Monthly Archives: January 2010

Under the surface

A few students from the first year class

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.

Three Karen girls at a Christmas celebration

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.

Land of beautiful hill country (you did wonder why Thais call them "hill tribes")

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.

Kawthoolei is a beautiful land of farms and hills

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.


Barbara’s Birthday

College chapel each weekday morning

Since her birthday comes in the NZ holiday season Barbara is used to having somewhat muted celebrations on the day, and then an “official birthday” with family and presents sometime later when we are all home again.

That was the pattern we expected this year, just the two of us in a refugee camp did not seem the setting for a conventional Kiwi Birthday celebration.

At lunch our Danish colleagues brought a very fancy cake

The first surprise was during college chapel, when Dr Simon announced her birthday and the whole company, 250 students plus staff sang “Happy Birthday” including a verse about “long life to you”, then the treat, lollies were distributed to all attenders!

At lunch another surprise our Danish colleagues had slipped away, and into Mae Sot, and bought a really flash birthday cake complete with impressive icing sugar roses.

The Cake: Just look at those roses!

The family and I will have to try hard in a week or two to match her birthday here! Even if one or seven too many people did ask how old she was 😉

She was also so moved by the gift of a beautiful pashmina from one of the teachers. That someone who has so little, living in rooms in friends’ houses and moving as their family needs require, should want to give such a lovely present, is very humbling.

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.

An economy with no “work”

The wide central street of the market (photo by jackol)

According to the “rules” in Thailand a camp for displaced people is temporary, and among other consequences there is no regular employment. Yet there is in this camp a thriving and large market.

The market itself is one way in which some families make money, buying in Mae Sot and selling at a markup in Mae La Camp. (Many of these traders are “Indian”, among them Muslim Karen of Indian genetic heritage whose families have traded among the Karen in Burma for generations, and who fled the Thatmadaw (army of the Myanmar government) across the border with other Karen.

Some women earn money by weaving traditional cloth, to be sold by sponsoring organisations (Karen Women’s Organisation, Kawthoulei Karen Baptist Women’s Organisation) who provided loans to enable them to get yarn and looms (microfinance) with the profit shared by the organisation and the woman.

Some men risk getting caught by the Thai authorities and leave the camp spreading deep into the surrounding jungle to collect the leaves that are used for thatching buildings. They earn about 50 bhat (NZ$2) per day of hard work. Others work inside the camp for NGOs earning (self)respect and an allowance of 400 baht per month (nursery teachers) up to 1500 baht (medics).

In this context the response of people here to Cyclone Nargis is impressive, within days more than 100,000 bhat was collected and aid sent direct to those worst affected inside Burma. This immediate collection was only the start.

No sooner given than the money was used to buy vital supplies and sent via pastors, Buddhist monks and others to one of the worst hit areas.

One more way in which, though poor in money, the Karen people are rich! (See 1 Cor 6:1-10 especially v.10)

Photo above by jackol

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.

Tourism: Lampang

Old Lampang is full of beautiful brightly decorated "horse carts"

On our way back from the north we spent a couple of nights in Lampang a middle-sized city north of Tak on the main north-south highway. It is a delightful place 🙂

Lampang is renowned in Thailand as the last city to use horse-drawn carriages for public transport. These are mainly used by tourists, and in the week after New Year (a major holiday opportunity for Thais (as for New Zealanders, and for the same reason, public holidays to boost your entitlement) these were mainly Thais.

Street corner in the north part of the old city

The architecture shows influences from Europe and Burma as well as Thai and Lanna (ancient kingdom in Northern Thailand) styles, as the city was a centre for Teak as well as other commercial interests in the 19th Century and was much earlier a major city in the Lanna kingdom.

Fountain in the small park by the clock tower, Lampang

As well as attractive houses and shops in narrower roads all around the city centre, there are pleasant wide modern streets and a fine clock tower plaza, with a typically Thai little public park with plenty of green and a fine fountain.

The clock tower plaza, Lampang

We had hoped to stay in the Riverside Guesthouse because Lonely Planet speaks so highly of it, but at such a busy season it was full. So we lashed out on a hotel 🙂

Baan Sao Nak (Many Pillar House), Lampang

The Pin Hotel is comfortable and extremely spacious with a good breakfast buffet. With a huge bed with a soft mattress, and a bath with hot water we luxuriated. (A particular treat after the 2nd class stopping bus from Chiang Rai to Lampang.) We ate at several tasty Thai and Chinese (this is still Northern Thailand) places including a brilliant and cheap place on the corner down from the hotel.

The rooms are spacious, rather than huge; airy rather than closed, and enjoy a beautiful interplay of wood and light.

The weekend “walking market” on the street with the guesthouses, between the Pin and the river was great fun, and even better than the one in Chiang Rai, with just as few foreigners.

Castle Drogo combines medieval looks with Edwardian function, just brilliant! Photo by recursion_see_recursion

Apart from wandering and eating our main sightseeing was a walk through pleasant side streets to the Baan Sao Nak a 19th Century aristocratic teak house built in Lanna style, airy and cool with tall trees and beautiful furniture this house was a delight. It has to join Castle Drogo in Devon (an Edwardian modern medieval castle 🙂 as one of the few ‘big houses’ that I would dearly love to live in!

My chair's "twin" at Baan Sao Nak, Lampang

As well a fine local teak furniture and accessories, beautiful old local china and other antiques, I was excited to see a chair that is almost the twin of the comfortable reading chair I inherited from by Grandmother, but which I get too little occasion to use ;(

Another New Experience

We keep chalking up new experiences, not living in a refugee camp, we did that in 2008, even being a refugee we have tried (1991 for a day or two), but still there are new things to try which add new shades to life’s rich tapestry.

The Friendship Bridge, Mae Sot, with others crossing the border on rubber rings.

Today we went to cross the Thailand-Myanmar Friendship Bridge to renew our visas. (That in itself is not the new experience, we did it also in 2008). This time we got photos of the people who cross below on rubber rings, but that hardly counts, as we saw them then, we just had no chance to take photos. Since then we have learned more about the experience and the motives of the ring people. Some are just avoiding customs duty, but others are people planning to be overstayers in Thailand, fleeing the Burma Army and its Generals, they cannot be seen by the Thai authorities to be entering the country with all their worldly goods. So they pay someone to ferry their posessions across on a ring, and plan to collect them once they have entered Thailand. Then they’ll become overstayers…

The person crossing the bridge in the photo above shows the lighter side of life, he was a baloon seller!

Sometimes, as for our informant, it goes wrong and the ferryman steals the load, and the potential overstayer cannot complain as then they would be revealed as intending illegal immigrants.

Oh, yes, our new experience… we became overstayers ourselves today, we should have crossed the bridge yesterday. Our miscalculation cost us 500 Bhat, those fleeing tyranny risk so much more 😦