Under the surface things are different. On the surface: Thai military check points, barbed wire fences, thousands of people who are not permitted to earn money and houses made of temporary materials; under the surface: a thriving market, a cell phone tower (that the company put up to meet growing demand), and a town with schools, churches, mosque and temples.
People too. A teacher, invites us round to his house after the staff meeting. He delights in in an unlikely name drawn straight from British tales of medieval dareing do, is tall and fragile looking with big soft eyes and a gentle smile.
Back in Rangoon he was arrested as a “terrorist” suspect and tortured for information about the KNU. The experience was so bad that, when he was free again, this gentle man decided to kill his three torturers. He calculated that he would be sentenced to three years each in jail, and that nine years of his life was a good trade.
God intervened, in a night of prayer he realised that if he killed the colonel and his assistants he would “send them straight to hell”. Instead he became an evangelist. He tells with admiration the tale of the first Karen Christian, Ko Tha Phu, he had just five sermons but with them he converted so many Karen.
He was arrested again, tortured again, jailed in a small cell with five Communists. He converts his cell-mates, and turns them into a prayer group. Their praise and worship sessions last longer than the Buddhist chants from the monks in other cells, though his new flock balk at 24 hour prayer and settle for just three sessions per day, like the Muslims.
The sweet smiling children too often hide horrific stories. Or have seen things no one should see. This long-running war has produced its share of sadists and atrocities. But mainly on one side. Last time we were here we visited Dr Cynthia’s Clinic in Mae Sot and were told how some Burmese soldiers brought in three comrades who had been injured by mines. The father of an orderly who was in the room was pastor of a village these same soldiers had recently burned. They were not turned away, but received first aid, and passed on (with a sigh of relief?) to the Thai hospital which could treat them better.
One thing is the same on and under the surface, the hope that one day Kawthoolei the “land without evil” as the Karen homeland is called will not merely be a place of farms and misty hills, but again in truth a land without evil, and a home.