit this camp.

It does not look like a town though, because the houses are not built of permanent materials (officially all buildings are of wood, bamboo and leaves). The line bus will stop several times along the camp, the longest stops will be the checkpoints, and outside the market. Officially there can be no market in the camp, since no one has any job or money. However, humans being what they are if you do have money you can buy almost anything you need in the market that isn’t there. A student managed to find me some blank DVDs to backup these videos, and others have got medicines they needed there too…

Driving past the camp in a private car takes about 6-7 minutes at 80KPH with a couple of places where one has to slow for checkpoints, which gives an idea of its size. It is long and fairly thin, squeezed between the road and the steep cliff that rises on the other side of the river. The camp is formally divided into “sections”, KKBBSC is in Section C. I can’t show you photos of the market or of the other sections, since our presence was unofficial we were asked to keep within the college area.

So, this refugee camp is like a huge village. But one where no one may have a “proper job”, though many weave cloth, or sell items from large windows in their houses, or teach or study… One where a minimum “ration” of food is provided and only a supplement can be grown, since there is little space for fields.

This ration is maintained only with difficulty, rising prices have lead the TBBC to announce on April 1st:

Update about TBBC rations.
Due to further budget restrictions, TBBC will have to make additional adjustments to the original ration reductions made in December 2007.

And then on the 10th:

Food prices threaten refugee’s right to food
The current global increase in food prices is striking hard against people who are dependent on aid programs for their survival. Rice prices have risen by over 100% this year. To read more click here.

On food in the camp this section of the TBBC website is very informative, and gives a good idea of what is going on.

Lest anything I have said above give the wrong impression, and despite terrible suffering imposed by a brutal military dictatorship, seen most obviously in the bodies of the landmine victims, but glimpsed also in the fleeting mentions of not knowing “where my family is, we were separated when the army burned the village” and the like, or in the horrific pictures printed out from the Free Burma Rangers website of the treatment of “porters” (civilians conscripted as slaves and worked often to death by the Myanmar Army), the people in Mae La are cheerful, gentle, hopeful and kind. And, at least in Section C they have a deep and enduring faith in God – who else can they trust?

How is my teaching changed by being here?

img_3536.jpg

The first change is unsurprising, I need to use less complex English. The students are Karen speakers, most of them know either Thai or Burmese or both, and they use English almost only for their studies – remember that they watch no television or films, they read no magazines, most of the usual ways in which people around the world practice and improve their English are not available to students here. So, I need to choose simpler ways of saying things. Actually, like most teachers, I have loved reading since childhood, enjoy words and wordplay, and so even when I am teaching a University class of native-born English speakers I need to simplify the language I use. All classes need technical terms explained – that’s part of what teaching is about, not a new skill.

The paragraph above already introduced one of the changes that we had not really expected – at least not at the level deeper than “thoughts”. These students have far less experience of world than most. Quite a few of the class were born in the camps, even more first entered a camp while they were of primary school age. Few radios, almost no TVs, and very few print publications enter the camp. Most people here do not get holidays, but may unofficially visit a Thai-Karen village (along the border strip, but inhabited by Karen who have Thai nationality and so are free to move). There are two PCs which share the Internet connection that I am using, but few students get time enough to use these for long enough to really learn how to discover the world electronically. Those who can, print out pages with news from the Free Burma Rangers, and other Karen/Burma related news items, and post them up on the school notice board. Shopping means either a visit to one of the little “shops” that several of the neighbouring families run – tea, coffee, washing powder, water in bottles, even luxuries like banana chips, or Fanta. For larger or more complex shopping – like when we needed pens to write on the whiteboards – there is the small unofficial market nearer the middle of the camp. Their experience is limited to the few thousand people in this part of the camp, with occasional glimpses of the wider world beyond the wire.

A third change is again no surprise, though it might have the biggest impact on teaching. Students here have a greater and deeper spirituality than “Western” students. The Bible lives for them, and it governs their lives to an extent that few Western Fundamentalists can really imagine, yet they are not Fundamentalists. They are quite ready to read the Bible flexibly, and are open to notions that the people whose lives are recorded in the Bible grew and developed in their understanding of God. They are even open to the idea that different parts of the Bible can express God, and God’s purposes for humanity, more or less well, fully and clearly… nevertheless (or precisely because of this?) they read, pray and meditate on the Bible from morning to night, to an extent that even my uncle (a longstanding Brethren Elder, who tried to be as “biblical” as he could in every aspect of his life) could not manage in a “normal” Western context.

How this difference can/should modify my teaching I am very unsure at present, to some extent it was similar in Africa, but it was also very different. Congo celebrated the centenary of the first Protestant missionaries just before our arrival there, and the Old Testament was only translated into even the main trade languages as recently as the 1970s. Christian faith and the Bible both had shallow roots in Congo. Karen contact with the gospel and the Bible goes back to William Carey, and then the American Baptist missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson in 1812. There has been a Sgaw Karen translation of the Bible available since 1853. This means that Christian spirituality and the Bible are far more deeply integrated into Karen life and people, so a simplistic approach that merely teaches about the contents of the Bible is less appropriate.

Then there is the specialist knowledge that teachers always hope students will bring to the class, and which we assume has grown from year to year as a student progresses. With this class, while knowledge of the contents of the Bible and of basic theology are really good, their understanding of scholarship is low or even non-existent. Basic skills like analysing – breaking a problem down into simpler parts, imaginative reconstruction of the way things “must have been”, looking things up in a reference works (except the universal Karen-English dictionaries for unknown English words), organising thought to lead towards a conclusion… such skills that in a Western context we assume were learned (or at least first begun) in school, here seem strange.

A basic study-skills course, and an improved library with a small stock of good Bible dictionaries, concordance, commentaries etc. could make real changes. But that is to look at things from a Western Academic perspective, the sort of things that spring to mind as necessary changes are conditioned by my usual setting. One of my frustrations is that a combination of Karen introversion (and this must rate as a highly introverted culture by any standards!); cultural respect for teachers, foreigners and elders and the busyness of the coming jubilee – which is literally the biggest event in decades, all make it difficult to meet, talk with and learn from the Karen teachers who are probably the people with the best chance of telling me how my teaching should change to be appropriate here. Maybe next time?